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As lower downtown's sidewalks have become crowded with shoppers, tourists and sports fans, the trend among art galleries has been to move out or close up. That's not just the story in LoDo, but on Broadway and throughout the central business district. The problem? Spiraling rents combined with sluggish art sales. In a local economy that is booming, the art market has been mostly left out--until lately, that is.

Today there are signs that art means business again in Denver. First, those red dots that indicate a piece has sold are showing up more frequently on wall-hung gallery works. In keeping with that increased demand, prices are up--in some cases, way up. And finally, new galleries are starting to appear on the formerly beleaguered scene.

The first of this new crop surfaced at the start of the season last fall: an impressive little place called Round World, located just blocks from Coors Field next to La Coupole restaurant. The gallery still seems like the new kid on the block, but it's since lost that title to Ron Judish Fine Arts, which opened last week on Wazee Street, on the same row that features the William Matthews Gallery and the CSK Gallery. Both Round World and Judish are now hosting group shows that bring together the work of five artists. At Round World, it's Rare Editions, a display of modern master prints by art-world heavyweights. Ron Judish's inaugural exhibition, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, consists of paintings and drawings by four local artists and an out-of-towner.

True to its title, Rare Editions is made up of rare print editions from New York artists, including both historic works and more recent efforts. "They're the kind of thing one doesn't normally get to see," says Round World partner and co-director Peggy Scott, and she's not kidding.

The show begins with a monumental 1997 lithograph by Louise Bourgeois, who is, of course, better known as a sculptor. But though she isn't often associated with printmaking, Bourgeois makes a sophisticated reference to the history of modern printmaking with the multi-panel "Reply to Hayter." The organic, shell-like forms Bourgeois has arranged over a dark gray ground have a retro, 1940s quality--appropriate since the "Hayter" to whom the artist replies is her former teacher, Stanley William Hayter, an English surrealist engraver who came to New York from Paris as a war refugee in 1940. At that time, Hayter opened his renowned Studio 17 as an engraving atelier and helped launch New York School abstract expressionism by impressing young artists in the Big Apple with his automatic approach to composition. Bourgeois's rejoinder is notably more muscular than Hayter's pieces, which often display gauzy overlays, but her shapes recall those preferred by the master.

The next piece up in Rare Editions is without a doubt the most important print in the show: the truly impressive "False Start II," a masterful 1962 lithograph by the legendary Jasper Johns. With its all-over pattern of smudgy marks in black, white and gray interspersed with stenciled letters, the piece marks a historic juncture in the development of modern art in America; it's got one foot in abstract expressionism and the other in pop art.

"False Start II" dates from a time when Johns was making art history side by side with his former companion Robert Rauschenberg, who is also included in Rare Editions. Rauschenberg is represented by another historically important print, the 1964 lithograph "Ark." Like Johns, Rauschenberg elegantly blended the opposing sources of abstract expressionism and pop art; in "Ark," smeared passages obscure layered photo images, including one of John F. Kennedy at a speaker's podium.

Around the corner from the Rauschenberg is a unique silkscreen print from mega-pop-art star Andy Warhol, 1985's "Anniversary Donald Duck." The brightly colored print reveals the troublesome duck playing soldier in spite of his signature sailor suit; a broom over his shoulder stands in for a rifle. The original Disney animation cell on which the print is based has Donald performing before a group of mirrors that multiply his reflection. This multiplicity relates to Warhol's interest in repeated images and is probably why he chose to base his print on this particular image--that and the fat Disney commission.

The show concludes with an entire portfolio of lithographs from 1972 by minimalist Brice Marden. In these elegant prints, Marden takes the rectangular format of the lithographic press and creates geometric variations with heavy scribbled lines held in check by hard-edged vertical or horizontal areas.

Across downtown from Round World is Ron Judish Fine Arts, a sparkling gallery marked by a large "5" painted on the front display window---where it will remain only until I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold finishes its run. This new space is a glamorous kind of place where the visitor might expect to see rich movers and shakers like--oh, let's say, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The terminator, who was in town to retool his Stadium Walk project at 18th and Wazee streets, came browsing with his entourage one day last week. For gallery director Judish, it's been that kind of month. "I'm numb," says Judish. "It's better than almost anything I've ever done."

The virgin gallery is beautifully finished with dazzling white walls and spiffy polished wood floors. Its expensive lighting system is worth every penny, lending the place a marvelous inner glow. This storefront, formerly a copy shop, went from gutted retail to completed gallery space in just six weeks. Judish must be a fanatic.

But even though this is Judish's first gallery, he's no beginner in the gallery world. In the 1970s, fresh out of the University of Maryland with an art degree, Judish was a director at a series of Washington, D.C., galleries that included the Studio Gallery and Protech-McIntosh, the forerunner of New York's famous Max Protech Gallery. At the time, Washington was an important contemporary art center where post-painterly abstractionists like Morris Louis and Gene Davis held sway. And Judish's resume must have looked good: Later, in the 1980s, he was hired as a curator for Aron and Phyllis Katz's private collection in New York City. New York was throbbing during the go-go '80s, and Judish was right in the center of it.

His involvement with the Katz collection forged many important New York bonds that Judish, who took a trip back to Gotham just before opening his Denver gallery, still maintains. Those connections have allowed him to become the Denver representative for a variety of prominent contemporary artists. "I'd been gone for years, so I wasn't sure I'd be remembered," says Judish, "but I was greeted as an old friend by many. I was especially touched by Holly Solomon, who was very encouraging and who offered me anything I wanted in her gallery."

Back in Denver in recent years, Judish has worked as a freelance art consultant. But though he remains widely known in those circles, Judish says he's always dreamed of owning his own gallery--a vision he says has been "in the planning stages for more than twenty years."

And what ambitious plans those are. Judish envisions his new gallery as a place where Denverites will be able to get their first looks at the work of internationally famous artists and, he hopes, help launch international careers for select locals. "We're representing the estate of Robert Mapplethorpe," notes Judish as he gestures toward a suite of five of the photographer's untitled studies of calla lilies, which are displayed in the back conference room and are not a part of the Figure 5 show. For the fall, Judish is planning a survey of the work of photographer Andres Serrano, of "Piss Christ" infamy; for next spring, a show devoted to painter Robert Longo is in the works. But for this first show, he's forgone big names from back East to showcase a group of artists who, with one exception, hail from Denver.

The Figure 5 exhibit takes its name from a famous Charles Demuth proto-pop painting from the 1920s, but here it stands for the five unrelated artists who've been brought together for the exhibit. And unrelated may be too tame a term; in fact, the show begins with a juxtaposition of William Stockman and Rob Douglas, two artists who couldn't be more different.

Leaning against the wall opposite the entry door are three mammoth drawings by Stockman, one of the finest contemporary artists in the city. For these drawings, rendered in charcoal on paper, Stockman has combined classically drawn passages with scribbled elements, a combination that lends an enigmatic quality to the work. For example, what does "Self Portrait as a Fountain" mean? The charcoal drawing is anchored by a large image of a nubile young woman whose face has been obscured as it's hit by the splashing water of the fountain.

By contrast, Douglas shows three handsome and obviously interrelated acrylic-on-panel abstracts. He uses drawings to construct his paintings and in this case divides them into clusters of rectangles stained with thin layers of paint and topped off with gestural marks. While Stockman presents literal images and invites us to find meaning in them, Douglas is happy to let his abstractions speak for themselves.

Beyond, in what Judish informally refers to as the "side gallery," are the next pair of artists: Denver's Mary Mackey, who directs her own namesake gallery on the west side, and Ellen Gelman, from Washington, D.C., the only non-local in the show. Mackey's work is unexpected. Instead of the abstracted still-life scenes she was painting last year, she's now working in vaguely traditional landscapes. Using oil paint on opaque Mylar sheets, Mackey depicts in "Black and White Landscape" an eerie and desolate scene of bare trees on the prairie. The old-fashioned gilt wood frames she uses provide just the right touch for these conservative paintings.

Gelman's oil-crayon-on-paper drawings, displayed across from the Mackeys, have a much sunnier feel, toned up with bright reds, oranges and yellows and characterized by pleasing linear abstractions. "Ellen is my mentor," says Judish, noting that Gelman was his teacher at the University of Maryland, where she's still employed.

The Figure 5 show ends with a section devoted to an emerging Denver artist, Francis Johansen, who fills the large back gallery--the best of the three exhibition areas, by the way--with meticulously done charcoal drawings of buildings. Most remarkable is "Empire," a wall-sized piece that looks like a blurry photograph; the image is distorted yet still rife with minute details.

While Round World and Ron Judish Fine Arts both have a sophisticated big-city (read: New York) feel, they're also well on the way to establishing distinct personalities. Round World is a funky kind of place, small with exposed brick walls in places; Judish's gallery is a pristine space that fairly gleams. But these two new arrivals do have something in common: They're committed to presenting first-rate shows, and so far they've succeeded.

Rare Editions, through May 30 at the Round World Gallery, 2199 B Arapahoe Street (entrance on 22nd Street), 292-4748.

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, through June 13 at Ron Judish Fine Arts, 1617 Wazee Street, 571-5557.

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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