Hidden Treasure

Only rarely can one individual literally change the cultural landscape of a major city. But that's exactly what Nancy Tieken has done since she came to Denver for health reasons in 1991.

Bored by a lengthy recuperation process, Tieken, a lifetime art historian with a BFAfrom Radcliffe, volunteered at the Denver Art Museum and later became the adjunct curator of modern and contemporary art, a position museum director Lewis Sharp created especially for her. She soon took over preparation of the didactics for the department's exhibitions, and she lectured statewide. She organized shows and helped choose works for the collection, particularly the cache of Motherwells the DAM acquired in 1994. And Tieken was a voice for prudence during the deaccession days of 1995, taking many misunderstood paintings off the chopping block at a time when the DAM was disposing of hundreds of pieces from its permanent collection.

Tieken's most recent triumph is the exhibit that opened last weekend, The Poindexter Collection of Modern American Masters. The show, which Tieken organized and partly sponsored through the auspices of her NBT Foundation, features a magnificent selection of abstract art by some of America's most important artists.

But even before we can get to The Poindexter Collection, we're surrounded by Tieken's other accomplishments. One of the best curators to have ever graced the DAM, she has also been Denver's most important art patron in this decade. As visitors approach the DAM, they are met by Tieken's most recent gift, Donald Lipski's Yearling--an engaging post-pop-art piece that features a tiny paint pony on the seat of a monumental chair. The sculpture was installed last month on the lawn of the Denver Public Library, across from the museum. Though the absurd character of the Lipski could be disconcerting to some, Tieken is not surprised that it's been an overwhelming popular success. "Many adults see the piece as being aimed at children, so they allow themselves to enjoy it and even to laugh at it," Tieken explains. "It's not threatening like the Di Suvero," she says, referring to another of her donations, the painted, welded-steel Lao Tzu, by Mark Di Suvero, which was installed in 1996 and is unquestionably the finest piece of modern sculpture in the city. The spectacular haz-mat-orange sculpture is sited not far from the Lipski, just off the museum's side entrance.

After entering the museum and proceeding to the Stanton wing, we encounter another major sculpture that was also a gift from Tieken. Above our heads floats the gorgeous Snow Flurry, May 14, a black and white mobile from 1959 by the form's legendary pioneer, Alexander Calder. Throughout the rest of the Stanton wing are other Tieken gifts, including major pieces by James Turrell, Jim Dine and Dan Flavin, all of which are included in the current Welcome Back! exhibition highlighting the DAM's permanent collection of modern and contemporary art. That exhibition encompasses another example of Tieken's curatorial prowess, since she co-organized the room dedicated to early modernism with Gwen Chanzit, another of the DAM's highly accomplished curators. This room is the most compelling section of Welcome Back! On display here is a major sculpture that was acquired not by Tieken, but for her: Richard Serra's "Basic Maintenance," from 1987, which comprises two gigantic hot-rolled steel sheets leaning against the wall, was purchased by the DAM in Tieken's honor.

The Poindexter Collection is installed in the small set of rooms that make up the Stanton Wing's Close Range Gallery. The collection is a little-known treasure trove that has not seen the light of day in more than three decades. Tieken uncovered the horde while jurying an exhibition at the Paris Gibson Art Center in Montana. Richard Notkin, a nationally known ceramic artist associated with Montana's famous Archie Bray Foundation and an old friend of Tieken's, told her about a wonderful selection of mid-twentieth-century modern art long held in storage at the Montana Historical Society. "Imagine finding a collection like this, that includes a Pollock, several de Koonings and a Kline," Tieken says, "all on rusting metal racks in the basement--illuminated by a single bare light bulb!"

The collection was the brainchild of a Montana-born New York commodities broker named George Poindexter. How it wound up at the Montana Historical Society, of all places, and the shameful way it's been treated since make for a ripping yarn.

Poindexter was born in 1900 in Butte, Montana, into a prominent family; his father was a respected lawyer and later a federal judge. He grew up in Montana, moved to New York to attend Columbia University, graduated in 1922 and founded his own business, Commodity Brokers, Inc. Poindexter was a whiz in the commercial world, but he had an interest in painting as well. This was perhaps inspired by his wife, Elinor, who had studied art history at New York's prestigious Finch College.

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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