The New Yorkers

The Round World gallery opened quietly last fall on the edge of downtown Denver, moving into a pair of rehabbed storefronts that share a red-brick Victorian building with the popular La Coupole French restaurant. It's an obscure location for an art gallery; the neighborhood is neither LoDo, which remains downtown's gallery central, nor NoDo, a center for artists' studios. But though the place is off the beaten path for exhibition-goers, that could soon change--and Round World looks to be a worthwhile detour.

The gallery was founded by the husband-and-wife art-consulting team of David Teplitzky and Peggy Scott along with fabricator and publisher Jonathan Christie. The three came to Denver last year from Cincinnati, where Teplitzky and Scott ran another gallery. Being new to town, they realized they needed a local connection to plug them into the Denver art scene. That's when Simon Zalkind walked into the gallery. "I met Simon, I liked him, I convinced David and Jonathan that we needed him, and then we hired him," says Scott. "He has good ideas and an interesting point of view."

So the job of putting Round World on the Denver map has been left to Zalkind, now employed as one of the gallery's assistant directors. Zalkind is a household name on the local scene, having played a wide variety of roles over the past fifteen years. He's been a corporate art consultant and curator, he's been an art critic, and he's worked as an administrator in the realm of publicly funded art, serving from 1993 to 1996 as director of the state's Art in Public Places program. Despite all this experience, however, Zalkind has never before worked in a commercial gallery. But he operates like an old pro when it comes to putting together a thoughtful exhibition.

That's exactly what he's done in Round World's new show Embodies (faces and figures). Though he has stretched his organizing theme to the breaking point with a few of the selections--and though there's a disappointing lack of local art, given Zalkind's many Denver connections--there are more than a few rewards in the exhibit, particularly in the form of works on paper by big-name, internationally known artists.

The show's title would seem to suggest a presentation devoted to the human form. But while there are some portraits and figure studies, most of the works here qualify as "faces" or "figures" only on conceptual grounds. Oddly enough, that makes sense, given Zalkind's starting point.

"The genesis for the show was David [Teplitzky] having acquired the de Kooning," says Zalkind, referring to a small untitled 1968 painting by the late abstract-expressionist giant Willem de Kooning. The work is modest but packs a visual punch--not to mention an extremely high market value that naturally makes it the centerpiece of the exhibit.

The de Kooning takes up the artist's signature topic of a standing woman, though as is often the case with his work, the image is so abstract, it's hard to make out. In the left bottom quadrant of a nearly square sheet of paper, de Kooning has scribbled a feminine figure in charcoal and then smeared oil paints across it. At times the pigments--gorgeous if sickly yellow-greens, with accents of reddish orange--seem to reinforce the woman's lines. At other times, the paint obscures her.

Using de Kooning as a point of departure is only one of the ways Zalkind has associated Embodies with the artists of the New York School. Born and raised in New York, Zalkind has long favored the work of his hometown--as, of course, has nearly everyone else on the national art scene, especially those in the highest reaches of the contemporary market.

But the main reason New Yorkers are so prominent in the show is that Zalkind, for the most part, made his selections from Round World's existing stock, which is heavy with art from the Big Apple. That's a distinct attribute for a venue in Denver, a city that rarely sees this kind of New York School work. The reason for this is a hard-nosed fact of the art market: Important contemporary artists have long been bound by exclusive contracts to one or another major gallery, and no gallery of this type happens to exist in Denver. So how was Round World able to assemble so many famous artists, notably de Kooning? Because instead of representing artists or their estates, like most other commercial galleries, Round World owns outright most of the art it offers for sale. This is called selling on the secondary market, a highly expensive undertaking that is the gallery's specialty. Apparently, Round World has the resources to pull it off.

The de Kooning is the only example of abstract expressionism in the show, but other New York School movements are better represented, notably pop art. Indeed, Embodies includes prints by two of the biggest names in pop art, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.

Rauschenberg is represented by two large color prints from the "Bellini" series that characteristically juxtapose gestural sloppiness with high-tech preciseness. To achieve the effect, Rauschenberg has made lithographic plates based on cut-up photographs of paintings by Renaissance master Giovanni Bellini. The images from the paintings are hidden in places by over-printing and even, in "Bellini 2," a lithograph and intaglio on paper from 1987, by a printed blob of ink.

The smallish Warhol print, which sadly has been placed by the back door, is part of the late artist's classic "Jackie" series, which comprises portraits of the First Lady before and after the assassination of JFK in 1963. "Jackie 1," a silver halftone dating from 1966, recalls the Camelot days of the Kennedy administration; the subject, wearing her pillbox hat, is seen smiling as she stands next to her husband.

The Rauschenberg and Warhol works capture the theme of Embodies more literally than does the highly abstracted de Kooning. It's the same with New York School superrealist Chuck Close, whose large "Self Portrait," a screen print from 1995, commands the main room at Round World. This piece is a traditional portrait in almost every sense, except that Close has cut his image into hundreds of small abstract shapes that, taken together and printed in eighty different colors, read like a photograph.

Neo-expressionism is another New York School movement represented. Several pieces fall into this broad category, including the work of one of the movement's most famous adherents, the late Jean-Michel Basquiat. In Basquiat's weird 1983 screen print on paper "Leg of a Dog," various crude drawings of bones have been combined with handwritten explanatory text.

Though New Yorkers dominate the show, there are a handful of artists from New Mexico, the West Coast and even Europe. But there's only one artist from Denver and, like de Kooning, Warhol and Basquiat, he's dead. The artist is Wes Kennedy, and the piece included by Zalkind--the infamous "Pieta," a black-and-white photo montage circa 1990--has been loaned by a private collector and thus is not for sale. (As Round World has discovered, aside from posthumously printed pieces, Kennedy's work is essentially unavailable for purchase.)

Zalkind's exhibition notes describe "Pieta" (which was first shown at Pirate) as "courageous." That's an understatement, since in "Pieta," Kennedy truly flirted with danger by combining religious imagery with homoeroticism. In the artist's re-creation of the famous Michelangelo sculpture on display at the Vatican, the figures of both the Virgin Mary and the dead Christ are played by men. Kennedy, who was already suffering from AIDS at the time (he died in 1993), posed as the crucified Christ, and there was no humor intended.

Asked about the dearth of Colorado talent in Embodies, Zalkind responds by noting that "there was no contrivance to insinuate locals." However, given the wide parameters Zalkind set for the work he did include in the show, it would hardly have been a contrivance to look at what's relevant in his own backyard. The gallery's estrangement from the local community is something its owners plan to address with a juried show scheduled for next year; that exhibit is being organized with the idea of attracting worthwhile Denver talent. But if the gallery hasn't yet snagged the town's artists, the compelling Embodies should catch the attention of nearly everyone else.

Embodies (faces and figures), through April 30 at the Round World gallery, 2199-B Arapahoe Street, 292-4748.

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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