Herbert Bayer was a giant in the history of Colorado art. He lived and worked in Aspen for thirty years, and although he never lived in Denver, Bayer did have a close association with the city. He would come down to purchase art supplies at Meininger and to exhibit his work in group shows alongside the best artists in Colorado, notably Vance Kirkland.
Born in Austria, Bayer attended Germany’s famous Bauhaus and then taught there before the art school was closed by the Nazis. The Bauhaus principles — at their core, the maxim “Less is more” — were foundational to modernism in Europe and America. Like many of his colleagues, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, Bayer ultimately fled Europe to escape the Holocaust. He went first to New York before coming to Colorado in the mid-1940s, having been offered a design consulting job by industrialist Walter Paepcke.
Bayer is especially well known for his work in typography, inventing his own typeface, “Universal,” which is still used. He was also a graphic designer, architect, urban planner, earth-work artist, painter and sculptor. His work was highly influential to a wide range of later artists active over the next several decades, ranging from the minimalists to Andy Warhol.
Bayer left his mark on the Mile High City with his well-known and high-profile sculpture “Articulated Wall,” a bright-yellow 85-foot-tall stack of concrete beams in the Denver Design Center, visible from South Broadway on the east and the light rail from the west. It was constructed the year Bayer died, 1985, with the finishing touches applied the following year. He never actually saw the sculpture in person, because he was in declining health, living in California. But he did see photos of it as it was being assembled taken by his son, Javan Bayer. Soon after it was finished, “Articulated Wall” was donated to the Denver Art Museum, which has vast Bayer holdings in its permanent collection.
About half a dozen years ago, when “Articulated Wall” was being restored, Denver artist Koko Bayer, Javan’s stepchild, and Paul Hobson, Herbert’s former studio assistant, were brought in as researchers and consultants by the owner of the surrounding property, D4 Urban. The company is overseeing the development of roughly 75 acres, including the Denver Design Center, that has been dubbed Broadway Park. An enormous mixed-use development dominated by residential buildings, Broadway Park is bounded by South Broadway to the east, the light rail line to the west, I-25 to the south, and Alameda Avenue to the north.
Dan Cohen, a development partner at D4 Urban, came up with the idea of supplementing “Articulated Wall” with other Bayer works to be scattered throughout Broadway Park, tapping Koko to gain access to the archive of possibilities.
“It wasn’t until we dug into the archives that we discovered that Herbert had made so many maquettes for sculptures that were never built, literally hundreds of them,” recalls Koko. “He’d create a sketch maquette, and if he liked it, a proper maquette, and then he’d have an assistant photograph it and file the image away.”
These maquettes had scant notations, indicating only the materials he wanted to use and the colors he employed as finishes on them, but not the dimensions, which he felt could vary according to the needs of the site. Among the possibilities being considered by D4 Urban was a sketch maquette titled “Four Chromatic Gates” from 1982 that’s in the collection of the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art. Koko was familiar with the piece, and when she showed it to Cohen, he chose it to be the first of several that he intends to commission.
Cohen had the maquette digitally photographed so that proper measurements and ratios between the elements could be determined and codified. Given the casual approach Bayer had taken in the maquette in the first place, refinements needed to be made in order to produce the finished piece. This resulted in small but observable differences between the maquette and the sculpture.
As revealed by the maquette, which is made of wood, “Four Chromatic Gates” comprises four open rectangles, each taking the form of a door frame made up of two upright rectilinear pillars connected by a rectilinear lintel across the top. These four open shapes, each a different color, are nested together so that they overlap in space, though they never actually touch. The painted wood of the maquette has been translated into the painted and welded steel of the fully realized “Four Chromatic Gates” sculpture. The colors used on the maquette — blue, white, red and yellow — have been applied to the sculpture according to the rhythm already established in the model, so that the tallest is done in blue and the others following in white, red and yellow.
The choice of these colors, which are the primaries plus white, harks back to Bayer's Bauhaus days, wherein art was reduced to its most basic features — and in this case, its most basic colors. A similar reduction is seen formally, in which only straight horizontals and verticals are used by Bayer to build the visual language of the sculpture, with the interaction of the components creating intrigue.
Since “Less is more” was a mantra for Bayer, the architectonic sculpture, despite its utter simplicity, functions in a multitude of ways. It serves as an iconic object when seen from a distance, yet has an intimate appeal when viewed up close, with visitors able to enter and exit the open-air structure.
“Four Chromatic Gates” has been installed in a plaza that serves as a forecourt connecting South Cherokee Street to the Alameda light-rail station. The property is owned by RTD, though D4 Urban paid for the sculpture and is responsible for maintaining it. This plaza is immediately adjacent to Denizen, a loft complex that has its own art — most prominently, a Sandra Fettingis aluminum, acrylic and LED relief titled “Moving Right Along,” from 2016. This sculpture hangs on the south wall of the Denizen building, hovering above “Four Chromatic Gates.”
You can get a good view of “Articulated Wall” from the plaza, which is several blocks to the south, encouraging you to link the two Bayer pieces in your mind, as was intended all along. Both “Four Chromatic Gates” and “Moving Right Along” have integral lighting systems; together, they create an elegant and exciting spectacle after dark.
“Four Chromatic Gates” is surrounded by a dozen concrete rectilinear stools, which provide seating for viewers and protection from landscape vehicles and snow plows on the plaza while directing the bulk of the foot traffic away from the piece. The plaza will be a great spot for commuters to take a break and enjoy the view.
The idea of creating a Bayer collection at Broadway Park is hard to argue with, given that “Articulated Wall” is already there; D4 Urban and Koko Bayer, who is facilitating the project, should be lauded for their efforts. According to Koko, there were many snags on the way to constructing and installing the sculpture. The initial fabricator bailed on the project at the last minute, for instance, and there were many more times when D4 Urban would have been justified in pulling the plug. But the company never flinched.
“Dan Cohen was the one person that made this happen, because he’s been extremely passionate about creating this collection,” Koko says.
Cohen told me that he views Bayer’s ideas as a well of inspiration for a range of concepts he’s promoting at Broadway Park, and not just the artist’s sculptures, but also his typography, his way-finding ideas, and his overall approach to coherent design. We can all look forward to seeing what Cohen — and Bayer — have in store for Denver in the years to come.
“Four Chromatic Gates” is located at the Alameda Light Rail Station at 425 South Cherokee Street.