Painting the Town Red

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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.

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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