Fresh Start

Although Denver has long been the largest city in Colorado, historically it was not the art-making center of the state. No, that distinction was held by Colorado Springs -- even before the launch of the Broadmoor Academy in 1918, which transformed the town into a full-fledged art colony.

That knowledge is a prerequisite for fully understanding the important, though modest, exhibit John Edward Thompson: Colorado's First Modernist, now on display in the Western History/Genealogy Gallery on the fifth floor of the Central Denver Public Library.

Unlike the dozens of accomplished artists active in Colorado Springs during the first decades of the twentieth century, Thompson essentially worked alone up here, one of only a handful of committed artists. But the idea that Thompson was Colorado's first modernist, as the show's title implies, is not entirely true. More correct would be to say that Thompson was Denver's first modernist. Like Thompson, Broadmoor Academy painters such as John Carlson and William Potter also embraced the modernist styles that had originated in Paris. But Thompson was the most modern of them, since he embraced a Cézannesque manner that was almost cubist.

These cubistic pictures are the real draw at the DPL show, and though they make up only about a fourth of what's included, they overshadow everything else. Among them are several pieces that were first exhibited in Denver in 1919 as part of the 25th Annual Exhibit of the Denver Art Association. That show was installed in a gallery just across Civic Center Park from the current library, in the old Carnegie Library, which is now the McNichols Building. Because of Thompson's modernist work -- and that of his protegés, Jozef Bakos, Walter Mruk and Alexander Korda -- the exhibit has been called the "Colorado Armory Show." And like the real Armory Show of 1913, the Denver exhibit generated outrage from the public and press alike.

At the time it was presented, Thompson had been in Denver for only a couple of years. He was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1882, becoming interested in art as a child and beginning his formal study as a teenager. In approximately 1898, when Thompson was only sixteen, he enrolled in Buffalo's Art Students League and then moved to New York City the very next year and entered the more renowned Art Students League there. Working as a book illustrator, he saved up enough money to leave for France in 1902, where he entered the Académie Julian in Paris. He remained in Europe, mostly in France, for more than a decade, but returned to Buffalo when World War I broke out, in 1914. Soon after returning to the United States, Thompson took a painting trip to the West and spent several months in Pine, Colorado, where he was impressed with the Rocky Mountain scenery and produced many Cézannesque-style paintings of it. He went back to Buffalo but permanently relocated to Denver in 1917.

The DPL show begins in the far corner to the left of the Western History gallery, where the oldest and most significant pieces are installed. There are several views of Pine, including some done on that first trip in 1914. In these closely associated paintings -- a number of which were gifts to the library from prominent art dealer Steve Savageau -- the scene is abstractly conveyed, with the perspective flattened and the details vague. The largest and most memorable of these early landscapes is "Colorado [Pine]," which is not owned by the DPL, but is on loan from David Cook Fine Art. Also hanging in this section is "Organization of Rocks and Trees," the most infamous of the Thompson paintings from that 1919 "Colorado Armory Show." The painting, which is absolutely great, has tension, with a cliff on one side and a tall tree on the other. As in the Pine landscapes, Thompson played with the perspective, pushing the background up to the front. The colors are fabulous, especially the icy clear blue used for the sky.

Thompson was at his best when addressing the landscape, but there are also a couple of interesting cubistic portraits: "Jozef Bakos" and "The Sculptor (Arnold Ronnebeck)," both of which were probably done around the same time as "Organization of Rocks and Trees." In these paintings, the contours of the men's faces have been turned into a series of flat planes.

The second section of the show examines Thompson's work from the later 1920s and the 1930s, when he was employed as an illustrator and decorative painter. This seems like a completely different exhibit from the first part, and though the pieces are charming, they do not have the brilliance of the earlier ones. Nor do they represent vanguard art of their time, as the older ones do.

Across the room is the third section, which is partly made up of later versions of Thompson's Cézanne-ism. The harmony and continuity, however, is broken by the inclusion of two regionalist portraits and a similarly styled still life. In fact, I thought how much stronger the exhibit would have been if it had simply focused on Thompson's Cézannesque landscapes, which he continued to do throughout his career. One of the later ones, "[Taos Light]," done in 1933, shows that Thompson never really lost the ability to create a stunning picture.

The final section is mostly given over to Thompson's students and contemporaries, and although there are some great works there, the styles of the various artists are so divergent -- and relate so little to what Thompson was doing -- that not only don't they link to the rest of the show, but they don't even link to one another. As I said, though, there are some fine pieces included, notably the expressionist Hayes Lyon landscape and the incredible constructivist Frank Vavra depicting the skiing soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division. Also marvelous is the small Vance Kirkland and, next to it, the Watson Bidwell, both of which are abstract-expressionist compositions.

The library exhibit has problems -- and some of those rest with Thompson himself, because, as the show makes clear, he was a very uneven painter. The best paintings he did -- nearly all of them created early in his Denver career -- are extremely good and fully exemplify the early vanguard art movement, wherein post-impressionism was just starting to head for abstraction. Thompson, however, never went all the way with this key aesthetic transition of his age, which may be why his later pieces, done in the '30s and '40s, are hit-or-miss -- with the emphasis on miss. Instead of coming to cubism, as he seemed to be doing early on, Thompson, who died in 1945, embraced the more conservative regionalist style.

Deborah Wadsworth, a Thompson collector and member of the library's recently constituted Art Advisory Panel, put the exhibit together virtually overnight after a show originally planned for this slot was suddenly canceled. Considering that it was a rush job and that Wadsworth is an art enthusiast and not a curator, she performed admirably -- even if she made a number of calls that I take issue with.

It's no coincidence that early modern artist John Edward Thompson began his Denver career on the Civic Center, or that the current posthumous salute to him is being presented in that same place. That's because the Civic Center has most of the city's cultural amenities in its vicinity, such as the Central Denver Public Library, which has mounted the Thompson show, and its predecessor, the Carnegie Library, which hosted that first show back in 1919.

Let's also not forget the many other public buildings on the Civic Center, including the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado History Museum, the Colorado State Judicial Building, the State Capitol, the Denver City and County Building, the Denver Mint, and the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building. Not incidentally, all of these places are housed in landmark buildings that are part of an intelligent master plan of landscaped grounds accented by some of the city's most important public artworks.

Now there's a push by Mayor John Hickenlooper, unanimously endorsed by the Denver City Council, to add another major element to this illustrious group. But in this case, it's hard to name it in the same breath as the others: They want to build a jail!

While some have called the enormous corrections facility a "legacy" project, it's hard to believe that it will be possible to turn it into an architectural element that's aesthetically worthy of the Civic Center. Last month I pointed out that one of the problems with having a 1,500-bed jail play the role of a Civic Center landmark is the fact that such a building will necessarily have few, if any, windows ("Blind Justice, March 3). The city has seemingly "solved" this problem, circulating a computer-generated massing model that envisions the jail as completely clad in glass!

I know there are some who would relish the opportunity to watch the incarcerated go about their daily routines; however, it was not this small constituency that was being courted with the misleading model, but the residents of the Golden Triangle. Don't be fooled: This model has nothing to do with how the complex will actually look, since a designer cannot be chosen unless the voters pass the bond proposal to fund the jail on May 2.

The campaign has laudably taken the high road, with appeals to decency concerning overcrowding at the current jail. But interestingly, the major donors to the effort do not come from the inmate-rights community; instead, they are contractors, such as PCL Construction and Alvarado Construction, and architectural firms, including Fentress Bradburn Architects and HOK. No mystery there: They're hoping to divide up that $300 million-plus that's going to be thrown around if the taxpayers go along with the mayor's plan.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The Civic Center is no place to put a gigantic corrections building. I hope that 1A fails at the polls, thus forcing the Hickenlooper administration to come up with a plan for jail expansion somewhere other than in the city's cultural hub.

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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