Insults and Injuries

Mary Chenoweth, who died on January 14, at the age of eighty, was one of the most important and accomplished artists to ever have worked in Colorado. But that's not the impression you'll get from the ineptly arranged and incompetently organized memorial exhibit Mary Chenoweth: Collage of a Life's Work, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Put together by CSFAC staffer Judith Burdick and crammed into the center's too-small Garden Gallery, this show is an unmitigated disaster. It makes one wonder what it was that Chenoweth did to deserve this disrespect.

Is it simply that Chenoweth was a woman? Perhaps.
Is it that Chenoweth spent most of her fifty-year career in Colorado Springs--rather than somewhere more glamorous--teaching at Colorado College and was one of the city's own? More likely.

Is it the fact that curator Burdick was in way over her head? Without a doubt.

It was Burdick who selected the pieces in Collage, and it would be generous to label her choices as bad. They reveal not only that she is ignorant of the course of Chenoweth's career, but also that she is a stranger to the broad currents of contemporary art from the last half-century.

Instead of trying to find the stylistic pattern that connects the various paintings, prints and three-dimensional works in Chenoweth's oeuvre, Burdick apparently went looking for "zebras," those uncharacteristic pieces that every artist does. In addition, she left out, almost entirely, important bodies of characteristic work. For example, no one seeing this dreadful show will realize that Chenoweth was mostly known for her geometric abstractions carried out in the woodblock medium.

And instead of laying out Chenoweth's career in a chronological progression, which would have allowed viewers to follow the twists and turns of her artistic development, Burdick arranged the included pieces without rhyme or reason. Over here is a 1940s composition; over there is one from the 1970s. Then it's back to the 1950s, and so on.

In this way, Burdick makes Chenoweth look like a Sunday painter rather than the artist whose example inspired numerous former students--such as Janet Lippincott, Michael Duffy, Dale Chisman and Emilio Lobato--to go on to become major regional figures.

Collage was hastily thrown together. Originally scheduled as a retrospective, it became a memorial when Chenoweth died suddenly. Had she lived, the artist herself would have been directly involved with the show, and we may assume that we'd have been spared this confused and disdainful presentation.

Worse than Burdick's poor choices are the falsehoods promulgated by the show's catalogue--chiefly, that Chenoweth was derivative. These observers are obviously much more sophisticated than the rest of us, since most viewers will immediately see, even from the examples in this sorry show, that Chenoweth was a true original.

One of the most egregious lies put forward in the catalogue is that Chenoweth's abstractions owe their aesthetic to the work of colleague Emerson Woelffer, the onetime head of the art school once associated with the CSFAC and the man who first hired Chenoweth as an art teacher. This prevarication has been picked up by some naive commentators on the show and seems to be believed by those who are incapable of synthesizing visual material--except, that is, for Woelffer himself, who is quoted in the ugly catalogue to the effect that Chenoweth was a remarkable talent who could have made it in New York but chose instead to dedicate herself to her work and to her students.

One reason that the idea that Chenoweth was a copyist has been accepted is because Woelffer's work is unfamiliar and little known around here (he moved to Southern California more than forty years ago). Another is that Burdick left out abstract pieces by Chenoweth that were done before she even met Woelffer in 1953; their inclusion would have put the matter to rest permanently. But the real reason it has taken hold is sexism. After all, how could a woman be the inventor of her own style? There must be a male role model in the woodpile. This is hogwash.

Burdick isn't the only one culpable of this crime against culture. The CSFAC, which has long given short shrift to local talent, is responsible, too. Why wasn't Collage given proper gallery space in the beautifully appointed CSFAC? Surely, Martin Schreiber: Something in Common, a pedestrian show of uninspired photos of cowboys that currently fills the center's handsome East Gallery, could have been moved--or not presented at all.

The point of this review is not just to bury Burdick and the CSFAC, however, but to praise Chenoweth. Collage may be unfortunate and have a deleterious effect on Chenoweth's memory, but the artist had such an expansive talent that it was impossible to keep everything worthwhile out of it.

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1918, Chenoweth relocated with her family to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, while she was still a child. She began her art training in the late 1940s at the prestigious Chicago Art Institute and completed her bachelor's degree at New York's renowned Pratt Institute. (So much for those who have labeled her provincial.)

Chenoweth's work from the 1940s featured recognizable images done in a modernist, hard-edged linear style. "My Studio," a marvelous oil on board from 1947, is typical. It's a portrait of the artist's home in which the palette is dominated by muted browns and grays set off by shades of black and red, a type of tonal juxtaposition seen in many of Chenoweth's pieces over the next fifty years. Her future as an abstract artist is also foreshadowed in the piece, since the major pictorial elements are composed of the shifting effects of light and the checkerboard tablecloth in the foreground. By 1948, Chenoweth had broken from representation and was creating entirely abstract pieces. Unfortunately, none of these early abstractions, which have been exhibited elsewhere in recent years, are included in the hapless Collage.

In 1949 Chenoweth accepted an art teaching job in Rocky Ford and settled in Colorado. The next year, she attended the University of Denver, where she was a protege of the legendary Vance Kirkland and watercolor master Jack Ball. After receiving her BFA at DU in 1950, Chenoweth attended graduate school at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where she earned an MFA in 1953. At the time, she was one of the few women in the entire country with an advanced art degree. It was in that same year that Chenoweth was hired by Woelffer at the now-defunct CSFAC art school. In 1957, when the school folded and Woelffer went to California, Chenoweth joined the faculty of nearby Colorado College.

Chenoweth's style from the 1950s is related to abstract expressionism, but with a key difference. Though she embraced the gestural and intuitive method of that New York-based movement, Chenoweth continued to make hard-edged compositions. The stunning "Marabout," an oil and collage on canvas, sets passages of automatism next to roughly geometric ones. And the palette, like the one employed in "My Studio," combines dark browns, olive greens and blacks with white, yellows and tints of orange and red. "Marabout," which might mean "about Mary," is a genuine masterpiece.

During the 1950s, Chenoweth's work was widely shown at venues as varied as the Brooklyn Museum and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, but self-promotion was never of interest to Chenoweth, and she gradually withdrew from the exhibition circuit. As a result, her work became known chiefly to her many students and to a small circle of avid collectors in Colorado Springs.

By the late 1950s, Chenoweth was reintroducing subject matter into her prints and paintings. The checkerboard seen in the foreground of "My Studio" is seen again in "Plaza," a wonderful woodblock print from 1958--but here it represents the paving stones of a public square instead of a tablecloth. Once again, Chenoweth combined lights with darks, using quiet browns and grays accented by bright-white details.

Works like "Plaza" and "Tripoli, Libya, Skyline," an oil on canvas from 1958, are closely akin to the thoroughly non-objective "Marabout"--except that there are identifiable objects in each of the newer pieces underneath all those painterly flourishes. But as with "Marabout," Chenoweth has built up "Plaza" and "Tripoli" by putting roughly geometric shapes among expressionist sections. In "Marabout," the effect is totally abstract; in "Plaza" and "Tripoli," it is used to suggest buildings. The same approach is seen in the breathtaking "La Fontana," an oil and collage on canvas from 1959. Torn pieces of paper, some with visible print, are arranged to form an arched doorway through which a fountain is glimpsed. In places, Chenoweth has allowed the paper to create the design of the composition; in other areas, paint is used to flesh out the particulars of the scene.

One unusual art form embraced by Chenoweth was the creation of carved doors. The exhibit includes one of these doors, done in 1960. Chenoweth took a ready-made walnut door and gouged out simple geometric shapes and patterns including a signature checkerboard. She also carved doors to serve as printing blocks, resulting in mammoth woodblocks done on huge sheets of rice paper. Like so many other things, none of these door prints are included in Collage.

Doors were not just a tool for Chenoweth; they also served as subject matter. "Door in Tangiers," which is undated (though it was surely done in the 1960s), and the closely associated "Doorway," from 1968, both feature miniature and essentially realistic doors rendered in wood and paint. Looking twenty years ahead of their time, both seem to anticipate some of the efforts of other, younger artists of the 1980s.

Chenoweth also executed doors as site-specific commissions. In the 1970s she created a marvelous pair for the Bemis Art School, which is adjacent to the CSFAC. About the same time, she made a pair for the Broadmoor Community Church. Obviously, neither is in the show. At least in these instances, it's not Burdick's fault, since the doors are functional portals that could not be moved.

As her unusual interest in doors indicates, Chenoweth was often pushing the edges of various art mediums. For instance, sometimes the doors were used as printing blocks, sometimes they were sculptures or subjects for paintings or prints, and sometimes they were simply doors. Also peculiar to Chenoweth were what she called her "Hanging Tiles," which she created for many years beginning in the 1970s. Using paint and collage, Chenoweth adhered images to both sides of small squares of Masonite that were then linked together with wire and hung like wind chimes from the ceiling. Also unusual were her "Garden Sticks" (called "Garden Planks" in Collage), which she began to do in the 1980s. For these pieces, Chenoweth pierced found boards with rectangular or trapezoidal holes and surrounded these openings with hard-edged decorations in paint. As in all of her work, her palette for the "Garden Sticks" combined muted tones with bright primary colors. Chenoweth created these outdoor sculptures until her death.

Chenoweth retired from teaching in 1983 and moved from Colorado Springs to Sydney, Nebraska, where she continued to work. And though it may seem that she was isolated on the plains, she continued to lead the life of a cosmopolitan. She was an avid traveler and went around the world by ship many times, venturing just since her retirement to such exotic climes as Ethiopia, Australia and the South Pacific. These trips provided her with inspiration for her art, as evidenced in "Untitled (Ocean Freighter)." This undated painting, which was likely done only a few years ago, conveys the image of the ship through squares and circles. Again, Chenoweth the brilliant colorist combines luminous shades with dusky ones--just as she did in the 1940s.

Mary Chenoweth: Collage of a Life's Work is hardly worthy of the great artist. But since it's been 25 years since the CSFAC has given her a solo show, it's clearly worth a trip to Colorado Springs, if only to see the dozens of worthwhile pieces that somehow did get through the door. Nonetheless, the powers that be at the CSFAC should be ashamed of themselves for their second-rate treatment of Mary Chenoweth, and that goes double for Judith Burdick.

Mary Chenoweth: Collage of a Life's Work, through September 19 at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 10 West Dale Street, Colorado Springs, 1-719-634-5581.

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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