Art Review

Review: Performance on Paper Dances Into the Denver Art Museum

This summer, the Denver Art Museum is presenting several exhibits devoted to dance; DAM curators are mounting shows within their specialties that somehow touch on that topic. Though it might seem like a stretch for Darrin Alfred, the curator of architecture, design and graphics, to come up with something relevant — the categories covered by his department are defined by their static quality, while dance is all about movement — he’s done just that with the clever Performance on Paper: The Posters of Phil Risbeck and John Sorbie.

Dance is just one of several areas of the performing arts featured in these works; still, there are enough dance posters here to provide a connection to the overarching theme. But this show also has an interesting connection to another topic: Western art. Alfred has mounted it in a space in the Western American art galleries on level two of the Hamilton Building; he explains that he made this call because Risbeck and Sorbie are Western artists, as they were/are based in Fort Collins. (Sorbie, who died in 1995, founded the graphic-arts department at Colorado State University in 1958; Risbeck joined the faculty in the ’60s and still teaches there.) Working separately over the decades, the two created remarkable collections of posters announcing upcoming films, plays, concerts and, of course, dance performances on the campus.

Though it’s hard to make specific stylistic observations about either designer, both use the juxtaposition of eye-catching representational imagery and blocks of text. For example, in Sorbie’s “Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre,” a large form evocative of dancers anchors the left-center, while across the top, the details of the event are briefly conveyed in just a couple of lines via minimalist typeface.

While both designers regularly used drawn images, Risbeck often employed photo-based imagery, as well, as seen in “Rosiland Newman and Dancers.” A halftone of a leaping dancer has been repeated three times in three sizes; these halftones serve as dynamic components of the composition, with each rising from left to right. Anti-intuitively, Risbeck has placed the largest of the three at the top, the second largest at the bottom, and the smallest in the middle. In this way, the three dancers are able to “frame” the text placed at the bottom left.

Posters are easy to like — catching the eye is their mandate, after all — but these are especially appealing because they were done by world-renowned Colorado artists. The show runs through January 8 at the DAM, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway; call 720-865-5000 or go to for more details. 
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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