Mind and Body

Edgar Britton was Colorado's most significant and successful sculptor of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. He was to modernist sculpture what the late Vance Kirkland was to modernist painting. But unlike Kirkland, whose fame has grown since his death, Britton, who died in 1982, is known only to a smallish group of local art history enthusiasts, as well as art world old-timers.

That may be changing, though, as Britton's work is being re-explored in a new book, in two excellent shows in Colorado Springs and, as always, here in Denver, where his public sculptures have been on permanent display for years.

Britton was born in Nebraska in 1901 and enrolled in dental school in Iowa in the 1920s before dropping out to become an assistant to regionalist master painter Grant Wood, who lived in Des Moines. In 1925, Britton moved to Chicago and fell in with a group of artists who were well-known at the time, most notably Edgar Miller. In the early '30s, he got involved with the Work Projects Administration in Chicago, completing commissions and serving as an administrator of the public-art program. In 1941, still working for the WPA, Britton was diagnosed with tuberculosis and advised to move to a drier climate. He and his wife, Margaret, relocated to Santa Fe; shortly thereafter, he was offered a job at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center by the art school's renowned director, Boardman Robinson. Britton taught there until 1950.

While he was at the school, Britton, who had heretofore been a consummate representational painter in the tradition of Wood and Miller, began to experiment with abstraction and with different mediums. In the mid-'40s, under the influence of Lawrence Barrett, printmaster at the Fine Arts Center, Britton began to make monotypes (that's right, the medium wasn't invented in the 1990s), and by the late 1940s, he was scultping conventionalized and simplified figures. Stylistically, his work of this time can be closely compared to the sculptures by Denver artist Gladys Caldwell Fisher, who was a few years younger than Britton and died in 1952.

In 1950, Britton left teaching and declared himself a sculptor. Stories have it that he decided to take advantage of the dearth of Colorado sculptors. At about the same time, he and Margaret divorced. With no wife or job to hold him, Britton moved to Denver in the early 1950s, just in time for the post-war building boom. The activity here allowed his career to flourish and provided him with commissions for public sculptures.

The physical evidence of Britton's career isn't hard to find, at least outdoors. There are several Brittons in downtown Denver, including "Map," from 1955, at the corner of 18th Avenue and Grant Street. This piece, whose stepped sides are ornamented with abstract and evocative symbols emblematic of the country, is in the form of the map of the continental United States. Nearby, at 17th Avenue and Grant Street, is 1965's "Tower of Prometheus," an organic spire that culminates in the image of a flame. Both of these pieces were originally sited a few blocks away, in I.M. Pei's 1950s Mile High Center at 17th Avenue and Broadway. Mile High Center, a masterpiece of architecture and planning, was partially lost, however, when an atrium designed by Philip Johnson replaced the open plaza in the 1980s.

Britton had an inside track on both commissions since his pal, prominent Denver architect James Sudler, designed the United States Bank (now Wells Fargo), where "Map" was originally on the wall, and worked on the Pei design team for Mile High Center next door. And Britton got a number of other commissions through Sudler as well, including the bronze sun-breaker screen and several other pieces at the 1960s Rodgers Federal Building at 19th and Stout streets. Sudler was the principal designer for the federal building and the adjacent courthouse.

There's also a nice Britton in Cherry Creek North, a fountain called "Yin and Yang," at First Avenue and St. Paul Street in front of the nondescript 1st Bank. The fountain is made up of a square pool with a pair of figured organic abstract elements that formally interact with one another. Quite a few other Brittons have been placed in and around the city's public and private buildings all over town.

Denver's streets may be lined with Brittons, but don't expect to see his accomplishments shown off at the Denver Art Museum. His work hasn't been exhibited there for many years, which is partly why he is so little known. Some may assume this has to do with the DAM's longstanding practice of ignoring local art, but it's even worse than that.

The DAM actually had a tidy collection of Brittons at one time, comprising a half-dozen or so of the artist's major pieces. The collection had been put together by Kirkland, who, in addition to being a painter, a University of Denver art professor and one of Britton's longtime friends, was the curator of contemporary art at the DAM in the 1960s and early '70s. This was an informal, volunteer position for Kirkland; Dianne Vanderlip, hired by the DAM in 1978, was the first paid curator of contemporary art in the museum's history.

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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