Here's Mud in Your Eye

Yogi Berra, the New York Yankee baseball legend who's known for his hilarious bon mots that seem to be oxymorons, once made an astute observation that would surely characterize the Denver Art Museum during the last few months: "Nobody goes there anymore -- it's too crowded."

The blockbuster exhibit Impressionism attracted about 200,000 visitors, making it by far the best-attended show in the DAM's history. According to surveys, nearly half of these visitors had never walked through the museum's doors before. Museum members, who also saw the show in record numbers, otherwise stayed away, however. The place was too jammed -- not just in the capacious Hamilton Galleries, but everywhere.

Since Impressionism required the purchase of specifically timed admission tickets, many visitors arrived early and occupied themselves by taking in other exhibits on other floors, meaning the entire museum was crowded. This was especially true of the sixth floor, where the department of painting and sculpture, headed by curator Timothy Standring, displays the DAM's permanent collection of European and American art.

Now that Impressionism has closed, it seems like the right time to point out that one of the DAM's own Monets, "Waterloo Bridge," an oil on canvas from 1903, is as fine as even the finest painting in the traveling show. And there are other wonderful French paintings here, too. But despite the quality of the work, the sixth floor is annoying -- even though the crowds have moved on -- because of the ridiculous installation.

The display isn't historical, nor are stylistic distinctions clearly made. Done a few years ago by Standring, the presentation is an example of a current trend in museum installation in which artifacts are assembled according to subjective criterion, such as subject matter, and not according to objective ones like date and style. The results, as seen here, don't tell the viewer anything about the course of art history. Plus, the absurd juxtapositions that are inevitable with this approach make the pieces look bad. So what's the point?

The sixth floor fails the minute you alight from the elevator and are confronted with one of the worst pairings of objects imaginable -- well, at least until you proceed to the main galleries.

In front of us and to the left is the lovely "Bacchante and Infant Faun," an 1884 bronze by Frederick MacMonnies. It sits on a gorgeous though unidentified nineteenth-century Eastlake-style sculpture or plant stand. To the right is one of the museum's modern masterpieces: Alexander Archipenko's "Walking Woman" of 1912, which has been absurdly placed on a crudely made stand instead of on a period one like the MacMonnies. The neoclassicism of the MacMonnies crashes head-on with the post-cubism of the Archipenko; each makes the other look bad. It's the same with 1916's "Two Sisters," by Matisse, which completely glares out into oblivion from the track lighting, and "Childhood Idyll," by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, from 1900, which hangs below.

Here's a suggested New Year's resolution for Standring: Reinstall the sixth floor -- and hurry up, for heaven's sake.

Speaking of New Year's resolutions, here's one for Dianne Vanderlip, the omnipotent head of the DAM's Modern and Contemporary Department: Run the Vance Kirkland Close Range Gallery in a conscientious way as a showcase for local art.

Oh, I know the mandate of Close Range has been rewritten to the point that it has no meaning. Last summer, memos, faxes and press releases heralded the news that the Vance Kirkland Foundation had thrown a $250,000 gift at the gallery. But the announcement of the gift and the name change (it had been called the Close Range Gallery before) was accompanied by a subtle rewording of the definition of the space. It's no longer a regional venue, even if the name Close Range (which will probably be dispensed with sooner or later, anyway) is a play on Front Range. The artists who are now eligible for presentations in there are those who pass the muster of the rigorous standards of Vanderlip's whim.

The current show, The Clay Grows Tall: The World of Charles Simonds, makes the point clearly.

Simonds is a well-known clay artist who lives and works in New York; his most famous creations are the miniature landscapes he made with unfired clay, twigs and plaster that are related to the funk movement in ceramics. The show includes a single example of this classic type, titled "Floral Font," from 1989, and it's more along the lines of installation art than actually being a kind of ceramic creation, (it hasn't been fired, after all.) There are only three other pieces in the exhibit, seemingly unrelated wall-hung forms that are for sale, having been loaned by New York's Joseph Helman Gallery.

But The Clay Grows Tall will be open during the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference, to be held this spring in Denver. The conference will attract some 3,000 ceramic artists and teachers from around the world, a genuine who's who in the field. Surely, many of the attendees will be surprised to find the DAM's modern and contemporary department featuring a New York artist in a solo instead of one of the many nationally famous home-state talents who have worked or currently work here.

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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

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