High Hopes

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As the viewer proceeds through the floor, galleries broadly sketch out the history of Western art. The first two are filled with traditional nineteenth-century work of the Frederick Remington/ Albert Bierstadt stripe. Though they haven't been on view for some time, many of these paintings and sculptures are justly well-remembered, and it's good to see them again in the track light of day. Other galleries are devoted to cowboy and Indian portraits that range widely in style, to regional works by Taos and Santa Fe artists, and to prints, drawings and watercolors from the 1930s and '40s (surprisingly, the famous prints from the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center School are mostly absent, though there is one by Ethel Magafan). Yet another gallery is filled with nineteenth-century photographs of Colorado taken by Denver's own William Henry Jackson. Off this room is a small gallery displaying the American Indian portraits of Charles Bird King. Finally, two galleries are devoted to contemporary Western art, including the work of well-known Colorado artists such as Tracy Felix, Chuck Forsman and Daniel Sprick.

The trip through the Magness galleries leads visitors in a loop back to the elevator lobby, from which they can descend to the wholly new sixth floor, now called the Davis W. Moore Galleries. Of all the changes at the DAM, none has been as eagerly awaited as the sixth floor's reopening. That's because the art on this floor is the kind of thing that generates the most interest from museum-goers--traditional art from Europe and the United States. It's been so long since European art, in particular, has been on view at the DAM that rumors persisted that the museum would never again display its limited holdings.

Those rumors are put to rest by the redone sixth floor, but to give the paranoid their due, forty European paintings--including a large, surrealist still life by Picasso--have been carted off to New York to be sold at Christie's auction house. The hoped-for revenue from this sale is projected to be about $2 million, but don't be surprised if the Picasso brings that much all by itself.

The sixth floor includes a series of smallish galleries and a tiny reading room, all of which have been designed by Washington, D.C., architect George Sexton. The galleries have been installed under the direction of DAM European art curator Timothy Standring, who worked in conjunction with Melora McDermott-Lewis of the museum's education department. It's McDermott-Lewis's impact that will cause the most consternation for connoisseurs: The galleries are now installed thematically, which removes paintings and sculptures from their context. And though it may be just what's needed to get the uninterested through the door, it's not very appealing to anyone who gives a hoot about art history.

Especially disappointing is the initial view of the new Moore galleries. As visitors enter from the elevator, they find themselves in a cold lobby, facing a confusing array of sculptures of women. Particularly unfortunate is the comparison between a nineteenth-century neo-baroque bronze by Frederick MacMonnies and a 1930s cubist sculpture by Alexander Archipenko. Whatever Standring and McDermott-Lewis had in mind with this pairing is lost--both the MacMonnies and the Archipenko suffer through their association with one another. The sculptures on the low platform face the same fate. Please, rethink this room--at least put something on the wall, for heaven's sake.

Luckily, the first sixth-floor gallery works much better than the lobby. Organized under the vague title "Renaissance Traditions"--which seems to mean everything from gothic to baroque--the room is dominated by fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian paintings, including a Bellini and a Botticelli. The walls have been painted a deep red, which provides a perfect backdrop to the mostly dark pieces, and the paintings have been hung salon-style, in vertical rows of two or three. This breaks a long tradition in museum hanging, in which paintings are typically displayed by themselves. The salon style works well, though, with the small pieces displayed in Renaissance Traditions.

The three galleries that follow are each devoted to a particular genre: the first to portraits, the second to landscapes, the third to still-life paintings. These three rooms provide a dizzying look at art that spans hundreds of years and scores of art styles. But as is the case with the sculptures in the sixth-floor lobby, the three galleries provide more confusion than edification. It's especially disturbing to see the museum's Matisse where it is--too high up on the wall--and the DAM's only remaining Picasso, an early and important landscape, looking small, lost and insignificant. That other Picasso they're toting to Christie's would have fit right in--which makes one wonder why it's being sold.

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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