1959. Dean Sobel, director of the Clyfford Still Museum, is the host curator for Modern Masters at the Denver Art Museum, and he's done a companion exhibit at his own stamping grounds called 1959: The Albright-Knox Art Gallery Exhibition Recreated. (Special tickets allow visitors to see both.) The backstory for the CSM exhibit is that the Still show at the Albright-Knox in 1959 marked the first exhibit of the artist's work after he famously withdrew from the art world in 1951. Sobel is relentlessly trying to keep things interesting at the CSM, and this show definitely does that. Still had nothing but contempt for most museums, but he had a soft spot for the Albright-Knox. Still curated that show himself, and it's interesting to note that he included not only his then-recent work but also pieces that were twenty years old at the time, thus providing viewers with the chance to understand how he viewed his own trajectory from abstract surrealism to abstract expressionism. The show also has lots of documentary material, including photos of the original show and a recording of Still reading the catalogue essay he wrote. Through June 15 at the Clyfford Still Museum, 1250 Bannock Street, 720-354-4880, clyffordstillmuseum.org. Reviewed May 8..
Chuck Forsman. The Denver Art Museum's curator of photography and media arts, Eric Paddock, has a special interest in photos of the American West. For Seen in Passing: Photographs by Chuck Forsman, Paddock chose works from two series by Forsman: "Western Rider" and "Walking Magpie." Beginning in the 1970s, Forsman became known nationally for his paintings, which deconstructed the landscape ideal of the great Romantic painters of the nineteenth century, such as Bierstadt. In these works, Forsman pointedly included incursions by humanity in otherwise pristine views; elements like quarries and road cuts are used to violate the natural beauty that surrounds them. Twenty years later, in the 1990s, Forsman realized that in the process of carrying on his career as a painter, he had also become an accomplished photographer, and he began to exhibit his photos. This is where the show at the DAM picks up the story. The photos, like Forsman's paintings, feature views with often disturbing juxtapositions of ugliness and beauty. Through May 25 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, denverartmuseum.org. Reviewed April 24.
Frank Sampson. Throughout his long career, Frank Sampson — who moved to Boulder in 1960 to teach painting at the University of Colorado — has always swum upstream, stylistically speaking. Though the local contemporary scene, like that of the art world in general, was embracing abstraction and conceptual art during those years, Sampson tenaciously held on to to his idiosyncratic approach to figural compositions. His style is informed by a storybook or magic-realist sensibility. Now in his '80s, Sampson is still at work in his studio, as he proves in Frank Sampson: New Paintings, now at Sandra Phillips Gallery. The signature pieces here start with the muddy ochre-toned, old-master-ish environments that he likes to conjure up; he then inserts oddball elements like anthropomorphized animals, jesters or other unexpected characters, another of his favorite pursuits. These details may be read as either whimsical or ominous, depending on the overall character of the particular painting in which they appear. Through June 7 at Sandra Phillips Gallery, 420 West 12th Avenue, 303-573-5969, thesandraphillipsgallery.
Matt O'Neill. Denver artist Matt O'Neill is the subject of the most significant exhibit of his career, Matt O'Neill: Thrift Store Sublime, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. As the title suggests, O'Neill likes to reconcile lowbrow aesthetics with highbrow ideas. Over the years, he has embraced a number of styles, and this show features several stylistic phases arranged in a loose sequence. The artist's best-known series is made up of takes on old yearbook photos that have been pushed through a surrealist sieve. In these paintings, the sitters have had their facial features moved around à la Picasso. Next are representational paintings, which reveal that the artist is tremendously adept at traditional picture-making — even if he does have his tongue in his cheek, as in the giant portrait of a tiny Chihuahua. The most recent paintings are pure abstractions — some of which riff on geometric abstraction, others on abstract expressionism. Finally, there's a wall covered with O'Neill's faux wood-shop doodles done in inks that ape the look of ballpoint drawings. Through July 13 at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 West Dale Street, Colorado Springs, 719-634-5583, csfineartscenter.org.
Modern Masters. The blockbuster formula continues to work at the Denver Art Museum — as is evident in the out-of-this-world Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons From the Albright-Knox Gallery. A traveling show, the Denver version was curated by Dean Sobel, director of the Clyfford Still Museum. (Sobel also did a companion exhibit there that can be seen with the same admission ticket.) The selections begin with the giants of post-impressionism — there's a Gauguin that will stop you in your tracks — and run up to the masters of minimalism and pop art. Truly, the strength of the collection is in abstract expressionism, with some of the greatest masterpieces of that movement on view, including major signature examples by the likes of Gorky, Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko and Still, among others. Visionary collectors and curators at the Albright-Knox were able to assemble such a trove of riches by often buying the pieces when they were still new and thus still affordable. These are some of the most important works of art to have ever been shown in Colorado. Do not miss this show. Through June 8 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, denverartmuseum.org. Reviewed April 10.