Thanks for the Memories

The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art is a unique aesthetic resource that's filled to the rafters with interesting things to see. The Kirkland is a collecting institution; its impressive holdings, in a variety of aesthetic categories, are permanently displayed in a series of large rooms on two floors.

The museum is named for famed Denver modernist painter, educator, curator and arts advocate Vance Kirkland, and it includes hundreds of his works from the last century. In addition, the Kirkland has actively collected the work of other Colorado artists in depth, and there's a staggering collection of twentieth-century furniture, pottery, metalwork and glass.

So much is on display -- more than 3,000 examples of decorative art alone -- that when I heard a solo was being planned for the Kirkland, I couldn't for the life of me figure out where in the museum it could be installed. After all, there's already something in every nook and cranny. There's even a large and important Bill Hayes color-field abstraction hanging in the elevator, for heaven's sake! Such crowding is probably why The Centennial of William Sanderson is the first-ever temporary show to be presented by the Kirkland.

Kirkland director Hugh Grant made room for the exhibit by removing paintings that had been hanging on two large walls. However, the wall are in two different rooms (the main gallery and the small exhibition room), so viewers will need to concentrate and not be distracted by all the many visual temptations. It's hardly an ideal solution, but it works better than I thought it would.

The idea of celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Sanderson's birth has been kicking around for a few years, and the show was originally going to be presented in the Western History Gallery at the Central Denver Public Library. The artist's son, Michael Sanderson, proposed the idea, but he was unable to work things out with the library, so Grant offered to host the show at the Kirkland. "I just couldn't stand the idea of having Sanderson's centennial come and go without an exhibit," he says.

William Sanderson was co-curated by Michael Sanderson and Grant, who's giving over not just space for the exhibit, but also a number of paintings from the Kirkland's permanent collection. Other works are on loan from various local collectors and from the portion of the artist's estate that the family still holds.

Sanderson was one of the most prominent Denver artists in the late '40s and early '50s, but even then his work was a little old-fashioned. His signature style has a cartoonish quality that sometimes references cubism and can be compared to the 1930s efforts of other regional artists, including Vance Kirkland, Charles Bunnell and Raymond Jonson. But doing this kind of work after World War II, as Sanderson did, made him clearly out of step with his artistic times. As a result, he was little known by the 1960s. Then, in the 1980s, not long before he died, his career enjoyed a second boom. But this revival didn't occur because Sanderson's work changed; the art world did.

In the middle of the last century, critics and art theorists embraced the idea that art had a deterministic quality that was going full steam toward art about art. In the '50s, that meant that in painting, for example, formalist abstraction -- in particular, abstract expressionism -- was seen as the only style worth doing. This was perceived to be the inevitable result of a series of events that had started with cubism in the early twentieth century. Bringing formalist ideas even further along these same lines, minimalism appeared in the late '50s and early '60s. The minimalists were so sure of their destiny as the ultimate formalists that they honestly felt they would be the last artists to ever exist.

The fly in the ointment of this tidy theory was the appearance of pop art, which was anti-formalist. Ultimately, the post-modern characteristics of pop art would lead to an explosion of credible contemporary styles in the '70s and '80s that made no reference to formalism or to its quaint historic determinism.

The new era led artists such as Susan Cooper and Tracy Felix to embrace approaches that were similar to those Sanderson had been using all along -- for example, creating recognizable scenes out of flattened patterns. This new generation of artists changed the public perception of Sanderson's pieces, and his formerly backward-looking paintings began to look more contemporary. Now, twenty years after their rediscovery, Sanderson's paintings no longer look out of date, as they did when they were new.

Sanderson was born Wilhelm Tsiegelnitsky in Latvia in 1905 and lived in Russia and the Ukraine as a child. It was not an ideal time or place to be born, as the Tsiegelnitskys were a Jewish family in an era of raging anti-Semitism. In response to these conditions, they immigrated to the United States in 1923. When they landed, their surname was changed to Siegel.

Soon after arriving, Sanderson entered the National Academy of Design in New York; he graduated in 1927 and immediately launched a career as a graphic artist. In 1941, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed at Denver's Lowry Field; while here, he met his future wife, Ruth Lambertson. He was shipped off to post-war Berlin in 1945 to act as an interpreter, then returned to Denver that same year after being discharged. In 1946, none other than Vance Kirkland himself hired Sanderson to teach commercial art at the University of Denver, which he did for the next quarter-century. He retired in 1972 but continued to paint until 1985.

The Sanderson show at the Kirkland is hung chronologically for the most part, though a couple of paintings are placed outside the date-order arrangement. Nearly all of the early paintings, which recall stylized comics and cubism, are what Sanderson is remembered for. All of the works emphatically reveal the artist's astounding hand-to-eye coordination. The margins between the colors are finely done, and the surfaces are amazingly smooth. There's also a marvelous orchestration of the palette, with scores of different shades masterfully assembled into a unified scheme, no matter how wildly varied the hues.

Hard edges are used in the cartoon-like pieces, such as "The Lovers," an exaggerated double portrait of a man and a woman, and "Spanish Landscape," depicting an artist at his easel, which is similar in tone. Both were done in the 1940s. Among the several wonderful cubistic Sandersons in this section are "Steamship Ruth," from 1946, a crisp rendition of a boat in harbor, and, hanging above it, "Berlin, 1945," which dates from 1947. In both, Sanderson cut the subjects into hard-edged geometric shapes.

After taking in the several delights in the first part of the show, viewers will have to turn around and head across the room to the small exhibition space. Just inside is "Mountain Retreat," from 1958, in which a cluster of planar buildings is set in front of planar mountains. "Mountain Retreat" relates very well to the earlier pieces and is the perfect device to connect the two parts of the show. It's also recognizable, because it was used as the main publicity shot for the show.

Sanderson continued with his combination of whimsical representational imagery and cubism up through the mid-'60s, when pieces such as 1964's "Whites Only" was done. The painting is a fractured scene of a ruined antebellum mansion and tattered Confederate flag. In the late '60s, Sanderson became more experimental, as seen in the great non-objective pattern painting "Signals." In this piece, rectangular and curved shapes are arranged on a vertically oriented panel. The colors are strong -- as are the contrasts between them -- and all are laid on top of a cool white ground. I don't know if Sanderson did many paintings of this sort, but I'd sure like to see more. If his style was formerly behind the times, with "Signals" he fully caught up to the most advanced currents of his day -- but not for long.

His work in the '70s is extremely varied and is very hit or miss -- mostly miss. He seems to get back to business with his last paintings, done in the 1980s, such as "The Wave" and "Mountain Lake No. 1." Grant points out that "Mountain Lake" comes right out of a widely published 1930s painting by Kirkland. It's funny to realize that Sanderson, like the young artists of that time, was looking for inspiration fifty years in the past.

The only real problem with William Sanderson is that it's disjointed because of the space arrangement. Temporary exhibits are important to most museums because they generate visitors. Even the Denver Art Museum is devoting the entire first floor of the new Hamilton Building to such features. I would suggest that the Kirkland empty a room on the lower level specifically for changing shows.

This is Thanksgiving weekend, with accompanying riot conditions at the malls. I think checking out William Sanderson at the Kirkland Museum would be a much better way to spend your time -- especially if you have family and friends in town. I leave it to you to decide whether or not to bring them along.

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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