Hearts and Flowers

The Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver finally has a somewhat permanent address: Sakura Square. The ground-floor, two-story MoCA/D space fronts a garden done in a handsome Japanese style, with rocks, gravel and several of those tortured miniature Ponderosa pines that are native to our state. It makes an appropriate entrance for Florals: Unique Visions, the second of a four-part series of shows planned for the place, and one whose subject is sweet enough to overcome any lingering odors from the space's former tenant, a fish market.

Given Sakura Square's artistically correct on-the-edge-of-LoDo location and its modern style--1970s brutalist, all concrete, aggregate and glass, with a whisper of Japanese flair--MoCA/D's move there makes a lot of sense. The area is in bad need of spiffing up, however. The gift shop at the entrance should go, and so should those ersatz Chinese-style security grates that cover the glass curtain-walls facing both the garden and the Larimer Street front. But these are easy cosmetic fixes, and even in its current scruffy condition, Sakura Square--complete with Buddhist temple and a two-story pavilion that could accommodate more than a half-dozen galleries--is a good fit for the youthful, transitional MoCA/D.

Florals was curated by Denver photographer, teacher and MoCA/D trustee Mark Sink, who used his wide network of contacts to invite a mix of old friends and new acquaintances from across the country. As a result, Florals features a bouquet of ideas. The exhibit includes some historic photos and some new, experimental ones; classic shots done in traditional black and white hang side by side with mechanical prints and conceptual pieces. But the show is so dense--and hung so free-form--that viewers may miss some of the ideas Sink lays out. For example, the oldest images--the late Karl Blossfeldt's photogravures from the 1920s--are in the second-to-last segment instead of up front, where they would have worked better.

But even if Florals is confusingly arranged, it's still a beauty. One of its strengths is that, like MoCA/D's 1997 premier exhibit on the mezzanine of 1999 Broadway that highlighted selections from local private collections, Florals integrates international figures with local ones. But it also offers thoughtful reflection on a current trend in fine-art photography--the widespread revival of interest in the humble flower picture.

Photographs of flowers were common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but then fell out of favor. This point is made clear by comparing those Blossfeldts with the lone Paul Outerbridge, also dating from the '20s. The Blossfeldt photogravure "Symphytum Officianale," from 1928, is a dead-center shot of a lovely cluster of buds. It makes sense: A beautiful subject leads to a beautiful photo. But the modern movement, just then coming to full speed, was suspicious of easy virtue in pictures and so took a different approach to beauty, one clearly revealed in Outerbridge's "Waterford Vase" of 1924. In this vintage platinum print by the deceased Los Angeles photographer, the flowers, rather than being the centerpiece of the photo, have been cropped out of the top of the frame. While accomplished photographers continued to make flower pictures into the 1930s, the fad was definitely fading.

For more than the next fifty years, serious fine-art photographers only rarely looked to flowers for their subject matter. Boston's Marie Cosindas was one of those exceptions, and Sink has included several of her color pieces, including a number in her patented--and arduous--dye-transfer technique. But for the most part, flower photos were degraded by the modernists as sappy and sentimental, a subject better left to hobbyists.

Then, in the 1980s, the late Robert Mapplethorpe brought them back--and no one could accuse mad dog Mapplethorpe, the vanguard New York photographer, of being either sappy or sentimental. Sink has included a five-piece suite from Mapplethorpe's magnificent "Calla Lily" series of 1984, loaned to MoCA/D by the Ron Judish Gallery. The five silver prints, each of which places a closeup of a white blossom against a dense black ground in the manner of Edward Weston, represent key moments in the revival of the flower as a fit subject for photography. So it's not surprising that many of the newer photos in Florals reveal the influence of Mapplethorpe's flower studies. For some reason, though, Sink and MoCA/D's Jason Musgrave decided to stick the Mapplethorpes in a back corner of the balcony rather than showcase them on the main floor, where these seminal pieces belong.

There's no denying Mapplethorpe's impact on one of the country's current hot photographers, and no wonder: New Yorker Tom Baril printed many of those flower photos when he worked as Mapplethorpe's assistant. Here Baril is represented by a unique, toned silver print from a Polaroid, the mislabeled "Hyacinth" (it's clearly something else, perhaps a pansy) from 1998. Using a rich palette of blacks, grays and silvers, Baril places the closeup of the back of the flower on a dark silvery ground. Unlike the Mapplethorpes, this single Baril photo is given a prominent display space, on its own wall facing the staircase.

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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