When it comes to the fine arts, the artists themselves are rightly the main subjects of scholarly and critical interest. But collectors, so important but often overlooked, can actually make art history if they have enough money behind their acquisitions.
What's brought this to mind is a recent experience I had when I was asked by the Denver Art Museum to interview Christo a couple of Saturdays ago. Among many other topics, we discussed his proposed "Over the River" project, in which he would like to stretch silvery awnings across portions of the Arkansas River in southern Colorado. If it happens, "Over the River" will surely be one of the last pieces Christo ever oversees — if not the very last one. And that's significant, because one of the first projects Christo and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, undertook was also done in Colorado: "Valley Curtain" was an enormous orange drapery strung across the Rifle Gap on the Western Slope — and it gave the artists worldwide fame.
Why did Christo pick Colorado for this early work? There was only one reason, he told me: "John and Kimiko Powers lived in Carbondale near Aspen."
The Powerses were mega-collectors of pop art, minimalism and, as in the case of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, conceptualism. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were not the only artists who came to Colorado because the Powerses lived here (John died a few years ago, and Kimiko has retired to her birthplace in Japan). Andy Warhol was also drawn to Colorado by the couple, which brings us to an important show getting ready to close at the Victoria H. Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver, Warhol in Colorado.
In 1981, the Powerses sponsored Warhol's visit to Colorado State University, but it was hardly the only time the artist was here: He attended major exhibits of his work and actually owned property in Carbondale. But his trip to Fort Collins was his most important visit, as Warhol left many footprints during his time there.
The couple's importance in all of this is made clear by a Warhol portrait of Kimiko that CSU sold in order to support its art programs. The portrait, done in Denver, is a perfect example of Warhol's Interview style of work, in which he captured glamorous celebrities glamorously — or, as in the case of Kimiko, made ordinary people look like glamorous celebrities. The silkscreen print and the accompanying poster was done by the now-forgotten and completely undocumented Licht Editions, Ltd. (The Myhren would like anyone with knowledge of Licht to contact the gallery.)
Warhol in Colorado was put together by Myhren director Dan Jacobs, along with Rupert Jenkins, and the exhibit served as an anchor for a series of film screenings and panel discussions. There is also an excellent catalogue with essays by Jacobs and Jenkins, Darrin Alfred and Christoph Heinrich (who, in addition to being the director of the Denver Art Museum, is also a world-renowned expert on Warhol's photographs). Jam-packed with information, the catalogue has a very cool neo-Warholian design by Mary Junda.
This exhibit is the latest in a series that has been masterminded by Jacobs. "The Warhol show is part of my mission to recapture Colorado art history, sometimes connected to DU, but sometimes not," says Jacobs. DU was one of the recipients of Polaroids and eight-by-ten silver gelatin prints from the Warhol Foundation, which donated to 180 or so university galleries and museums around the country. "So obviously, we wanted to do something, but the idea of doing another thematic exhibition of Warhol photographs seemed redundant in the extreme...so Rupert and I decided to go local instead."
In addition to his work at the Myhren, Jenkins is the president of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center — a co-sponsor of the show — and, as such, he's an ad hoc expert in Colorado photography. Through exhibits and the grapevine, he knew that John Bonath and Mark Sink, two notable contemporary photographers in Denver, had been in Fort Collins when Warhol was there and had ample opportunities to take candid photos of him. Sink was a young Denver photographer, and Bonath was a photo professor at CSU. Also included is the work of a one-time photo student at the University of Colorado Denver, Valere Harris (now Valere Harris Shane), who went to New York and had her work published in Interview and thus entered Warhol's circle. The photos by Bonath, Sink and Harris make up a major part of Warhol in Colorado.
Many of these photos are interesting, with a few attaining the rank of being great, despite being mostly taken on the fly. Sink's "Portrait of Andy Warhol" is stunning. In stark detail, it portrays Warhol as limp and slight and very vulnerable-looking. The harsh, bright light on his wrinkled face and bad wig are juxtaposed with the light-absorbing blackness of his elegant suit. Another standout is Bonath's "Andy Warhol, Fort Collins, Colorado," which shows the artist sitting upright on a king-sized bed. A good deal of the color image is taken up either by the garish wallpaper or the orange bedspread, with Warhol off to one side of the horizontally oriented composition. He is also duded up in cowboy clothes, complete with brand-new boots, the soles of which are so un-scuffed that they catch the light. Another Bonath is "Warhol Signing at CSU, Fort Collins." A neat feature of this photo is the guy who brought his snake for Warhol to sign, which is a decidedly Bonathian detail — even though it was serendipitous and Bonath had nothing to do with the snake being there.
As for the photos that were donated to DU, the dreamy Polaroid portraits are of particular interest, in part because Polaroids decay and the colors have gotten so soft. The Polaroids show what a great photographer Warhol was, although his photographic work has long been overshadowed by his paintings and prints, which are themselves photo-based. One strong element of the Polaroids is the composition Warhol uses in some, like "Sean McKeon as Dracula," which has the head shot filling the frame in a crisply symmetrical arrangement. Warhol's approach in a piece like this, was to transform the sitter into an icon (as was his style). It's staggeringly straightforward, and it never gets old.
Speaking of icons, the most striking part of Warhol in Colorado is the two-by-five grid of "Mao" portraits hung against a creamy gray wall. They were loaned to the show by Denver collector Philae Dominick. Like the other prints, notably the ten images from the "Myths" series, their association to Colorado is simply the fact that the pieces are here in the area.
That's also the case with Warhol's graphic design, which is the field that the artist began with in the 1950s before abandoning it for fine art in the '60s. However, in what would have been a counterintuitive move for any one else, Warhol returned to graphic design in the '70s in the form of album covers for the likes of the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and Liza Minnelli. These album cover designs have been included in the show, and they're closely associated with his contemporaneous prints — like his series dedicated to Mick Jagger, which is hung opposite the display of records.
Warhol in Colorado is a complex show. As such, it could be perceived as more of a list of works than a paragraph about them, and I think that's partly true. On the other hand, it's a spectacularly imaginative way to celebrate the gift of the Warhol photos to DU, and without a doubt, Jacobs and Jenkins should be lauded for their effort.
I'd like to close with a quotation from Warhol himself about his thoughts on the Colorado art world. Here in Denver for the opening of his show at the DAM in 1977, Warhol described in his diaries the crowd that came to the exhibit as comprising "all the freaks of Denver, a lot of cute boys and nutty girls."
Isn't it amazing how little things have changed over the intervening decades?
To see photos from this exhibit, go to westword.com/slideshow.