Painting the Town Red

"It was a hell of a decision to make," says director Paul Hughes. "This is my life. The gallery is my identity." But even so, Hughes is closing Inkfish Gallery, his life for over twenty years, at the end of the month.

Back in 1975, Hughes was the regional manager for Knoll International--then, as now, one of the world's most respected makers of textiles, furniture and decorative items. But when a mid-Seventies downturn in the design business led Knoll to close its Denver office, the company gave Hughes two options: continue to run the office out of his home, or move with the company out of Denver. Instead, of course, Hughes decided to leave Knoll and open a gallery named Inkfish. "The word comes from a poem by Carl Sandburg entitled 'They All Want to Play Hamlet.' It refers to Shakespeare as the inkfish and our logo--a pen tip--carried on the theme," Hughes remembers.

Hughes was supported in his decision by several artists, who urged him to open the gallery and pledged to give him their work. The first to sign on was the late Harry Bertoia, an internationally known kinetic sculptor who'd met Hughes through Knoll (the artist designed a line of chairs for the company and also sold his sculptures through Knoll). Bertoia was soon joined by two local artists: Fort Collins-based painter David Yust and Denver painter Sandra Kaplan.

With Hughes as director and his wife, Nan, as business manager, Inkfish opened its doors in a Cheesman Park mansion but lasted there only a year. "The city bought the mansion and threw us out," Hughes says. Today that building is the Capitol Hill Community Center.

In 1976 Hughes moved the gallery to a Victorian storefront at the corner of 18th and Market streets, in the neighborhood that would later be known as LoDo. "In those days we would present ten shows a year, and the gallery became the place to be, with important shows by important artists like Chuck Parson and Robert Behrens," Hughes recalls. "Several shows were sellouts at the openings. The Michael Duffy show was amazing--he brought in 35 paintings and we wound up selling 40. In the case of the Lee Simpson show, we were forced to turn away an important corporate client--Petro-Lewis--because the show sold out. They were angry with us for years, really angry."

Ten years later, when the building that housed the gallery was slated for demolition, Inkfish moved again. For several months at the end of 1987 through the beginning of 1988, Hughes presented exhibits in a lobby-front shop in the just-finished 1999 Broadway building. But this glass, steel and marble skyscraper was only a temporary location while Hughes awaited the completion of the marvelous soaring space at 949 Broadway, where the gallery moved in 1988.

As the focal point of a glittering new gallery row, Inkfish was again the place to be. And its exhibits were must-sees that featured the work of international artists like George Rickey, Red Grooms and the late Herbert Bayer, as well as an eclectic assortment of local luminaries that included Mark Lunning, Joe Snyder and Amy Metier. "The internationals paid for the locals," Hughes says, "because the famous artists brought notoriety to the gallery and because their work sold readily. George Rickey is the most responsible for keeping us going--we've shown him for nineteen years, and he's the best seller we've ever had."

While on Broadway's gallery row, Inkfish began to expand its market by selling more than strictly contemporary art, supplementing the latest thing with the older work of modern artists. Hughes became a local pioneer in this rediscovery of old modern art, part of an international trend in the gallery business of the 1980s. And he struck gold with the likes of nonagenarian Roland Detre and the late Vance Kirkland, both modernist painters who had been key figures in the development of modern art in Denver since the 1940s.

But although Inkfish enjoyed the occasional artistic feast, the famines were more common. By the summer of 1996, Inkfish was the sole survivor in its Broadway block, and an impending rent increase forced Hughes to seek out a fifth and final location for his gallery. The current space, farther down Broadway at Bayaud, is hosting one last show. When that comes down, Inkfish will close permanently.

For the grand finale, Hughes has chosen to go out in a blaze of glory--or is that Marecak red?--with the stunningly beautiful and historically important Edward Marecak exhibit.

Edward Marecak was born on a farm near Cleveland in 1919; his parents, Michael and Matilda, were recent arrivals from Slovakia. They inspired their child with the traditions of their Old World homeland, images of which the younger Marecak used artistically for the rest of his life. And Marecak showed his talent early on when, while still a high-school student, he won a National Youth Administration competition with watercolors of Ohio barns.

As a result of his prodigious talent, Marecak was offered a full scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of Art, at the time one of the nation's most prestigious art schools. He attended the school from 1938 to 1942, when he joined the Army. After the war Marecak studied at Michigan's legendary Cranbrook Academy, then off and on at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center School through 1950.

In the late Forties, the Colorado Springs school was a significant national force. Marecak studied mural painting with Jean Charlot and lithography with Lawrence Barrett. Though he soon abandoned the mural form, Marecak went on to produce more than a hundred lithographs in 1948 and 1949.

Some of these prints are on display at Inkfish, where they demonstrate Marecak's great skill in rendering and his brilliant and intuitive sense for composition. Although several appear to have been pulled by Barrett, others are seemingly the work of Marecak alone. In 1948-49's "Three Kings" (surely pulled by Barrett), Marecak has horizontally lined up the crown-wearing kings' faces, separating the trio with a pair of shields; the subjects are outlined with heavy black marks against a dense, smudgy gray ground. But in a piece like "Three Kings" or, even more so, in a lithograph like "The Thief" (also dating from 1948-49 and also likely the work of Barrett), the School of Paris modernism is far more prominent than is the Colorado Springs influence. And the modernist movement is even stronger in a large body of knock-out block prints that Marecak produced at the same time, several of which are included in this show. In particular, "A Ship" provides an early example of Marecak's use of the grid as a decorative motif.

At the same time Marecak was in a frenzy of printmaking, he was also pushing his painting further toward abstraction, developing his idiosyncratic signature style--figures carved up with lines and then fleshed out with dense patterns of bright colors. The Inkfish show offers several early examples, including the stunning 1948 oil on board "Untitled (#28)," a flattened portrait of a three-eyed woman drawn with black lines against patterns of broken color smeared onto and even into the board.

This turn to European-style modernism was only one of several dramatic changes for Marecak during his years in Colorado Springs. It was also there that he met his wife, Donna, one of the region's greatest potters, who was a student of Edgar Britton's at the school. Soon after, in Boulder, Marecak discovered his love of teaching. In 1957 he embarked on a 25-year stint as an art instructor with the Denver Public Schools.

The 1950s and '60s also marked the height of Marecak's artistic career. Inkfish displays many pieces from this period, including 1957's oil on board "Samurai." The warrior of the title has been thoroughly abstracted, his figure formed with hard-edged shapes in white, gray and yellow, his face and shield outlined in red. Locally, pieces such as "Samurai" were displayed at the Fox Street Gallery and the Denver Art Museum, but they also gained Marecak national prominence--especially on the West Coast, where his work was avidly collected. Marecak's fame peaked in 1966, when his paintings were included in New York City's Art of Living exhibit and fashion designer Adele Simpson coined the term "Marecak red" to refer to the artist's liberal use of that particular shade. At Inkfish, that red shade streaks through the magnificent "The Argument," an uncharacteristically dark and moody oil on canvas from that same year.

Although Marecak essentially withdrew from exhibiting in the 1970s and 1980s, those decades were a fertile period for his painting. And his creative powers remained strong until just a few years before he died, in 1993, as shown by several paintings at Inkfish. In the 1987 oil on canvas "Winter Witch Resurrected by Spring," the witch of the title lies underground, giving birth to a flowering tree. Here Marecak contrasts tightly painted grids in the foreground with large expressionist passages, which are loosely organized to form the background.

One of the most powerful pieces on display is "Medea," an oil on canvas done in 1990 (the year he stopped painting) that provides a breathtaking display of Marecak's astounding control of pigment and brush. The painting is made up of hundreds of exquisitely small diamonds and squares, with the woman of the title seated at a table set with plates of fish. Although the tabletop in the foreground gleams with "Marecak red," most of the picture is dark; the background is almost entirely black, brown and gray.

Since his death, Marecak has again become a familiar fixture on the Denver art scene. Beginning with a memorial exhibit at the Emmanuel Gallery, he's been the subject of several posthumous tributes. The current show is the second time that Inkfish has presented Marecak in a solo show.

Edward Marecak is the sort of extraordinary, museum-quality show that was ordinary fare at Inkfish for over twenty years. Now the gallery itself is in its final days; when it closes, Denver will lose an irreplaceable cultural asset. Sadly, a gallery's work--unlike a painter's--does not live on outside the memory.

Edward Marecak, through September 26 at the Inkfish Gallery, 116 South Broadway, 715-9528.

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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