The Denver Art Museum likes its figure

The Modern and Contemporary department at the Denver Art Museum gained official status in 1978 when the institution hired Dianne Vanderlip to head it up. During her nearly three decades in the post, Vanderlip facilitated the acquisition of thousands of works for the permanent collection. But between shopping sprees, she routinely bemoaned the fact that, with no dedicated galleries for her department, she had little opportunity to exhibit her finds. In fact, many times there was no place at the DAM where either modern or contemporary art was on view — sometimes for years at a stretch.

That changed when the Frederic C. Hamilton Building opened, in 2006, and most of the third and fourth levels were assigned to the department. So it's ironic that now that there's room, Vanderlip is gone, living in semi-retirement in Southern California.

Before she left, though, she got the chance to install the cream of her purchases and the best gifts she'd finagled in the Hamilton spaces, which are connected by an internal staircase that anchors a stunning atrium. For the Hamilton's grand opening, Vanderlip presented a mini-survey of art of the last century or so, taking on classic modernism — including important abstract-expressionist, pop and minimalist pieces — as well as newer, contemporary work. It wasn't strictly academic, but it did give viewers an idea about the development of art over many decades and the depth of the DAM's collection.

But when Christoph Heinrich, chief curator of the Hamburg Kunsthalle, replaced Vanderlip, in 2007, he almost immediately began looking for ways to make changes. The results can be seen in Focus: the Figure, his reinstallation of the permanent-collection galleries, which opened last week in time for the Democratic National Convention.

Because of Vanderlip's long tenure, her presence is still felt (much of what Heinrich dragged out was originally acquired during her time), but her replacement has put everything into a new context, switching out her loose art-historical structure for an equally loose thematic one — in this case, various depictions of the human figure or its implication through its absence. These include the early works in the Merle Chambers and Hugh Grant Modern Gallery, the pieces in the small paper-works gallery where Varied Voices, a contemporary print show is ensconced, and upstairs in the Fuse Box, where Norwegian video maker Bjørn Melhus is currently the star attraction.

In anticipating the changes, I was a little wary, even if I have been impressed by Heinrich's dedication to his job and his openness to new ideas. First, since I had spoken with him earlier, I knew that many of my all-time favorites, such as the Robert Motherwell and Agnes Martin paintings, were going to be put away. Second, the idea of replacing these pieces with works that sported the inclusion of the figure isn't exactly my idea of heaven, since my tastes tend toward the abstract. So I was a little surprised to find that I liked what Heinrich had done, even if it is comforting to know that it will all be changed out again in two years, with some parts coming down in just six months. It was neat to see many things I recognized even though they hadn't been on view for many years, and others that have never been exhibited at the DAM.

Beginning with the galleries off the atrium at level three, Heinrich has replaced the two Vance Kirkland abstracts with "Living," an absolutely fabulous post-pop conceptual piece by the British duo Gilbert and George. The photo enlargement, executed in a gigantic C-print, is a double self-portrait of the artists with the title spelled out across the top. Close-ups of their faces dominate the picture, with full-figure renditions set opposite one another. The bold graphic character of the composition and the lurid colors, mostly red and blue, act as a billboard for visitors to the Modern and Contemporary galleries beyond it.

The refit of the Chambers/Grant Gallery was overseen by curator Gwen Chanzit, who coordinated her efforts with Heinrich. Stylistically, the works are all over the map, as may be inferred by the first painting, "Camille," by Karel Appel. Chanzit has made an unusual set of selections, but there is some rhyme to her reason, and I noticed an early-twentieth-century School of Paris subtext with a couple of Modigliani drawings and a pair of paintings by Chaim Soutine. Then there's the sensational "Young Clown," by Walt Kuhn.

Back in the main part of the galleries, and back under the direction of Heinrich, the theme is enforced with a space full of large-scale conceptual-realist paintings. This group includes two Nicole Eisenman paintings, the more important of which is "Untitled (Battle Scene)," a cartoonish update of Titian's "Rape of Europa." In talking about this painting and also referring to Wes Hempel's "Fatherhood," a contemporary take on a classical composition representing masculinity, Heinrich points out how some artists working today look to the past for their aesthetic inspirations.

A main attraction on level three is Sandy Skoglund's "Fox Games," which hasn't been exhibited in more than a decade. Unlike most of the other things that were brought out for Focus: The Figure, "Fox Games" couldn't simply be hung on a wall or placed on a sculpture stand, because it's an installation with hundreds of pieces, including sheets used to cover the walls and floors. Also, it was originally conceived to be in a rectangular room, and the Hamilton doesn't have any. The solution was to put it on either side of the interior staircase. Such a major reconfiguration of the piece demanded that Skoglund come to Denver, because she's the only one who should be allowed to figure out how to shoehorn it into this space. And I've got to say, she did a great job. Also, since "Fox Games" is displayed in this space at the bottom of a secondary atrium, viewers can look at it over the balcony on the upper floor. Sticklers for consistency might note that "Fox Games" has no people in it, just foxes and an empty restaurant. Heinrich points out that the chairs, tables and other accoutrements all suggest the presence of people.

Upstairs, Heinrich has done small vignettes in different spaces, including photos by Diane Arbus and Larry Clark, a politically charged multi-part, photo-based piece by Adrian Piper, and a meticulously rendered pencil self-portrait by Bill Amundson.

The large, double-height space at the north end of the floor is being used for sculptures, with Antony Gormley's stainless-steel "Quantum Cloud XXXIII," which suggests a man with his arms raised, in the corner. The Gormley is one of the only pieces on either level that was already out before the changes. Heinrich has installed the rest of the room so that visitors can amble around in what he calls a "sculpture piazza," and he's able to successfully convey this romantic effect because almost everything on view is a standing figure, as it would be in a real piazza in Italy.

Just off the sculpture piazza is a small, dark niche in which John DeAndrea's famous "Linda" sculpture has been placed. The DeAndrea, a super-realistic rendition of a reclining woman, is made of painted resin and therefore fragile — hence the low lights to prevent fading. Because of this, "Linda" will be on view for only a few months before it needs to be plunged back into total darkness, just to be safe.

I have my reservations about some of the material in Focus: The Figure, but I've got to hand it to Heinrich and the dedicated installation crew at the DAM for the hard work it took to bring to our attention so many interesting, rarely seen pieces.

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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