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.

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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