Over the summer, the Denver Art Museum has presented shows and events about dance — not something ordinarily associated with fine art, since dance’s defining characteristic is movement, and few fine-art forms move. The programming has all been inspired by Rhythm & Roots: Dance in American Art; mounted on level two of the Hamilton Building, the exhibit is full of masterworks, particularly paintings. While some pieces are fairly famous in their own right, most of the show is populated by material that is less well known. The same goes for the selected artists: Some giants of art history are surrounded by their less famous peers.
Rhythm & Roots was organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts and curated by Jane Dini from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For Denver, Angelica Daneo, a curator of European and American art at the DAM, reinterpreted the show, separating the works into four parts — “Roots,” “Rhythm,” “Stage” and “Collaboration” — and arranging the pieces in each into a rough chronology. According to Daneo, these categories were meant to reflect the nature of dance. The exhibit begins slowly and then picks up the tempo; over half the pieces are in the “Roots” section, with the rest divided between the other three groupings. Another of Daneo’s aims was to organize the material in such a way that it would give a sociological and historical subtext to the exhibit, explaining the development of dance over the time span covered by the works in the show.
For example, in “Roots,” she lays out how in America in the early nineteenth century, dance evolved from an outdoor, all-male activity to a more formal and mostly indoor experience of balls and parties, in which the role of women became more pronounced. “Rhythm” picks up the story in the early twentieth century, when dance became more intimate as well as more public, with people going to nightclubs and dance halls. “Stage” looks at the rise of the professional dancer or dance troupe during roughly the same period. Finally, “Collaboration” features pieces from the mid-twentieth century that represent the joint efforts of artists and dancers.
The entry space does not follow this format, though, and I understand why. This area needed something big and bold to catch the eyes of those passing by in the atrium, and the show’s oldest works just don’t fill that bill. But “Dances,” an enormous and brightly colored cubo-futurist painting by Arthur B. Davies, does: The artist has cut up the subject into jagged shapes that are assembled in such a way as to convey the idea of movement. Dating from 1914-’15, this oil on canvas is pretty much as old as any abstracted painting done in America — and it’s stunning. Though I have a keen interest in this kind of thing, I’d never seen a photo of the piece or even heard of it. (For the record, this painting should have been in “Rhythm.”)
Just to the left, “Roots” begins with a masterpiece: 1846’s “The Jolly Flatboatmen,” by George Caleb Bingham, a romantic depiction of a man dancing on a flatboat surrounded by other members of the crew, who are seated and watching. Bingham’s sense for compositional balance is astounding, reinforced by his color choices; he also displays breathtaking skill at rendering the figures and the surrounding scenery.
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Across from the Bingham are depictions of Native American dancers; their motive is different from that of the flatboatmen, as their dances are religious practices rather than a way to blow off steam. A standout in this group is Joseph Henry Sharp’s “The Harvest Dance,” from 1893-’94. Sharp embraced a crisply detailed realism, and his ability to capture the look of people and buildings illuminated by the strong sunlight of the Southwest is dead on. A very different painterly tack is taken by Jan Matulka in his “Indian Dancers,” from 1917-’18. Like Davies, Matulka works in a cubo-futurist style, employing shards of color to depict dancers and express their movements.
There are also paintings of African-Americans, such as a pair of engaging oil sketches done in 1877 by Thomas Eakins — one of a young banjo player, the other of a little boy dancing. Immigrants appear in John George Brown’s “The Sidewalk Dance,” from 1894; in it, a bunch of children surround two little girls dancing arm in arm and a boy who is dancing the tarantella. Though the subject is modern, the style is Old Master-ish.
In “Rhythm,” the paintings and sculptures refer to dancing couples. These range from fairly traditional views such as “Dancing Lesson,” a 1924 oil on canvas by Raphael Soyer, to a wildly modernist composition like “Jitterbugs (II),” an oil on paperboard by William H. Johnson from 1941. In this painting, Johnson has reduced the figures to flat bars of color that crudely render them; it’s so stylistically advanced that it could be from the 1980s. Johnson, an African-American artist, had been a realist before going to Europe in the 1920s, where he was exposed to abstraction and soon embraced it. When he returned to New York, he became a key artist in the Harlem Renaissance. Falling between the Soyer and the Johnson stylistically is Frank Myers’s semi-cubist “The Charleston,” an oil on canvas from 1926.
“Stage” looks at professional dancers. The initial section includes formal portraits by many of the greats from the early twentieth century, including Walt Kuhn, John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri; these are followed by paintings about the ballet. Among the standouts is “Large Clown (Nijinsky as Petrouchka),” a 1948 oil on canvas by Franz Kline, painted just a few years before he developed his distinctive calligraphic abstract-expressionist style. Equally compelling is Max Weber’s cubist oil on canvas from 1916, “Russian Ballet,” with angular planes of color converging on a dense cluster of shapes meant to be the dancers.
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The least-fleshed-out part of the show is “Collaboration,” which includes a bunch of drawings of crazy costumes — a dancer dressed as a pineapple, for instance — conceived by Diego Rivera for a ballet that was presented only once, in 1937, and for which the music and choreography have been lost. More impressive is the wire cage made by Isamu Noguchi that was meant to be used or carried by a dancer. At the end, a video of Merce Cunningham dancers wearing Jasper Johns costumes, recorded in the ’60s, is projected onto a glass window, behind which is a re-creation of Andy Warhol’s 1966 “Silver Clouds” installation of helium-filled pillows. Although thematically appropriate, it’s an odd way to finish a show primarily made up of paintings.
Rhythm & Roots contains some great stuff, but structural problems affect its internal sense of balance and equilibrium; it’s as though the exhibit were actually several partial shows pushed together. There are some sculptures, but not enough to stand up to the paintings. There are even fewer photos and short films, despite the fact that dancers were photographed and filmed from very early on, so plenty are available.
(There are so few here, in fact, that I wonder why they weren’t simply left out entirely.) And the date range is off: Either the ’50s and ’60s should be dispensed with, or more attention should have been given to works from these decades.
Despite these flaws, the show is still worth seeing — but with just a few weeks left before it comes down, you’ll need to get moving.
Rhythm & Roots, through October 2 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, denverartmuseum.org.