Looking Sharp

Sure, he'd hate it--and it's hard to imagine that he could squeeze more schmoozing time into any given day. But imagine if Denver Art Museum director Lewis Sharp were the city's omnipotent art czar. Oh, the disappointments we might have been spared.

The $7 million-plus art collection at Denver International Airport springs to mind. In that case, selection by committee led to what can only be called a full-scale disaster. Aside from the work of locals David Griggs, Gary Sweeney, Betty Woodman and the collaboration by Robert Maxwell and Antonette Rosato (Sweeney and Woodman have since left the area), there is little at DIA to recommend to anyone even slightly interested in art. The selection committees were dominated by the politically connected and by community activists who couldn't spell "art" if you spotted them the "r" and the "t." The few art-world mavens who were willing to put up with the humiliation and exasperation were typically, and predictably, overruled.

Now let's consider what Sharp has been able to do with less than half the money spent at DIA (exclusive of important bequests like the Mayer collection of pre-Columbian art that would have wound up at the DAM no matter who was director). First there were the photographs from the Wolfe Collection, an important group of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century works documenting America's western expansion. Cost: $1.5 million. Then, Mark diSuvero's "Lao Tzu" welded-steel sculpture on Acoma Plaza--not just the work of a world-class sculptor, but one of his major accomplishments. The DAM paid $800,000. There was that last-minute save from the wrecking ball of Herbert Bayer's white marble sculpture "Anaconda." The cost to the museum? Gratis. How about that fabulous 1950s Alexander Calder mobile "Snow Flurry, May 14," a steal at just under $500,000?

Now, for $385,000, comes Deborah Butterfield's bronze sculptural group "Argus (P.J.)," which has just been installed on the DAM's sunken northeast lawn. Add it up--it comes to slightly over $3 million. And the cost to the city was even less, because instead of using public money, Sharp mostly got these things paid for by cozying up to wealthy patrons.

That certainly was the case with "Argus (P.J.)," which was substantially paid for by the UMB Bank, a relative newcomer to town but an old-timer when it comes to underwriting the fine arts. You might call UMB Bank a family business--and the Kempers are the family involved.

The Kemper name is a familiar one to arts enthusiasts. The family, which made its fortune in high finance, endowed the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Kansas City, as well as the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art in St. Joseph, Missouri. When the Kempers opened a UMB branch here a few years ago, they did so in a big way, moving into the former Columbia Savings building at 17th Avenue and Broadway, an imposing late-modern-style high-rise which is the work of the renowned New York architectural firm of Kohn Pederson Fox. One of the first things UMB did after arriving was to commission world-famous glass artist Dale Chihuly to create a wall relief titled "Colorado Wildflowers." The bank also became involved in supporting the DAM.

According to Mariner Kemper, a vice president at UMB and the family's local representative, the Kempers support the DAM because "we like to have a presence wherever we do business. We have a commitment to Denver, and funding the arts is a way for us to become a real part of the community."

This isn't the first time the Kempers and sculptor Butterfield have crossed paths. The family recently funded a Butterfield sculpture at the Kansas City Zoo that the artist describes as a "nightmare"--not because of the Kempers' involvement, but because of the bureaucratic maze that had to be negotiated before the piece could be installed. "Here it's been so smooth and easy," says Butterfield. "It must be a karmic payback for the trauma in Kansas City." (If Butterfield wants to feel real pain, she should work through the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film next time instead of the DAM.)

Butterfield credits director Sharp and DAM Modern and Contemporary curator Dianne Vanderlip for the ease of the project. "Dianne's been a longtime supporter of my work, and she and Lew found a donor and it all just came together," the sculptor notes.

And in retrospect, Butterfield and Denver seem like a natural fit. The artist was born in San Diego in 1949 but lives in Bozeman, Montana, well within the DAM's regional orbit. She's married to another artist, the well-known printmaker and sculptor John Buck. The two met at graduate school in the 1970s at the University of California at Davis, then a center for artists who created post-abstract representational art--a fancy way of saying that they were returning to recognizable imagery after having worked in abstraction.

Art historians refer to these loosely associated artists as the funk movement, and Butterfield includes on her list of early influences such Davis faculty heavy-hitters as Robert Arneson, William Wiley and Manual Neri. Butterfield was closest to Arneson and Wiley. "Bob [Arneson] was like my dad, and Bill [Wiley] was like my mom," she says. "When I wanted a stern lecture, I went to Bob; when I wanted comfort, I went to Bill. I realized I had matured as an artist when I began to bring the things that weren't so hot to Bob."

In 1977, after a brief teaching stint, Butterfield moved to Bozeman to join her husband, then teaching at Montana State University. Eventually they wound up working out a pioneering job-sharing agreement. "It required the state legislature to pass a law," Butterfield recalls. But Butterfield's and Buck's art careers soon took off, and they both retired from teaching in 1987.

Butterfield's big break came in 1978, when her work was included in the trend-setting exhibition The Presence of Nature at New York's Whitney Museum. Her sculptures of horses made of mud and sticks were an immediate sensation. Soon Butterfield began to create horses out of welded metal, often painting them in bright tones, like the fire-engine-red "Orion," one of the most popular and readily recognizable pieces in the DAM's permanent collection.

With "Argus (P.J.)," Butterfield has come full circle. She's not using mud and sticks anymore, having switched to bronze instead. But the three individually titled horses that compose this new piece do look as though they're made of wood. Two of them--"Lucky," a reclining horse, and "Willy," a standing horse--are made of patinated bronze that Butterfield has cast from pieces of actual driftwood. Even close up, it's hard to believe that "Lucky" and "Willy" are made of metal.

The central element in the piece is the third horse, "Argus," for which Butterfield made castings from birch sticks. Interestingly, those sticks were taken as trimmings from the same birch tree that looms over them on the DAM's sunken lawn (newly dubbed the Kemper Court).

Using horses as subjects is a risky move for contemporary artists: Many old masters used equine themes, so new efforts lead to inevitable comparisons; and many of today's worst artists pony up nothing more than sentimental kitsch. "There's always the danger the sculptures will wind up looking like those straw reindeers you see at Christmas," Butterfield says.

But the artist's modesty notwithstanding, Butterfield's "Argus (P.J.)" is a triumph. It's also the most exciting public artwork to come on line since the last time Lewis Sharp helped engineer a deal--the nearby diSuvero. Now if only we could get him out to the airport.

"Argus (P.J.)," by Deborah Butterfield, on permanent display at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-4433.

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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