From the moment Daniel Libeskind was tapped to design a freestanding addition to the Denver Art Museum, people began to question whether a building designed by a deconstructionist could possibly function as an art museum. There was even more skepticism when Libeskind's model for a crystalline concoction of up-ended boxes was officially unveiled.
But the ranks of naysayers grew exponentially when the Frederic C. Hamilton Building started to rise out of the ground like a giant modernist sculpture. Many of those who hadn't paid attention to the process suddenly saw what was going on, and they wondered whether this profusion of crashing forms could possibly be an appropriate context for showcasing paintings and sculptures.
From the beginning, I've thought that if the building wasn't ideal for art display -- and it isn't -- it wouldn't matter because it is a work of art in itself. I've also said that Libeskind's Hamilton couldn't possibly be worse than Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim, and no one would call the Guggenheim a failure -- even if the building overshadows the things inside, just like the Hamilton.
The Hamilton Building
The Hamilton's greatest metaphorical attribute is that it "looks" like an art museum. If its theatrical shape and glitzy surface effects are not enough to communicate that, those outdoor sculptures placed in Martin Plaza definitely do the trick. The most emphatic of the three sculptures already installed is "Denver Monoliths," by Beverly Pepper. The piece comprises two large abstract forms made of dark-tinted cast concrete, with the tall piers being pierced with vertical cuts and having alternating smooth and rough sides. "Denver Monoliths," located on the lawn just south of 13th Avenue, relates beautifully to the building and provides a wonderful counterpoint. The view is especially nice when the Pepper is seen from Broadway, with the Hamilton serving as the background.
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Tucked in against the prow and hard against the street is "Big Sweep," an enormous whisk broom sweeping wads of paper into a dustpan, by Coosje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg. The sculpture seems to be leaning against the museum as though it were the kitchen wall. Oldenburg, one of the pop-art masters, is known for using mundane objects as inspirations for his monumental sculptures, as was done here. I predict this fun-filled and brightly colored piece will be highly popular -- maybe even too popular. I've already seen children and adults climbing on it, as if the piece were a playground fixture and not a sculpture.
Hard against the entry is Louise Bourgeois's "Spider," which is on loan to the DAM. I'm not as sure how Bourgeois's "Spider" will be viewed, but I am sure no one will be climbing it, as it's kind of threatening. The sculpture, which is cast and joined bronze, was a last-minute addition, but I think it looks great.
A fourth piece, "Scottish Angus Cow and Calf," by Dan Ostermiller, has yet to be put in place. Made up of a giant realistically rendered cow with a similarly scaled calf, the Ostermiller will be located in the not-yet-completed Hindery Family Park, on the West 12th Avenue side of the Hamilton.
Placing sculptures around any building isn't as hard as placing art inside it, and this particular structure makes that an even more difficult task. There's a lot of wasted space where walls intersect at unconventional angles, but this also provides opportunities to find ad hoc niches where single pieces can be sited.
Some areas inside the Hamilton have too little art, but I'm sure they'll be filled sooner or later. That really needs to happen, since people have incorrectly surmised that the vacancies mean the DAM doesn't have enough material to fill the addition. Nothing could be further from the truth: Even though the museum has a collection that numbers over 60,000 objects, director Lewis Sharp purposely left places without art in order to show off the building's structural drama for the opening. The cavernous main lobby could definitely use a half-dozen large paintings and some sculpture. As it is, it looks vacant.
No artwork should be added to the El Pomar Grand Atrium, however, because Tatsuo Miyajima's "ENGI" is perfect with its eighty small round digital displays that count from one to nine, or from nine to one. The displays sit flush with the walls and do nothing to interfere with the spaces that you experience while climbing or descending the grand staircase. The lighted circles are like sequins adorning the otherwise chastely finished walls, giving the atrium an added -- and needed -- sense of glamour.
The Gallagher Family Gallery, located south of the atrium, is the only exhibition space on the ground level, and like all of the galleries throughout the Hamilton, it is accessed through a set of glass and stainless-steel doors. Currently on view is the gorgeous Japanese Art From the Colorado Collection of Kimiko and John Powers. The Gallagher is the most traditional of the three new temporary exhibition spaces, and Sharp told me it was conceived to present historic art, such as the Japanese treasures there now.
Upstairs are the other two spaces for special exhibits, including the Martin & McCormick Gallery, where Breaking the Mold: The Virginia Vogel Mattern Collection of Contemporary Native American Art, is ensconced. This room is more dynamic than the Gallagher, with a soaring, tilted ceiling instead of a low horizontal one. For Breaking the Mold, the Martin & McCormick was broken up into a series of relatively small areas defined by pedestals and showcases, but these can be cleared out for future exhibits. A hidden interior staircase connects the Martin & McCormick to the Gallagher below, so the two can be used for the same show. The Martin & McCormick is also adjacent to the Anschutz Gallery, the largest of the temporary exhibit spaces, so they can be connected as well.
The spatial volume in the Anschutz is even more flamboyant than that of the Martin & McCormick, with the ceiling rising nearly thirty feet at one end. The exhibit installed here is RADAR: Selections From the Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan. The many over-scaled pieces in this show fit the room wonderfully, but I can also see it being used for historical art, as long as the pieces are large enough.
The second level is also home to the Dietler Gallery of Western Art, located at the north end of the building. The Dietler houses some choice examples of the DAM's collection of Western painting and sculpture from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as a nice array of modern and contemporary pieces with Western themes. This marvelous assortment includes many artists from the region -- notably, those working here in Colorado and many others from nearby New Mexico. However, the spaces in the Dietler are odd and awkward, and having an aisle that leads to the Reiman Bridge, which connects the Hamilton to the rest of the DAM complex, only makes matters worse.
Most of the third and fourth levels are taken up by the expansive Bonfils-Stanton Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, with the Logan Atrium joining the two floors internally. The Bonfils-Stanton includes several separate galleries, such as the Chambers and Grant gallery on level three, where some of the important early-modernist pieces are displayed. Wedge-shaped boxes were mounted on the tilting walls here so that paintings can hang straight. Across the hall is where the museum's impressionist pieces are installed. This space really needs some tweaking because it's too bare. In it are some of the DAM's most valuable paintings, such as those two spectacular Monets, which together are worth as much as the building. But the way they've been hung hardly conveys their importance.
On both levels, curator Dianne Vanderlip shows off the DAM's collection of art of the past fifty years, most of it assembled during her long tenure. Regular visitors to the DAM will recognize many favorites that are on permanent view for the first time. On the fourth level is a small room right inside the entrance where a spectacular Gene Davis hangs from the ceiling in front of a wall that cants back away from it. In another side room that will be a part-time Close Range Gallery is a remarkable Betty Woodman ceramic installation called "Somewhere Between Naples and Denver."
In crazy spaces accessed off the Bonfils-Stanton are modest rooms housing small departments. On the third level is the Anderman Gallery of Oceanic Art, and on the fourth is the Yohannes African Gallery. The Oceanic room is gorgeous because of the high-quality pieces in the DAM's collection and the minimal exhibit design. The African, on the other hand, is overwhelmed by cabinetry that gives the space a claustrophobic feeling.
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I'm sure that complaints about the building's inappropriateness as a repository for art will persist for years, if not forever. But since most exhibitions include a lot of emptiness between individual artworks, it shouldn't really be a concern if those vacant places are flat or three-dimensional. Sure, there are problems inside the Hamilton, but none of them are fatal -- and anyway, these shortcomings hardly matter given that stunning exterior.
I've been lucky enough to have had a front-row seat for this whole process, beginning with 1999's campaign to convince voters to pass a bond to pay for a DAM addition. I was there when an architect selection committee was announced. I gasped when it was revealed that Libeskind had won the contest. Then there was the groundbreaking ceremony and the announcement that the building would be called the Hamilton. Three years of construction, and now the completion of this fabulous new Denver landmark.
Being an art critic doesn't have many perks -- unless you really, really like wine and cheese. But having the opportunity to be in the room when every milestone of the Hamilton was announced has been a major fringe benefit of this job.