Quarter-Century Recap

For the art scene in Colorado, the Denver Art Museum is the only big-league game around. It's something akin to the Broncos, Rockies and Nuggets all rolled into one.

When I first heard about the recently unveiled Retrospectacle, a salute to modern and contemporary art, I got a little nervous. I was afraid that the DAM would fold in the crunch -- you know, like the Broncos, the Rockies and the Nuggets.

But as soon as I saw the opening shot of the show, just inside the Stanton galleries, I immediately calmed down. Robert Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic #172 (with Blood)," an acrylic on canvas from 1989-90, has been hung on a blood-red wall facing the elevator lobby. Part of a Motherwell focus at the DAM, it is readily recognizable as being the last of his hundreds of "Elegy" paintings.

It would be a considerable understatement to describe the sight of this iconic modern painting hanging on a toned-up wall as an eye-catching experience. The moment I saw it, I thought to myself, "Even if the rest of the show falls flat, this initial moment is so good, I'm already happy that I came." And by the way, the show doesn't fall flat -- not at all.

Vanderlip has pulled together a blockbuster based on her acquisitions since 1978, when the DAM hired her to establish a contemporary department. However, from the start, the museum had been collecting and exhibiting contemporary art. After all, the very first show, presented in 1893, was devoted to works by members of the Denver Artists' Club, who at the time were Denver's contemporary artists.

As early as the 1930s, the DAM was receiving important gifts, including the works of the modern masters. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, artist and art professor Vance Kirkland served as a volunteer contemporary curator at the DAM. Using his own resources, Kirkland purchased works and donated them to the museum, a good example being 1965's "Phantom Tattoo," an acrylic on canvas by Gene Davis that hangs in Schlessman Hall yet is not part of the show.

The Davis exclusion illustrates the only hard-and-fast rule of Retrospectacle: Every piece had to be acquired during Vanderlip's tenure. "I thought about putting in the modern masters hanging on the sixth floor -- and they might have made the show a stronger one -- but I wanted to showcase what I had done," Vanderlip says, adding, "I can't believe what I've had to leave out."

The problem was space, and it's too bad that Retrospectacle wasn't allowed to stretch out into the adjacent Hamilton galleries -- especially since there will be no central gallery devoted to modern and contemporary art once the show closes in August 2003. Until the DAM's new wing is finished in 2005, fans of the department will have to be satisfied with a smattering of works on the sixth and seventh floors and in the nooks and crannies of the main floor.

This is unfortunate, because Vanderlip has made the department one of the most important -- if not the most important -- at the institution. The 5,000-piece collection, filled with major works by big-name artists, is worth "tens and tens and tens of millions of dollars," she says. Yet she spent very little by comparison -- more like tens of millions -- and raised all of the money herself. "Not one piece was paid for with public money or even museum money. We have no endowment; everything has been paid for by private donors."

Ted and Joyce Strauss, Mark and Polly Addison, Jan and Fred Mayer, Nancy Tieken, Hugh Grant and Ginny Williams are among the civic-minded types who have contributed. Plus, Vanderlip says, "there is an anonymous donor that no one will ever know, who has perhaps given, along with Nancy, the most support for the department in its history."

The Motherwell is the perfect starting point for an exhibition that displays the largesse of these and other donors. Despite being organized into stylistic, rather than chronological, categories, the older pieces in Retrospectacle tend to be in the very strong first half of the show, while the newer ones are presented in the less impressive second half.

The first gallery lives up to the "Elegy" promise and also includes Motherwell's monumental "Open No. 13 (in Washed Ochre)," from 1969-70. "This is my favorite Motherwell in our collection," Vanderlip says. The painting represents a bridge between the two poles of formalism. It's clearly abstract-expressionist, but it also relates well to minimalism, as does Motherwell's "Doorway With Figure," from 1951.

There are more abstract-expressionist paintings in this section, most notably Joan Mitchell's 1970 "Dune," which is a masterpiece. The oil-on-canvas painting is a recent gift from collectors Charles and Linda Hamlin. "I'm always looking for a lot of different kinds of art," Vanderlip says. "The work of the masters and the work of young kids."

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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