Herbert Bayer gets his due at Z Art Department

There's no argument that Herbert Bayer, who lived in Aspen from 1946 to 1974, is the most important artist in Colorado history. He was internationally famous when he moved here, having been associated with the Bauhaus in Germany before World War II. And he embraced a wide range of artistic mediums — a philosophy promoted by that utopian school — including graphic design, architecture, painting, printmaking and textiles.

Because of his totemic status in Colorado, the Denver Art Museum has avidly pursued his work, winding up with some 3,000 articles; the collection is overseen by curator Gwen Chanzit, who has written two books about Bayer. The inclusions represent a range of forms, from letterhead designs on single sheets of writing papers, done in the '20s, to one of his last works, "Articulated Wall," that gigantic yellow concrete spiral from the '80s located at the Denver Design Center on South Broadway.

Speaking of "Articulated Wall," have you noticed that the proposed hotel that was supposed to be part of the Hamilton Building complex at 12th Avenue and Broadway is a vacant lot instead? Wouldn't "Articulated Wall" look great there instead of being hidden away where it is? And wouldn't it also serve the Libeskind composition in the same way the never-built tower would — by providing a vertical element at the southeast corner of the complex to balance the Gio Ponti building which stands at the northwest?

Here's some more advice for the DAM: Let Chanzit put together the show-to-end-all-shows about Bayer. For heaven's sake, the material is in the museum's storage spaces already, and Chanzit is unquestionably one of the world's foremost Bayer scholars. That such a show hasn't already been presented by the DAM is absurd. Done right, it could travel the country and bring credit to the museum, not to mention publicity.

Ironically, just a few blocks away, the modest Z Art Department is now presenting Herbert Bayer, the latest in a series that Z has done to showcase key figures in the history of Colorado modernism, including Edward and Donna Marecak, Roland Detre, Al Wynne and Dale Chisman. "It's taken me 22 years to put this show together," says gallery owner Randy Roberts, who describes the adventures and intrigues associated with acquiring some of the pieces (his collection has been supplemented by consignment items from collectors).

Though the show includes paintings and works on paper, it's Bayer's sensational tapestries that dominate here because of their size, their graphic boldness and their strong colors. Everything else seems to recede in deference to them. Bayer went through a number of stylistic progressions in his career, and these tapestries represent his important geometric abstraction phase from the '60s to the '70s. Consider "The Double Gate": On a celery-green field, bars of delphinium, coral, grape, red and orange are arranged so that they're parallel to the top and the two sides, leaving the bottom open, creating a proscenium. This composition reinforces the title, with the implication being that the viewer can pass through the open space and thus go through the "gate."

Most of the tapestries have been hung on the wall, but one, "Curve From Two Progressions," is too big and has been laid on the floor. This spectacular piece shows a curving form that has been inserted into a stack of horizontal lines. The form is done in a progression of blues to greens, while the horizontal bars are in the red/yellow group.

Aside from the tapestries, one element that really caught my eye was the portfolio of eight monochromes, in which patterns are created by manipulating a single different color for each composition. Also of note are a couple of posters: "Jahre 50," done for the fiftieth anniversary of the Bauhaus, and "Ski Broadmoor," where skiers form the letter "B" with their trails. The constructivist works on paper from the '80s that were done not long before he died, showing how he never gave up, are tremendous, too. In fact, it's really hard to find anything in this show that isn't remarkable and interesting in some way. It's an important show, and I've already seen it twice.

Interestingly, Bayer wasn't the solitary genius sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop in Aspen — or at least he wasn't only that. Though he was clearly the most important geometric abstractionist in Colorado active a half-century ago, there was actually a pretty big scene of artists doing some kind of hard-edged painting that can be easily related to his style. The group includes Angelo di Benedetto, Otto Bach, Bev Rosen, George Woodman, Clark Richert and David Yust.

Richert and Yust are still active, though they are no longer working in the style, but there are younger artists who have embraced simple forms and straight lines as their key aesthetic devices and are thus heirs to this great local tradition. One of the top younger artists who champion the less-is-more approach is being featured right now in Pard Morrison: At the Edge of the World, at Rule Gallery.

Director Robin Rule has a special interest in minimalism and its progeny and cousins, so Rule Gallery is the place to see this kind of material. As is always the case with Rule, the show looks great and has been elegantly presented in the smart-looking if smallish showroom. Morrison is a graduate of Colorado State University and lives in Colorado Springs, where he grew up. He's exhibited his work, which he dubs "human minimalism," for the past five or six years in several spots across the West.

Morrison's pieces are hybrids of paintings and sculptures. He first creates aluminum forms, then has them powder-coated in a variety of colors. The overall forms, as well as the colors, have hard edges and are invariably rectilinear in shape. He has apparently retouched the colors so that they have a softness and muted character not usually associated with the high-tech patinating process. His signature works are in the form of wall-hung bas-reliefs that function as two-dimensional objects when seen straight-on. When seen from an angle, however, they shift into three dimensions, with the pronounced sides and the sometimes subtle changes in the front surface planes becoming visible.

In "So Far Gone I'm Here," squares of color are lined up horizontally. At one point off to the right of center and precisely where two colors split, the surface of the piece steps back toward the wall. In "Anthology," a stack of brick-like forms covers a horizontal rectangle, with a single brick shape attached off-center at the bottom. These inconsistencies in the patterns add lots of visual and conceptual interest.

The title piece, "At the Edge of the World," is different in form, being a freestanding attenuated vertical shaft. The flat and smooth surfaces are covered with block-like shapes of color. The color blocks are arranged in a simple basket-weave, with individual color pairs positioned back to back, but with each pair set at a ninety-degree angle to the pair adjacent to it. This placement alternates all the way up the simulated pile. As simple as it is, it still carries a big visual punch. I thought it was fabulous.

The Morrison show at Rule is the perfect companion to the Bayer exhibit at Z, and seeing them together brings the dialogue full circle. Both shows highlight how the simple act of assembling geometric forms continues to be an inexhaustible source of artistic success.

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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