Curator Gwen Chanzit is the world's foremost authority on the late artist Herbert Bayer, and she has put this knowledge to good use over the past couple of decades as the keeper of the Herbert Bayer Archive and Collection held by the Denver Art Museum. It was started while Bayer was still alive — he died in 1985 — but has grown to include more than 8,000 artifacts. The DAM is the appropriate resting place for his work because Bayer, though originally from Europe, spent a good portion of his life in Colorado.
Bayer was born in 1900 in Austria and showed an early propensity for art; however, his plans to attend the Academy in Vienna were short-circuited by his father's premature death and his conscription into the Austrian army near the end of World War I. After the war, Bayer got a job as an architect's apprentice — first in Linz, and then in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1920. It was at this time that he first became aware of modernism, and a year after moving to Darmstadt, he headed to Weimar to enroll in the Bauhaus, Germany's preeminent design school.
At the Bauhaus, Bayer quickly moved from student to teacher, and in 1925, he was asked to head up the school's graphics department, which by this time was located in Dessau. Bayer's graphic design — in particular, his cover for the Bauhaus magazine — led to international recognition. The cover combines the doctrinaire constructivism of the Bauhaus style with the then-cutting-edge surrealist sensibility. The dialogue between rationality and irrationality is a key dialectic of modernism, and its effects are evident throughout the rest of Bayer's oeuvre. It was also during his time at the Bauhaus that Bayer designed his "universal type," a simple sans serif with no capital letters.
From early on, the Bauhaus struggled against reactionary forces that wanted to shut it down, meaning that financial support from the government was not forthcoming. As a result, the school sought out private clients, and Bayer's graphics department was very successful in that effort.
In 1928, no doubt encouraged by his success with commercial art, Bayer left academia and moved to Berlin to pursue a career in advertising. As could be expected, he became highly successful at it; more important, his graphic designs revolutionized the field and were internationally recognized for their daring innovations — especially his early use of photomontage. Because of the latter, he can be compared to the likes of Man Ray and Alexandr Rodchenko as one of the greatest photographers of the period.
As students of art history know, Germany was a great place to be a vanguard artist in the 1920s, but by the mid-1930s, it was one of worst. The Nazis embarked on an official campaign to snuff out modern art, and several Bayers were confiscated from museums and later included in the Nazis' notorious Entartete Kunst exhibition of so-called degenerate art.
With the handwriting on the wall, Bayer came to the United States in 1937, but he was asked to go back and retrieve Bauhaus-related artifacts for a show at the Museum of Modern Art. Literally risking his life to do so, Bayer returned to Germany to carry out the task; he returned to New York in 1938 with $20 in his pocket and the history of the Bauhaus in his luggage. But poverty was a passing issue, and he soon skyrocketed to the top ranks of Madison Avenue's advertising world.
In 1945, Bayer met industrialist Walter Paepcke, and the rest, as they say, is history. Paepcke invited Bayer to spend time at his winter home in Aspen and then convinced him to move to the former mining town. Bayer had free rein while living there, working as a planner and designer, overseeing the restoration of Victorian buildings such as the Wheeler Opera House and designing new buildings like the complexes he did for the Aspen Institute and Aspen Meadows.
At the same time, Bayer acted as an art consultant for Paepcke's Container Corporation of America and, later, Atlantic Richfield. He produced sculptures, tapestries, murals and environmental installations for these companies, including some of the earliest modernist earthworks ever done, a huge influence on later artists. And, as if all of that weren't enough for one person to accomplish, Bayer also produced a large volume of paintings and prints and continued his work in the field of photomontage. Wow.
Bayer stayed in Aspen until the 1970s, when health issues forced him to leave the high altitude. He retired to California.
Despite having a treasure trove of Bayer's work for so many years, it wasn't until earlier this summer that the DAM dedicated permanent space to display selections from it. The museum turned over the staircase, elevator lobby, conference room, auditorium and corridor on the lower level of the Frederic C. Hamilton Building for Chanzit to display Bayer's creations. These spaces — individually or collectively — are hardly ideal for exhibiting art, and they give the Vida Ellison Gallery at the Denver Public Library a run for its money as the worst-designed major-exhibition venue in town.
But keeper and curator Chanzit would have none of it. She's waited a long time for this opportunity, and she's making the best of it. Plus, she has a clever point about using these odds and ends of spaces: They are precisely the sorts of environments that Bayer dealt with during his long career as a corporate art advisor. I'll give her that, but when something is conceived from the ground up, as the Hamilton was, it's a major loss that proper spaces weren't planned for in the first place.
Despite all of the limitations she's been confronted with — elevator doors and a variety of other openings taking up nearly all the prime wall space, a narrow corridor with a descending, ramp-like floor — Chanzit came up with a single, unified expression of Bayer's artistic output while also demonstrating the range of his aesthetic interests.
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In the elevator lobby, on the staircase landing and in the conference room and auditorium are the paintings and prints Bayer did during his Aspen period. Among the earliest paintings is "aspen trees," from 1957, which is an abstract-expressionist painting suggesting a grove of aspen trees. But Bayer's signature style of the '60s and '70s was geometric abstraction, in which hard-edged forms were arranged in tight, highly organized compositions. One such piece is "chromatic gate," from 1969, in which a portal is suggested by a proscenium of rainbow-colored bars set on a yellow field.
In the oddly shaped triangulated showcases built into the walls are models for Bayer's sculptures. There's one for "anaconda," a fountain that once graced the interior of Denver's Anaconda Building but has been in storage since an insensitive remodeling in the mid-'90s. The fountain is made up of geometric forms in white marble emerging from a shallow pool. In the other showcase are models for his monumental sculptures, including "articulated wall," the big, yellow concrete helix visible from I-25.
The corridor has been split down the middle: On one side is an array of Bayer's important surrealist photos; on the other are drawings and plans for his revolutionary earthworks in Aspen. Many Bayer photos are world-famous and are frequently included in books on the history of fine-art photography. Surely everyone knows his famous "self-portrait," from 1932, wherein he is depicted wide-eyed in amazement as he removes a piece of his arm. Particular standouts in the earthworks group are the pencil drawings of the grass-covered mounds that were often paired with his sculptures.
So the able Chanzit has constructed four interlocking mini-shows about the breadth of Bayer's art, each of which is intelligently conceived in its own context. Not only that, but she has also cleverly — and to some extent, successfully — shoehorned the four-part presentation into this set of very difficult spaces. I expected nothing less from her, though it's too bad that she had to.