Arts and Culture

Five Things You Didn't Know About the Sculptures in Denver's Burns Park

Burns Park fills the triangle of hillside defined by Colorado Boulevard to the west, Alameda Avenue to the south and Leetsdale Drive, which runs diagonally from northwest to southeast. The park is notable for being home to a suite of mostly minimalist sculptures, some of which have been on the site since 1968. This Saturday, August 9, there will be a festival at Burns Park called Experience 1968, which is free and open to the public. In addition to celebrating the existing pieces, the event features six artists --Trine Bumiller, Claudia Mastrobuono, Nicole Banowetz, Matt Scobey, Nikki Pike and Tara Rynders - -who will be creating temporary works, performances and music in honor of Burns Park and what's happened there in the intervening years. The event, sponsored by Denver Arts & Venues, runs in the park from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; tickets are free and may be ordered online, but I've got a feeling you could just show up.

And now, five things you may not know about Burns Park.

See also: A Love Letter to Denver, the City I Used to Know

1) It all started as a drunken bull session at Bev and Bernie Rosen's place in the middle of the night.

Painter and University of Denver art professor Beverly Rosen and her husband, Bernie Rosen, were angels for Denver's cultural life. They were instrumental in the creations of the contemporary department at the Denver Art Museum and they established the Saint Charles on Wazee gallery, which became the indirect ancestor to the MCA Denver and helped people rediscover LoDo. The Rosens were also the catalysts for the sculptures in Burns Park. As Bernie recalled in an interview I did with him at the time of Bev's death, "It was 9:30 on Thanksgiving night of 1967, and Roger Kotoske and Wilbert Verhelst rang our doorbell after having had a fair amount to drink. At about 3 a.m. -- and after we'd consumed four bottles of wine -- Roger was complaining that there was nowhere to show sculpture in Denver. Bev said, 'Let's vow tonight to have a sculpture park in Denver.' The idea was radical, as there were no sculpture parks anywhere in America at that time."

Revisit my salute to the Rosens from 2006 for more stories.

2) It was originally the site of the one-time-only Denver Sculpture Symposium.

Out of the ramblings at Bev and Bernie Rosen's came the Denver Sculpture Symposium presented in the summer of 1968. Employing stacks of donated plywood coated with fiberglass -- a gift that Bernie had finagled -- nine artists created a suite of minimalist creations arrayed down the hilly site. These included works by Verhelst and Kotoske, along with those by Anthony Magar, Dean Fleming, Peter Forakis, Robert Morris, Robert Mangold, Richard Van Buren and Angelo Di Benedetto. In order to use the park, Bernie had signed a contract with the city that called for the removal of the sculptures at the end of the summer and sadly, several, including the Forakis, the Morris and the Van Buren were taken down at that time.

Learn more from my account of Burns Park from 2009, when many of the pieces were restored.

3) Dimwitted city officials taught Robert Mangold a lesson by demolishing his piece instead of repairing it.

One of the sculptures that survived the summer of 1968 was a blue-painted spire by Robert Mangold. By the mid-1970s, the sculpture was in terrible condition -- plywood, even the marine-grade stuff that was used for the pieces at Burns Park, is not meant to be permanent unless regular maintenance is performed. Mangold angrily confronted the parks department and demanded it be repaired and repainted. But those bureaucrats taught him: the piece was torn down, and in the process, yet another part of the Denver Sculpture Symposium was destroyed. (Sadly, city officials are just as short-sighted today as they were then, as the current discussion concerning the demolition of the Boettcher Concert Hall shows.)

I wrote a brief discussion of the removal of the original Mangold in 1996.

Continue reading for more of Michael Paglia's Burns Park factoids.

4) Strictly speaking, only two of the nine originals are left in Burns Park.

After the removal of the Mangold, there were five sculptures left in Burns Park: the Verhelst, the Kotoske, the Magar, the Fleming and the Di Benedetto. Then in the '90s, three things happened to pieces in the original group. First, the Di Benedetto was recreated in concrete, which replaced the original rotted plywood. Then the Fleming was demolished -- though it would have been the easiest to recreate -- complete with a "memorial" ceremony that simply added insult to injury. Then the Kotoske was rebuilt. It was also during this period that a new sculpture was added -- Barbara Baer's "Jazz," which does not share the minimalist ethos of the others at Burns Park and therefore sticks out. So the Magar and the Verhelst are the only complete survivors of the Denver Sculpture Symposium, though from a formal perspective and despite that each was recreated, so, too are the Di Benedetto and the Kotoske.

In a piece from 2009, I talk about a never-to-happen new Mangold meant to replace his lost one.

5) Anthony Magar garnered two commissions out of Burns Park.

You could say that none of the artists involved benefited more from the Sculpture Symposium than did British-born New Mexico artist, Anthony "Tony" Magar. Not only was his piece stunning, and timely -- though untitled, the artist dedicated it to Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated earlier in 1968 -- but Magar snared not one, but two private commissions out of that summer. First, big-time art donor, Carol Steinberg Swartz commissioned a piece for the lawn of her nearby home on Birch Street. Second, collector Suzanne Joshel asked Magar to do a site specific piece for the side lawn of her modernist home on Dahlia Street. Both sculptures still exist, and both are now part of Denver's public art collection. Swartz's sits in the median near First Avenue and University Boulevard, and Joshel's has joined its cousins in Burns Park.

I wrote about the donation and moving of Sue Joshel's Magar sculpture to its current home in Burns Park in 2010.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia