Three shows pay tribute to longtime local abstractionists

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the persistence of representational imagery in the fine arts by zeroing in on a group of shows in which artists created contemporary versions of realism ("Real Time," February 4). This week, turnabout being fair play, I'll look at the equally astonishing longevity of abstraction among artists.

Colorado definitely has its share of abstract artists, and has for the past sixty years. Among the top practitioners now is Clark Richert, a renowned geometric abstractionist and an influential teacher who is being feted with a retrospective at the Philip J. Steele Gallery on the campus of the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, where he's taught for nearly two decades. Clark Richert: 1960s to the Present, organized by Steele director Cortney Stell, is a brief if handsome survey of his aesthetic development.

I have a practice of avoiding openings, but since I've known Richert for a long time, I went to this one, and I'm glad I did. In addition to the many artists from Richert's generation, his mentor, George Woodman, was there with his wife, Betty. Richert, who was born in Kansas, came to Colorado to study with George at the University of Colorado at Boulder back in 1963. The Woodmans, who now live in New York, were in Colorado so that Betty could pull prints at Shark's Ink in Lyons.

The show, installed in the twin spaces that bookend the Steele's Mary Harris Auditorium, clearly demonstrates Richert's formidable talent.

Unfortunately, it hasn't been arranged chronologically, though it does begin with his earliest piece, "Blue Room," from 1964, which anticipates his later work — but only in retrospect, since it isn't truly hard-edged and doesn't sport an all-over pattern. Still, these two key characteristics, which we associate with Richert's work, are suggested in it. Done a year after he came to Colorado, it is like nothing of his that I've seen before.

The first pieces that could be called examples of Richert's early mature style feature dense, meticulous patterns that are staggering accomplishments in their fanatical detail. A marvelous example is "I.C.E.," from 1977.

"Quark Theory," from 1985, marks a break with this all-over formula, because in addition to the tight pattern that covers most of the canvas, Richert has added what looks like an instructional legend explaining the ratio he's using, as well as a miniature version of the painting located in a black field inserted at the top center.

"World Game," from 1990, is very different in that it is an illustration of three-dimensional space instead of being primarily flat like most of the earlier pieces — though it does hark back in some ways to "Blue Room." "World Game" was lent to the show by the Denver Art Museum, where it has only rarely been exhibited.

Of the fifteen paintings in the show, nine were done since 2000, which might be why the decision was made not to display them in order. The more recent ones fall into three categories. Some, including 2002's "Periodic Pyramid," depict three-dimensional spaces. Another group marks a return to all-over patterns, as in "U.W.W.," from 2007. The last type is the most unusual, since the associated pieces are dominated by representational images and could be called, broadly speaking, landscapes. These include "Black Mountain College" and "Drop City," both of which were done last year.

Remembering Dale Chisman, at Z Art Department, examines the work of another legend of the local abstract scene. Chisman, who died in 2008, was a longtime friend of Richert's, though the two artists created work that was quite different. Chisman did pieces that represent a direct extension of classic abstract expressionism.

Born in Colorado, Chisman also had well-known local mentors: Martha Epp and Mary Chenoweth. But his career took him to London and New York before he returned to Denver in the mid-1980s. That's where the Z show picks up.

The show is not a retrospective — it consists entirely of work on the secondary market — but one of those is being planned for the fall at the Metro Center for Visual Art, to coincide with a solo at Robischon Gallery, which represents the Chisman estate.

Still, Z owner Randy Roberts has gathered together a nice selection of Chisman paintings, notably "Untitled," from 2001. On top of a ground of varying shades of red, Chisman has laid spare drawings in black and blue that are vaguely biomorphic. Also very sweet is "Room of Experiences," from 1986-87, which features strips of canvas used as compositional elements. The paintings demonstrate Chisman's strengths, including his excellent sense for color and his automatist approach to the compositions.

The paintings have been supplemented by an impressive group of the artist's gorgeous prints. In composition and color, the prints are closely related to the paintings and include small intimate works and large, elaborate ones.

Finally in this abstraction roundup are two shows at Robischon Gallery, Gary Komarin — Salina, a solo examining the work of the internationally known New York-based artist, and Selections, a group show that includes more works by Chisman, among others. Taken together, the two exhibits are spectacular.

Komarin was a student of the late Philip Guston's at Boston University in the 1970s, and his work definitely reveals this connection. Both artists employed odd forms that have been awkwardly distributed across the surfaces of their paintings. But Komarin's paintings aren't even a little bit cartoonish, the way Guston's later style is.

In addition to his perfect sense for composition, Komarin is also an excellent colorist, and he works with a variety of shades, from bold to somber. The canvases look like the sites of frenzied activity, as he obviously works in an instinctual way, making the resulting forms appear to be the product of an automatist approach to drawing.

The Komarins provide the perfect lead-in to the first part of Selections, which is given over to prints by Chisman. These works on paper include some from the artist's "Slip" series, which I'd never seen before. To do them, Chisman hinged translucent sheets of vellum or rice paper over heavier sheets of rag paper below, with the printed images traveling from one to another. And to add just the right touch, the translucent sheet on top is not the same size as the sheet below, but is narrower and longer so that it hangs in the center and goes down beneath it.

Selections continues around the corner with a trio of Manuel Neri sculptures in bronze covered with paint. Like Komarin, Neri, who's from California, is an internationally known artist. He isn't really an abstractionist, though his figures of women are abstracted — not just by the paint, but through the expressive handling of the female forms, which are simplified and lacking in detail.

The final part of the show, in the back space, is anchored by a mini-solo of Wendi Harford's widely varied abstract paintings. Harford has shown in Denver for over a decade, but she's new to Robischon, and her presence is a welcome one. There are also a handful of John McEnroe's untitled suspension sculptures akin to those he has in the Denver Art Museum's Embrace! Finally, there's a multi-part sculpture, "Haiti Bread Project," in the form of an attenuated loaf of bread by Terry Maker, a Boulder artist. In exchange for a modest donation, viewers can take a "slice" of the Maker, with the artist and gallery dedicating all proceeds to Doctors Without Borders.

Abstraction is alive and well in Colorado, and the riveting shows at Steele, Z and Robischon demonstrate why.

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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