Mixed Doubles

Dave Yust: Diptychs 1968-99, which closes this weekend at the Curfman Gallery on the Colorado State University campus in Fort Collins, is a stunning examination of the work of one of the state's most important contemporary artists. Yust, who teaches at CSU, organized the show himself and has zeroed in on a single current in his work: the use of the diptych form in paintings and prints. As a result, despite the fact that the exhibit includes work that spans three decades, it is not, strictly speaking, a retrospective.

The Curfman Gallery lies deep within the recesses of CSU's Lory Student Center, which creates a problem for sensitive viewers: To reach the gallery, visitors must wander through the wreck that's been made of the building's once elegant exterior. That's not a reference to the debris from last summer's flood--that's all been cleaned up--but rather to the mess left by architects charged with modernizing the center.

Until a few years ago, the Lory was part of a magnificent complex of modern buildings by Boulder architect James Hunter. The student center was completed in 1962, and across the handsome courtyard, its companion, the Morgan Library, was finished in 1964. Each building featured a rich assortment of compatible architectural details, including cast terra-cotta sunscreens, geometric ornament and dramatic structural elements. Collectively called the CSU Student Plaza, the complex was, without question, one of the finest examples of modern architecture on any college campus in Colorado.

Then tragedy struck. An oafish new entrance was added to the Lory in 1997. This addition has nothing to do with the style of the existing building, which, fortunately, is still visible in places. The clunky remodeling is a cheap and provincial version of the kind of neo-traditionalism seen in Denver's suburban-townhouse design. Credit for the vandalism to the Lory is laid at the feet of the Fort Collins architectural firm of Aller Lingle Architects.

But CSU wasn't finished with its ill-considered plans for Hunter's masterpieces. The Morgan Library suffered a ponderous and tacky expansion in 1998, jointly done by Denver's Luis O. Acosta and the Boston firm of Perry, Dean, Rogers and Partners. It was only weeks after the completion of the library's defacement that a hundred-year flood ruined the place. If CSU were looking for a sign, the flood was it: The heavens themselves wept at the desecration of the gorgeous modernist complex.

Here's some advice. As you approach the Lory, look carefully at the remains of the old building. Notice the linear mosaic walls and glance up at the impressed patterns on the auditorium with its unbelievable roof in the form of an inverted barrel-vault. Then, as you get close to the main entrance, look straight ahead and try not to examine the stupid and insensitive addition. Once inside, you'll see a large Yust painting, "Peace Paths," an acrylic on canvas from 1990. This piece is not part of the show--it's in CSU's permanent collection--but it provides an appetizer for the exhibit. Interestingly, like the Lory itself, "Peace Paths" was damaged by vandals. An unknown miscreant attempted to cut the painting, which was originally done in 1972, off its stretcher bars. Rather than restore the badly damaged original, Yust created an entirely new painting.

The Curfman is down a maze of hallways on the Lory's first floor. The gallery has been specially painted a dark, warm gray for Dave Yust, which sets off the brightly colored pieces as well as those done in black and white. It begins with a group of small study drawings done by Yust in preparation for his paintings. The study drawings reveal that Yust often rotates a composition in order to create a new one.

Down a short flight of stairs is the first of five rooms of Yust diptychs, all of which have been arranged essentially in chronological order. Opposite the steps is the first diptych that Yust ever did, the 1968 oil on canvas "Untitled Diptych." The two square canvases hang diagonally, making diamond shapes. (One is slightly larger than the other, though only by an imperceptible two inches.)

By the time Yust painted "Untitled Diptych," he had already been a CSU art professor for three years, having joined the faculty in 1965. Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1939, he came early to a life in the art world. At the age of eleven, he studied with the legendary American impressionist Birger Sandzen, who maintained a studio in nearby Lindsborg. Later Yust earned a bachelor of fine arts at the University of Kansas, where he was a classmate of another important Colorado artist, Clark Richert. Both came here in 1963.

"Untitled Diptych" anticipates a number of directions Yust would follow during the next thirty years, in particular his pairing of related but distinctly individual compositions brought together to form a diptych. Both halves of "Untitled Diptych" are dominated by central cruciforms. The cruciform in the left panel is mostly black with a smaller blue passage. It is mirrored on the right by a cruciform in blue with a little black. "This diptych foreshadows my explorations of symmetry," says Yust, who has long been interested in pictorial balance, not only in his diptychs, but in his more common single-panel pieces.

Adjacent to "Untitled Diptych" is the 1968 "Untitled" oil on canvas; again, the two panels of this diptych are of different sizes and are hung on the diagonal. On the left is a small square composition dominated by a yellowish-orange and accented with red and blue. A larger version of the same composition is on the right. "Untitled" is one of two diptychs that were meant to be triptychs. "I can't find the third part," confesses Yust.

Around the corner is "Partial Symmetry and Yin Yang," from 1969, done in acrylic on canvas. The two parts of this black-and-white diptych have been placed one above the other, and each has been hung on the diagonal. "Partial Symmetry and Yin Yang" marks the first time that Yust employed tape to mask off sections of the painting during its creation. "At first I thought that using tape was cheating. Then I realized that it's not the technical aspects that make something special, it's the concept underneath," Yust says. "If a clean edge is needed, it makes sense to use tape."

Next up is the acrylic on canvas "Circular Composition," also done in 1969 and carried out in black and white. "Circular Composition" is the other truncated triptych recast as a diptych that's included in the exhibit. In this case, the whereabouts of the third panel is known, but it's been damaged through careless handling and remains in storage in a private collection. "It's in such bad shape; it needs to be completely repainted," Yust says with a sigh of resignation. The remaining two panels have been rejoined for the first time in decades for this exhibit. Each has been isolated in a different private collection since they were sold separately immediately after being completed.

"Circular Composition" comprises a pair of tondos, so it not only sports circular compositions, but the shapes of the two canvases are also circular. It may be hard to see, but "Circular Composition" is about symmetry, according to Yust. The black forms on the white ground are similar but not identical. They are sinuous and circuitous, almost art-nouveau in spirit--or maybe even psychedelic. When "Circular Composition" was completed, the appeal of the shape became great for Yust, and he began an exploration of it that lasted for more than ten years, during which time he worked almost exclusively with the shape. It's still a main current in his work, but it's no longer the only form he uses.

The show then takes up a group of diptych prints. Beginning in 1978, Yust began to do paired lithographic monotypes pulled by Bud Shark, the master printer at the world-famous Shark Lithography in Lyons (formerly in Boulder). The idea was to print the same image using the same inks on two different colors of paper (black and white). The colors of the inks vary greatly, and the resulting paired prints look entirely different from one another. In one of the first of these diptychs, "C.C. #120, (C-Noir, C-W)," the black print is hung over the white one. The top features metallic-green copper tones, the bottom rich reds, blues and purples. "No one would believe that red turns green on a piece of black paper," Yust says. "And it's surprising, but the inks aren't really metallic. The bronzing was caused by the effect of the ink on the black paper." Unfortunately, these diptychs never caught on with collectors. "People always preferred the white print to the black one and didn't appreciate what I was trying to do," Yust says.

The paired circular prints led to a radical shift in Yust's work in 1983, when he completed the "Alpha Inclusion" diptych. In that piece, Yust glued a partial sheet of black paper to a full sheet of white. But when he printed the first page, the ink no longer turned metallic when it was applied to the black section. It turned out that the manufacturer, d'Arches of France, had changed the sizing it used on the black paper. "It's how life works: You start out to do something, and then you need to change your approach," Yust says philosophically. To correct the problem, he made some post-printing changes, including the application of colored bronze powders to re-create the metallic effect seen in the earlier prints.

The "Alpha Inclusion" prints were unusual not just because of the joined paper, but because they were also rectangular. "I had been known for circles for some time and had attained great success with them," recalls Yust, "so I didn't get a lot of support for these pieces. I chose to upset my own apple cart. A colleague said it was like having his best friend turn into a Hare Krishna." Though at the time it may have seemed that the "Alpha Inclusion" prints were really out of left field, they were actually predicted by the oldest piece in the show, the similar "Untitled Diptych." But that piece was more than twenty years old and had been long forgotten by the time "Alpha Inclusion" was unveiled.

Even closer in spirit to "Untitled Diptych" is 1985's "Nazca. Inclusion I" and its companion, "Nazca. Inclusion II," a pair of diagonally set squares in acrylic on canvas. Yust was interested in the ancient Nazca Indians of South America, who created monumental line drawings on the floor of an arid valley in Peru. "Some believe the Nazca created the line drawings as sacred pathways, and that's what I intend with the lines in the 'Nazca. Inclusions,'" he says. Yust also did "Nazca. Inclusion" prints pulled by Denver's Meg Ingraham.

The exhibit concludes with some of the artist's most recent diptychs. This group, in the form of paired monotypes printed at Open Press in Denver under the supervision of Mark Lunning, was completed in 1998 and 1999. The newest one is "M.D. Inclusion (Diptych I)," a pair of circles made of joined black and white paper covered with bold shapes in red, white, blue and black.

The assortment of diptychs in Dave Yust demonstrates the variety of approaches taken by this talented artist since the 1960s. And though over the years Yust has laid out an elaborate program to guide the creation of his meticulously done paintings, he frequently violates his own proscriptions. For example, although his compositions typically end at the edges of the canvases ("The paintings are objects, and not windows on the world," Yust says), he sees his compositions as landscapes, which would mean that they do function as windows on the world. Oh, well, art, like reality, is often filled with contradictions--like putting those ugly additions onto a once lovely campus complex.

Dave Yust: Diptychs 1968-99 at the Curfman Gallery in the Lory Student Center, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, 1-970-491-6444.

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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