Time Flies

Although 1999 may not be the last year of the century, as sticklers for accuracy have pointed out, it is the last of the 1900s. So it seems only natural to reflect on the century -- or at least the last part of it. That's exactly what the Arvada Center's museum director Kathy Andrews does in the triumphant Colorado Abstraction: 1975-1999.

The gigantic exhibit is separated into two distinct presentations. Part I focuses on artists who arrived at the forefront of the local art scene in the 1970s, pairing an older piece with a newer one. Part II looks at artists from the 1980s, again pairing old work with new and adding single examples from those who have emerged in the 1990s. Taking in both parts at the same time may prove exhausting, at least aesthetically, for many visitors. My advice is to see one portion at a time, starting with Part I.

Andrews began preparing for Colorado Abstraction in the summer of 1997, when she met with Cydney Payton, the director of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, and John Woodward, a physician, collector and freelance curator. Payton and Woodward were planning an exhibit that would examine abstract art from the 1930s to the 1960s, and they wanted Andrews to do a companion show bringing us up to the present. (Payton and Woodward's Vanguard Art in Colorado opens next week at BMoCA.) It soon became apparent, however, that coordination was not going to work. "John had distinct ideas about the show he wanted us to do, and I had different ideas," says Andrews.

It's too bad that things didn't work out, because one of the most important and influential artists in state history, George Woodman, is given short shrift. There will be Woodmans in the BMoCA show, but they predate his most important accomplishments, the pattern-paintings of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Denver Art Museum assistant curator Jane Fudge discusses this obvious shortcoming in an essay she wrote for the brochure that accompanies Colorado Abstraction. Fudge notes that Vance Kirkland is also missing, but in this case, it could be argued that although he was still active in the 1970s, he came of artistic age in the 1930s. Kirkland's work will be seen in some depth at BMoCA, which is more appropriate.

Also not included is another big-name Colorado artist, Herbert Bayer, who worked in Aspen from the 1940s through the 1980s. Then there's Angelo di Benedetto; I can still remember the di Benedettos that adorned the lobby of the original Arvada Center. Fortunately, Bayer and di Benedetto will be shown at BMoCA.

Curators, dealers and art historians have begun to examine Colorado art historically, and they must be careful to reflect the real picture. Luckily for Kirkland, art patrons Hugh Grant and Merle Chambers, the forces behind the Vance Kirkland Foundation and Museum, are tireless in their promotion of his work. But Woodman is being quickly forgotten except by his aging former students, including many who make appearances in Part I of Colorado Abstraction. Bayer, on the other hand, has immense posthumous fame but is increasingly viewed as not having been a real player in the local art world. This isn't true, as he frequently exhibited in Denver and Colorado Springs. Sadly, di Benedetto is already all but forgotten.

Andrews says she left out Woodman, Kirkland, Bayer and di Benedetto because she "decided to only include artists who were still living here." Woodman retired in 1996 to his New York loft and Italian farmhouse. Bayer, Kirkland and di Benedetto made more emphatic exits -- all three are dead.

To create Colorado Abstraction, Andrews began by compiling a list of relevant artists. "I wanted to look at the 1970s, because people still remember what happened," she says. "I wanted to do the show before that period was forgotten."

Andrews, who has been connected with the Arvada Center for ten years, five of them in her current position, included a number of artists in Part I who have previously been the subject of solo shows that she organized or who have appeared in group shows. She has done a good job over the years featuring the best local talent, and it may be said that if artists want to make it in Denver, they've got to make it out of town first -- in Arvada.

The final list for Part I contains most of the great abstract artists working in the area in the 1970s; interestingly, most of them are still regarded as being among the best on the scene.

Part I begins outside the main entrance to the Arvada Center with a few sculptures by three of the state's acknowledged masters of the medium -- Jerry Wingren, Bob Mangold and Chuck Parson. Although this prelude may lead some to think that the show is mostly about sculpture, it's actually dominated by painting.

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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