Patterns That Connect

Anyone even remotely interested in tracing the course of contemporary art in Colorado over the past few decades will want to take in a pair of marvelous shows that focus on major, established local artists. But move fast--they're closing soon. The Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art is feting venerable painter and photographer George Woodman with Sensuality in a World of Reason, a retrospective of the last thirty years of his work. At LoDo's Robischon Gallery, Stan Meyer, New Work brings together some of the latest creations by this renowned Denver artist.

The Woodman show occupies the entire first floor of the BMoCA, but it represents only an abbreviated survey of Woodman's work. Woodman is among the most influential contemporary artists in Colorado and has produced a remarkable variety of work. In addition to the well-known pattern paintings he became famous for in the 1960s and '70s, he's done abstracted landscapes, geometric abstractions, figure-shaped canvases, still-life paintings of flowers, and his most recent passion, vaguely erotic black-and-white photographs of sculpture and architecture. This wild assortment of styles didn't necessarily follow any logical progression, however, and as a result, it can be difficult to understand how Woodman made the artistic leaps that he did.

Sadly, the Boulder display doesn't help much on that score. The incredible diversity of material clearly presented exhibit organizer Cydney Payton, BMoCA's innovative director, with a formidable challenge. But instead of picking the obvious chronological course--in which these changes of style could at least have been plainly documented--Payton unfortunately followed the current trend of mixing things up. Her intention was to underscore the basic connections between the different periods of Woodman's accomplishments--for instance, how the same simple shapes have occupied Woodman regardless of the style or medium in which he was working. Payton's point is well taken, but some of the links between Woodman's different phases are so thin that her subtle observations are hard to pick up on. The unfortunate result is that this retrospective devoted to a single artist at times winds up reading like a group show.

Sensuality in a World of Reason is part of a BMoCA series devoted to under-recognized local artists. Though Woodman has now retired to New York, his more than forty years in Boulder amply qualify him for "local artist" status. And since his work is rarely exhibited, he also seems to fit the "under-recognized" category, though in this regard it might be useful to note that Woodman has attained a certain level of recognition, his work having been included in several important collections, including those of the Denver Art Museum, New York's Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim Museum.

Woodman was born in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1932 and began painting as a child. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he studied painting with Glen Krause, he entered Harvard in 1950, graduating in 1954 with a degree in philosophy. Woodman took art classes in college, and in one freshman course met his future wife, Elizabeth Abrahams, now better known as Betty Woodman, one of the world's great contemporary ceramic artists. In 1956, after receiving a master's degree from the University of New Mexico, Woodman joined the faculty of the University of Colorado in Boulder. He taught painting and art criticism at CU for the next forty years until his retirement from teaching in 1996.

Sensuality picks up Woodman's story with a painting from 1959-1960 that the artist believes was pivotal to his development as a mature painter. This brushy, expressionist oil on canvas, inspired by a year Woodman spent painting in Italy, is titled, appropriately enough, "Italian Landscape." Woodman went on to paint several landscapes of this type, but "Italian Landscape" is the only example included in the BMoCA exhibit. Though the painting features creamy lyrical smears of ocher, yellow, light blue and green in the foreground, its overall composition is geometric, with the plowed fields forming the predominant horizontal and the cypress trees the vertical.

The next phase of Woodman's work is represented by four magnificent abstracts. In these paintings, Woodman reworks his geometric approach, taking the horizontal and the vertical elements of the landscape, stripping them of their meanings, and then freely rearranging them. This is seen clearly in "Love Nest at Lake Lemon," an oil on canvas from 1962. Using blue for the lake and green for the woods, Woodman lays across the composition's surface thick lines and painted squares that seem to deny the meaning implied by the colors. In a related but untitled oil on canvas from 1963, even the meaning of the colors has been eliminated as a component, and the painting is essentially abstract-expressionist, with no references except to the paint itself. Divided into three roughly horizontal areas, the painting features metallic gold set against large areas of black and white, a color combination that is breathtaking.

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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