The Denver Art Museum has undergone a radical reorganization in the last few years. Huge amounts of material have been shifted among the curators, and a major beneficiary has been Dianne Vanderlip's Contemporary department, which gained more than just a prefix when the word "modern" was added to its name. It's now the Modern and Contemporary department and boasts a series of new galleries devoted to permanent displays of both genres--a much-needed addition to the DAM that so far has yielded mixed results.

In ordinary speech, "modern" is often used interchangeably with "contemporary"--so what's the difference? In the museum world, the term "modern" refers specifically to art created in the period since the rise of the turn-of-the-century Modern movement and excludes the art of the present, which is called "contemporary."

The museum's modern art formerly was distributed among several specialized departments. Many works were already a part of the Contemporary department, while other pieces were marooned at the tail end of the European and American departments, collections dominated by traditional material. The new setup--combining modern and contemporary art--makes much more sense, because the two belong together.

To celebrate this marriage, the Stanton Gallery, formerly one huge space, has been subdivided into ten rooms that will provide permanent display space for exhibits culled from the department's immense 4,500-piece collection. The opening exhibition, Options: I--a provocative title acknowledging that future experimental displays are planned--isn't really a single show but several individual ones grouped together.

The department has taken three different approaches. Some rooms are limited to work by single artists, some feature work related by topic, and other rooms present work linked by mood. This confusion of purpose is the reason the displays in the new permanent galleries often don't seem to make much sense.

Illustrating the first approach--which is generally the most successful of the three--are artists such as museum favorites Lucas Samaras and Jim Dine. Each is represented by a large sculpture supplemented with smaller works intended to provide context. Samaras's popular and interactive "Corridor #2" from 1970 is a long (fifty feet long, to be exact), freestanding hallway completely clad in mirrored panels. On the outside the piece takes on the colors of the gallery, but inside--where the mirrors reflect into one another--it's enveloped by a naturally occurring jewel-like green. Less engaging to viewers (no doubt owing to its morose subject) is Dine's monumental 1989 bronze, "Wheat Fields," which suggests a visual pun--the giant skull riding the plow must be the Grim Reaper.

Other artists given the solo treatment are James Turrell, whose 1994 work "Trace Elements," a dark room barely illuminated by ultraviolet, red fluorescent and tungsten lights, is reprised from the museum's Landscape as Metaphor show; Dan Flavin, who also used light--his signature fluorescent, arranged in a square--for 1992's "Untitled (for AC)"; and Larry Bell, represented by a corner passageway that the museum created by putting two of his rare smoke-colored glass sculptures of the 1970s next to one another. The only sour note is finding these pieces by Bell--an internationally famous New Mexico artist--in the new Close Range Gallery, a venue ostensibly reserved for local art. Is there no length to which DAM won't go to exclude Colorado artists?

The second approach, grouping work according to topic, also allows for an interesting exhibit. Faces and Figures, in the Corridor Gallery, is an intimate show dominated by spectacular modern-master drawings and other works on paper.

In the 1914 drawing "Caryatid," Amadeo Modigliani has simplified the human figure into a series of interlocking lines. Alfred Maurer's 1931 watercolor "Head" is simpler still, with only vague references to the human form. Marking a total departure from the natural order of things is Joan Miro's "Head of a Man and Objects" (1935), an early and important surrealist gouache. Additional treasures include the work of some of the most famous artists of the twentieth century--Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, Marsden Hartley and Paul Klee, among many others.

The last of the three approaches attempted--associating art by mood--is the least successful. In these rooms, the only place where modern works are actually cheek-by-jowl with contemporary ones, the art seems to have been arranged by free association--until we notice the apparent organizing theme is color. A couple of the galleries are filled mostly with red objects, others with things that are silver, green or brown.

Given this shaky foundation, it's not surprising to find ourselves encouraged to make comparisons that are meaningless. There are myriad issues that could have been raised by the juxtaposing of modern art with its contemporary heirs--it's just not being done here. That's too bad, because the "mood" rooms house some of the best material on view.

These displays also have made a point of wrenching pieces out of their historic context, a decision that may force visitors to create some kind of logical progression of their own. It's amazing how a little accounting device like chronological order can help to clear up the clouds of confusion. Not enough painting has been included--with the exception of fine work by Andy Warhol, Jennifer Bartlett and Dale Chisman--but there are plenty of examples of exceptional modern and contemporary sculpture that the museum could have used as its guide.

For example, Aristide Maillol's "Summer" of 1910 is as traditional as modern art gets, a simplified, life-size bronze of a nude woman. The sculptural canons Maillol supported, like solidity and stillness, are violated by Alexander Archipenko, part of the first generation of artists to embrace abstraction. In his 1912 work "Walking Woman"--a genuine masterpiece from the collection--Archipenko flattens and pierces a bronze figure and introduces the idea of movement. By the 1960s, Louise Bourgeois pushes even further; her feminist-inspired 1964-65 bronze "The Quartered One" is suspended from the ceiling. Carl Andre does just the opposite: He embraces the ground, literally putting his 1981 aluminum sculpture "Drakon" flat on the floor. Scott Chamberlin's "Blue Bellis" of 1987 in turn challenges the dominance of metals like bronze, using glazed ceramic to create fine sculpture; and Miroslaw Balka takes the extreme approach of using found objects like carpet and foam to create a 1992 piece whose title consists solely of its dimensions.

Unfortunately, these pieces are scattered throughout several rooms; had they been assembled in one spot, they could have constituted a discussion of some of the major issues in twentieth-century sculpture. A genuine shortcoming of the current installation is that it does so little to foster this kind--or any kind--of art appreciation. Instead, the department has opted for visual punch, which sadly sometimes misses.

Nonetheless, the new galleries are pregnant with potential. Perhaps by the time Options II, scheduled for midsummer, is up, some of the bugs in these reconfigured spaces will be worked out. Given the amount of first-rate material at the department's disposal, the future holds great promise--even if the presentations continue to dismay.

Options I, through June 18 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-2793.

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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