Once Upon a Time

The paintings and sculptures in the current show at Denver's Artyard Gallery were completed in the last five years, but they still provide a look back at the city's nascent contemporary-art scene of the 1960s. Reunion joins Robert Mangold, a household name and old-guard wizard of local contemporary sculpture, with two longtime friends who both left Denver years ago: Wilbert Verhelst and Roger Kotoske.

The art world in 1960s Denver was a tiny one indeed, and any activity that was going on was mostly happening at either the Denver Art Museum or the University of Denver. In the first half of the twentieth century, at a time when Denver could claim little more than a skeletal art scene, Colorado Springs was jumping as the unrivaled art center of the state--comparable nationally at the time to Santa Fe or Taos in New Mexico. (This point is now being driven home by three exhibits in the Springs that focus on the work of 1930s regionalist master Boardman Robinson and his circle.) But by the mid-1950s, the ball somehow was dropped, and the artistic hegemony of the Springs waned, despite the continuing efforts of a generation of committed modernists, some of whom are still working there.

That left the door open for Denver, long the biggest city and greatest economic powerhouse in the state, to become Colorado's art capital--as it still is today. Denver began to rival Colorado Springs in the 1960s and by the 1970s had fully eclipsed it. And Mangold, Verhelst and Kotoske were key players in the cultural shift to the north.

Fresh from his studies at Indiana University, where he worked with and was influenced by renowned kinetic sculptor George Rickey, Mangold came to Denver in 1960 to teach sculpture and design at DU. Kotoske was a colleague of Mangold's at DU, and Kotoske's friend Verhelst worked downtown as a staff member at the Denver Art Museum.

An easy friendship developed among the three like-minded artists, all of whom were interested in discussing over "a bottle or two of wine" the theoretical underpinnings of what Mangold still calls "avant-garde" sculpture. These confabs continued even after Verhelst left to teach at Southern Methodist University in 1965 and Kotoske took a job at the University of Illinois in 1968.

The summer before he left, Kotoske, along with Verhelst, who was then back in town on a visit, linked up with artist and DU art professor Beverly Rosen and her husband, art patron Bernard Rosen, to organize the Denver Sculpture Symposium, an event that heralded a new era of public art for Denver. The symposium consisted of a temporary display of radical minimalist plywood sculptures in the weed-strewn triangular lot created by the crossing of Alameda Avenue, Leetsdale Drive and Colorado Boulevard.

Originally, nine brightly painted plywood sculptures enlivened the intersection. However, weather and inadequate maintenance have taken their toll on the sculptures, which were meant to stand only for that first summer. Following the removal late last year of Dean Fleming's "Magic Cube," only four sculptures survive, including those by Kotoske and Verhelst, in what now is called Burns Park. Mangold also had a sculpture in the park, but the city removed it in the 1970s, after Mangold angrily demanded that Denver maintain it.

Because it marks the last time Mangold, Kotoske and Verhelst worked together in town, Burns Park serves as something of a context for the Artyard exhibit. Reunion was organized by Artyard director Peggy Mangold, who says she conceived of the show three or four years ago after watching her husband, Kotoske and Verhelst engage in a marathon evening of art talk during a visit to Denver by the other two artists. She says that's when she knew it was time to take a new look at the three artists whose work was presented nearly thirty years ago in Burns Park.

Reunion, though, is not so much a single, comparative show as it is three solo presentations displayed separately in the large indoor and outdoor facilities at Artyard. Kotoske's tiny acrylic-on-paper paintings are handsomely displayed in the small formal gallery indoors. In a part of the main outdoor space are Verhelst's wood, concrete and rusting steel-and-iron sculptures. Off the main yard are a group of Mangold's recent "PTTSAAES" series in stainless steel, aluminum and brass.

Kotoske spent most of his career as a sculptor, but he was also interested in painting. In recent years he has turned exclusively to the two-dimensional medium, and in the Artyard show he is represented by more than thirty minimalist acrylic paintings on paper. Those works come from either the "Stargazer Series" or the newer and simpler "Vector Series," whose paintings have only a single diagonal line.

The oldest of Kotoske's pieces date from 1991; the newest were completed earlier this year. All of the paintings, whether from the "Stargazer Series" or from the "Vector Series," follow a consistent pattern. Kotoske first creates an overall geometric linear design, often in blue. Next he fills in the spaces created by the lines with gestural color fields, which are linked to one another through the use of the same shades. In this way, Kotoske creates graceful and subtle transitions between the shapes while creating a lively collision of the geometric forms.

The Kotoske paintings are modest in their ambitions--in fact, their small size and the use of paper in lieu of canvas or board make them little more than studies for paintings. But brought together, their sum is much greater than their parts; these simple works reveal an appealing clarity and intelligence.

Verhelst's sculptures are as dense with imagery and visual elements as Kotoske's paintings are bereft of them. Though he had a minimalist period, as demonstrated at Burns Park, Verhelst was never really a proponent of that movement. And, as his sculptures in Reunion prove, he's by now forgotten everything he might have learned about simplicity. Verhelst's pieces here are crowded with a wide range of materials and images--modeled concrete, rusting steel, weathered wood, graffito decorations in the concrete. The one link these recent pieces have to the work Verhelst produced when he lived here is his continuing interest in vertical forms that recall gothic spires. This is even the case in the floorbound mixed-media sculpture "A Half Circle Begins on the Horizon," which has the distinction of being the only piece here that's wider than it is high.

The last of the three artists in Reunion, local master Mangold, is represented by a group of sculptures from his latest series, the "PTTSAAES." These pieces--shiny tubular zigzags that premiered last year at Mangold's solo show at the Loveland Museum--are good enough to carry the entire show. And that's pretty much what they do. The sculptures are seen by Mangold as a way to record the movement of a "particle traveling through space at an erratic speed" (hence the alphabet-soup abbreviation of the series title).

In "PTTSAAES #9," a sculpture made of welded polished brass tubes that have been lacquered, a soaring, roughly triangular form rises to a height of more than seven feet before falling into a tangle of lines along the ground. But if many of the "PTTSAAES" pieces rise like spikes, others are more clearly horizontal. "PTTSAAES #16," which is made of polished aluminum, seems to float above the ground, an effect created by two roughly horizontal diagonals and a separate element placed on the ground below and in front of them.

In the end, this exhibit was perhaps a better idea than it is a show. My advice is to follow up a visit to Artyard with a trip to Burns Park. That's the best way to understand the artistic union that ultimately led to this Reunion.

Speaking of Burns Park, another sculptor whose work survives there is New York artist Tony Magar. Alone among the Denver Sculpture Symposium artists, Magar got a couple of local commissions from private collectors as a result of his participation in the endeavor. In those cases, he got to construct his work in the more costly but more permanent medium of painted steel. One of those two pieces subsequently was donated to the city. It was removed more than a decade ago from a front lawn on Birch Street in the Hilltop neighborhood and placed in the grass-covered median on University Boulevard between First and Second Avenues.

What brings the Magar piece to mind is the fact that it was inappropriately repainted a few months ago. The sculpture, little more than a simple bar that has been bent into a curve, was first painted a bright red and a shiny black. In the 1980s Mangold was hired to repaint it, and he faithfully re-created Magar's original colors. Then, a few years ago, the sculpture was repainted by the city, and a mistake was made. The red and black of Mangold's second coat had faded to a magenta and gray, and the city unknowingly copied these incorrect shades. It was an honest mistake and one that's easy to understand--which is more than can be said about the new color scheme of pale lilac and dark brown.

The Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film has just established a fund and is formulating a plan to repair and maintain the city's large public-art collection. There are more desperate needs in Denver, and many artworks are in a much more dilapidated state. But one of the first things the city should do is to spend the insignificant amount of money it would take to make this Magar right.

Reunion, through October at the Artyard Gallery, 1251 South Pearl Street, 777-3219.

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