The Henry Moore show at the Denver Botanic Gardens stands tall

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine who has vast knowledge of the visual arts called me and, in an accusatory tone, asked, "When are you going to review the Moore show? It's the best thing to hit this town since Giacometti." He was talking, of course, about Moore in the Gardens, which opened March 8 at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and comparing it to a decades-ago Alberto Giacometti exhibit at the Denver Art Museum.

The reason for the delay, I explained, was because of a promise I'd made to Richard Calvocoressi, the director of the Henry Moore Foundation, which presented the sculptures at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, the New York Botanical Garden and the Atlanta Botanical Garden before bringing them to Denver. I met Calvocoressi just before the show went up, and he asked me to wait to discuss the exhibit until late spring or early summer, when the garden's plants come in. That's what I told my friend.

But there was another reason I was dragging my heels. The DBG is a masterpiece, the crowning achievement of its designer, Victor Hornbein, and his partner, Ed White. But over the past couple of years, radical and somewhat questionable changes have been made to the complex, and I didn't like the looks of them, at least not from the outside.

First, there's that ugly parking structure. Oh, I know it's meant to be covered with vines, but I also noticed that most of those vines are either dead or distressed. Worse is the stylistically inappropriate Visitors Center by Tryba Architects that replaced the jewel-box entry that was part of the original Hornbein and White complex. From York Street, the center functions as a stone wall that stands a story high, hard on the road, and because of that, the view of the gardens is now hidden from the street.

But when I finally fulfilled my promise to Calvocoressi a couple of weeks ago and went to the show, I was amazed at how well the Visitors Center worked from inside the gardens; the back wall of it helps to define an introductory open-air space with a lovely view of the main Hornbein and White structures that anchor the place.

Once inside, Moore in the Gardens starts right up with "Three Piece Reclining Figure: Draped," a bronze from 1975. The piece is classic Moore. He has arranged a trio of separate elements — the shapes of which have been inspired by biomorphic forms — that, taken together, read as an abstraction of a reclining female nude. Moore's style owes a major debt to Picasso's surrealism, and a piece like this is essentially one of Picasso's bather paintings executed as a sculpture.

This sculpture, like all of the large works in this show, was done late in Moore's career arc; every one of them dates to the second half of the twentieth century, though Moore found his initial fame in the first half.

Henry Moore was born in 1898 in Yorkshire, England, the son of a poor coal miner. In 1917, he enlisted for service in World War I, and, after being discharged, attended the Leeds School of Art. A gifted artist from the start, Moore was awarded a scholarship in 1921 to study sculpture at the Royal College of Art; a few years later, he was teaching there. Nothing better illustrates his meteoric rise in the field of modern sculpture than the fact that no less a distinguished authority than Herbert Read authored Moore's first monograph in 1934 — fifteen short years after the artist began his training. At the time, Moore had met other modernist sculptors, including Giacometti, Ossip Zadkine and Jacques Lipchitz. And if that wasn't enough credentializing, he actually visited Picasso in his studio in 1937 when he was working on "Guernica"!

A sense of that rich early-modernist history is found in the small gallery inside the Boettcher Memorial Center at the DBG, where an assemblage of Moore's tools and other things that relate to his work has been crammed into two crowded showcases. If there had been room, these items, separated and given some breathing space, could have been the fodder for a separate show. The material — models for the larger works, drawings, pieces of natural stone and shell with formal relationships to Moore's signature biomorphism — gives viewers tremendous insight into what the artist was doing.

Though I am usually loath to appreciate the big graphic splash, especially when put together with tiny items, it was nonetheless informative to look at the photo mural of Moore's studio, which demonstrated with its scores of small works just how prolific he was and how he created piece after piece without ever exhausting his compelling style.

By the 1950s, the period from which most of the oldest pieces in this show date, Moore was an acknowledged living modern master, which gave him the financial wherewithal to be able to make anything he wanted and not have to sell it. Very few artists, especially those whose fathers were coal miners, have the means to execute such ambitious pieces in a material as costly as bronze, but Moore clearly did. The Henry Moore Foundation, which the artist himself founded, has the largest collection of his work in the world. The nearly twenty monumental pieces that made it to Denver make up just a small fraction of the foundation's holdings.

Before heading back out to the gardens, look at "Working Model for Standing Figure: Knife Edge," installed at the water feature in the Gates Garden Court. This piece, from 1961, exemplifies the pure abstraction end of Moore's oeuvre. Despite the suggestion in the title, the piece is not figural, except that it's a vertical pile. Depicting recognizable figures as abstracted forms is the main current in Moore's work, but the handful of purely abstract ones, like this model, relate beautifully to the rest. In a sense, the entire show could be put along a continuum, with the surrealist abstraction of "Three Piece Reclining Figure:Draped" at one pole, and "Working Model for Standing Figure: Knife Edge" at the other. (When you go, make sure to pick up a map to the sculptures; otherwise, you'll miss some of them, hidden as they are along the DBG's labyrinthine paths.)

All but one of the large pieces outside are made of bronze, with that last work being made of fiberglass, which really surprised me. On the brow of a hill, there's "Large Reclining Figure," which is nearly thirty feet long and done in gleaming white plastic; it's stunning. Moore has conceived the figure as a play of solids versus voids, so the nude's form is pierced; thus the top part seems to float above the rest. It was cast in 1984, just two years before Moore died.

The atmosphere of the gardens provides the perfect setting for the pieces, and Moore himself imagined them as being sited in the landscape. That's where he himself put them during his lifetime, scattered around the grounds of his rural compound in Perry Green that today is overseen by the foundation.

When I first learned about Moore in the Gardens, which was curated by Anita Feldman, I thought that a show of this caliber belonged at the DAM and was inappropriate for the DBG. After seeing it, however, I've changed my mind. I can't imagine where else in Colorado it could possibly have been mounted.

I can't recommend Moore in the Gardens enough. It is worth seeing again and again.

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