Miller Time

Putting together a credible exhibit takes three things: space, money and an organizing concept. But in the art world, it's often those curators or gallery directors with the least space at their disposal--and even less money--who come through with the biggest ideas and the best shows. The latest case in point: Craig Miller, curator of the Denver Art Museum's Architecture, Design and Graphics department.

Compared to DAM's Modern and Contemporary department, the permanent galleries entrusted to Miller are tiny, even cramped. Architecture, Design and Graphics shares the old mezzanine--now called the second floor--with the Northwest Coast Indian totem poles. Since the mezzanine is half the size of most of the museum's other floors, Miller has been left with only two real gallery spaces to work with. This is hardly enough room, of course, so with the help of longtime DAM exhibition designer Leland Murray, Miller has carved out two additional spaces. One is in the freight-elevator lobby and the other is on the balcony.

It's not just Miller's clever invention of ad hoc galleries that sets his work above the crowd. It's also the way he makes sense of the shows he organizes. Miller, for instance, understands the simple elegance of arranging things chronologically. It's a virtually effortless way to add the sweep of history and the course of stylistic development to nearly any show--even one in which only a short passage of time is surveyed. Think how much better those changing (and interchangeable) exhibits featuring selections from the DAM's permanent collection would be if Modern and Contemporary curator Dianne Vanderlip took this approach instead of the instinctual one she prefers. After all, what kind of art-history lesson does a viewer get when exhibits are arranged according to which pieces look good together, or because their colors complement one another?

The three shows Miller unveiled last month well illustrate his strengths. In the freight-elevator lobby, there's June Morris Schwarcz: The Art and Craft of Enamelled Metal; in the back gallery, it's Borek Sipek: Auratic Architecture and Design; and on the balcony and in the front gallery is New Concepts: The Industrial Revolution, 1776-1996.

Schwarcz, a Sausalito-based crafts artist, was officially declared "a living treasure of California" back in 1985. But she was born and raised in Denver, where she launched her art career. In fact, Miller says it was in adult art-education classes held in the early 1950s at the DAM that Schwarcz first learned from Terry Touff to work with enamel on copper. Schwarcz was a quick study, and within a few years she was producing museum pieces such as the 1957 "Leaf Platter," an etched and enameled copper tray featuring the basse taille technique. "Leaf Platter," a gift to the museum from Touff and her husband, David, is the only one of the show's fifteen pieces that is in the DAM's permanent collection; the others have been lent by Schwarcz herself or by a handful of private collectors.

"Leaf Platter" is a shallow, pointed ovoid that is covered with dense geometric decorations. A beautiful piece, it demonstrates Schwarcz's proficiency in the traditional techniques of the enamel medium. But within a decade after making it, Schwarcz broke with convention entirely and began producing the kind of work that would make her, according to Miller, "one of the leading metalsmiths of her generation." In the 1969 piece "Bowl," made of copper foil with an electroplated design, Schwarcz courts disaster for an enamel artist by working in ways that seem to defy the nature of the medium. Since the enamels themselves are in a powdered form before they are kiln-fired, most of this kind of work is flat, or nearly so. But with "Bowl," Schwarcz has chosen a complicated and expressionist three-dimensional form and has then encouraged her enamels to drip and run. The resulting piece looks as much like a work of ceramics or art glass as it does an enamel.

The iconoclastic approach indicated by "Bowl" came to define Schwarcz's endeavors in the medium. "Harlequin Piece" (1995), a crumpled foil vessel that has been electroplated, is a technical triumph that cuts against the conventional grain. As the triangular surface planes intersect, the colors change along the margins, leading to the harlequin effect of the title.

Schwarcz is a modernist whose work is part and parcel of the abstract expressionist movement, and that can create a conundrum for viewers. In the decorative arts, modernism is often seen as being the same thing as functionalism. But isn't functional art-metal an oxymoron? And therefore, isn't Schwarcz's work actually postmodern?

Well, maybe--and then again, maybe not. But in the case of Czech-born, Amsterdam-based furniture and decorative-art designer Borek Sipek, it's no close call. Miller says Sipek's great gift is his ability to merge the non-functional with the functional--which is, of course, a veritable definition of postmodernism. The curator adds that although postmodernism seems to have run its course in this country, where a revitalized modernism has displaced it in design and architecture, it's still vital in Europe.

Sipek is well-known in Europe, where his work is displayed in major museums and galleries. The Denver exhibit, however, marks the first museum show of his work in this country. More than sixty articles have been selected by Miller, including art glass, metalwork, ceramics, furniture, architecture (in the form of models) and graphics.

Though a number of one-of-a-kind articles from Sipek's studio have been included, most of the items here are of the mass-produced variety. But don't be misled: Despite the modernist notion that industrial production makes things cheap and readily available, the Sipek work on display for the most part was put together by high-end factories like Italy's Driade or France's Sevres. So although many of the inclusions in the DAM show are available for purchase here in Colorado, you won't find them at Kmart; look instead to the toniest shops of Cherry Creek or Aspen. Told you Sipek's a postmodernist.

Many of Sipek's designs seem to defy classification, but there are some patterns that connect his work. He makes overt references to the proto-modern designs produced in his Czech homeland during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And he refers to the human figure not just ergonomically, as do the modernists, but symbolically: Many of his designs look as though they're wearing clothing. Both of these features are easy to see in a seminal work like the "Albertine" porcelain dinner service manufactured since 1988 by Driade. The bowls, for example, have rims decorated with tiny flowers and dots that recall traditional Czech ceramics--until we notice that the rims themselves undulate and are decorated to look like a lace petticoat. In the small cabaret table "Satomi San," made by Neotu in 1984, the classical form has been tweaked. Above the curving feet made of chrome, the table's legs seem to be wearing bell-bottom trousers.

The perfect antidote to all this frivolity is the last of the three DAM shows, the historical survey of industrial design. Even more than the Schwarcz and Sipek solo shows, New Concepts ably demonstrates how Miller is able to make the most from the least. The show is divided into two main parts: a series of vitrines that hold small objects (including ceramic dinnerware created by industrial design legend Russel Wright) and a row of furniture.

The furniture portion is made up of ten pieces that fast-forward the viewer through the last two centuries, helping to illustrate how industrial production helped determine how or why things got designed the way they did. The first piece is an eighteenth-century Windsor chair whose design was clearly orchestrated by the use of lathe-turned elements. All of the furniture is wonderful, but the newly acquired World War I-era Gustav Stickley fall-front desk with inlaid designs by Harvey Ellis is unforgettable. And I can't stand not owning that 1950s bleached teak-and-white-marble credenza by Florence Knoll.

These three compelling shows establish Miller as one of the region's most savvy curators. Other curators, especially those at the Colorado History Museum who have had considerable trouble lately putting together coherent shows on topics related to material culture, could stand to take a page or two from Miller's book. Like him, they should choose high-quality inclusions and arrange them in such a way as to teach us something about history. Then we'll never again have to endure an abomination like the CHM's (sadly) still-open Shake, Rattle and Roll.

June Morris Schwarcz: The Art and Craft of Enamelled Metal; Borek Sipek: Auratic Architecture and Design; and New Concepts: The Industrial Revolution, 1776-1996, through June 1997 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