Over the years, Floyd Tunson has exhibited his work at the Denver Art Museum, the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Metro's Center for Visual Art and several top galleries. And right now, you can see Floyd D. Tunson: Son of Pop, a full-blown survey of his long and illustrious career, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
The exhibit, complete with a catalogue, was organized by museum director Blake Milteer, who spent five years putting it together. Since Tunson, who lives in Manitou Springs, creates work at a breakneck pace, Milteer allowed for the idea that the show would include not only works that Tunson had already created, but new pieces that would be made while the show was in the planning stages. Thus, there are some things in Son of Pop that were only recently finished. Milteer feels that these newest works are some of the strongest in the show, and I would have to agree.
Tunson, who was born in Denver in 1947, is the seventh of ten children. His mother, who had picked cotton in Texas as a young girl, cleaned the offices of two doctors in Denver. What makes this relevant to Tunson's stylistic development as an artist is that she would bring home out-of-date magazines from those offices; it was in their pages that the budding artist was first exposed to pop art.
Tunson graduated from East High School and went on to earn a bachelor's degree at Adams State College in 1969, but soon after, he was drafted into the Army. While stationed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Tunson, who is black, got the chance to go to Washington, D.C., and discovered the city's large African-American population. This initial encounter with a lot of other black people would have a lifelong effect on his work, which, at its core, is a cogent and multi-layered political statement about the horrors of racism and its negative effect on his community.
Having embraced the pop-art aesthetic, moderated by a raft of other influences — notably Picasso and Matisse — Tunson twisted the style to his own aims. Rather than use recognizable imagery to comment on society as a whole, as Andy Warhol had done, Tunson uses it to make political points. By the way, Warhol is an important source of inspiration for Tunson, as are pop pioneers Larry Rivers and Robert Rauschenberg.
In 1971, Tunson took an early out from the Army in order to accept a job teaching art at Palmer High School. Believe it or not, Colorado Springs was an interesting place to be an artist in the 1970s. Abstract painters like Mary Chenoweth, Al Wynne and Ken Goehring, who had come of age in the late '40s to mid-'60s, were mostly still working. And there was a group of younger artists that Tunson fell in with almost immediately; they included Gael Bennett, the late John Haeseler, Rex Ray and Dave Roberts. All were doing work that was somehow related to pop art.
In 1974, Tunson was the subject of a major solo at the CSFAC organized by Emma Bunker, who briefly served as the center's interim director; she set a high standard there, with Milteer being among the handful of curators who have met it since.
Tunson is relentless in exploring different art forms, with his work falling into three distinct types. First are paintings and other two-dimensional approaches. Second are his sculptures, which have a funky quality, though Tunson links them more to arte povera than to the funk movement itself. Finally are the culminations of all his ideas: the installations that combine photo-based and other imagery, sculptural elements and found objects chosen for their evocative quality in furthering his narratives.
Son of Pop is vast in covering Tunson's output, and there are nearly 100 separate pieces in the show, some of them monumental in size, which explains why Milteer dedicated no less than seven separate spaces to the effort, including nearly the entire second floor.
The show begins in the atrium, where the over-the-top installation "Haitian Dream Boats," from the 1990s, is on view. The piece refers to the rickety boats Haitians use to get to the U. S., only to be turned back. The skeletal boat-forms, made of strips of wood, are suspended from the ceiling and are on the floor. As viewers walk through the atrium, the piece builds, becoming more densely composed, then winding up at the crescendo, a gigantic painting: "Adrift," which depicts a Haitian man swimming in the ocean.
The bulk of the show is up the stairs, where Milteer has arranged pieces in a roughly chronological order, beginning with the work of the '70s and '80s. Among the earliest are Warholian portraits like "My Father." In others, like "Go West," the influence of Rivers is easy to see. There's a wide range of techniques displayed, including the appropriation of images, graffiti-like spray paint and more traditional painting, drawing and sculpture.
Some of these pieces, like the Rauschenberg homage "Son of Pop," from which the show takes its name, feature found objects attached to paintings. These lead directly to Tunson's incredible wall installations, which date from the 1990s and should be counted as masterpieces, both because they are undeniably great and because they bring all of Tunson's various techniques and stylistic gestures together into single works. These include the stunning "Pop Up Rodeo," in which freestanding cut-out portraits of black cowboys are set before a large background screen defining the scene as a rodeo. I'd say History Colorado should acquire it, but, too late: The CSFAC already owns it.
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Dealing almost exclusively with African-American subjects, Tunson's installations can be lyrical and romantic, like "Pop Up Rodeo," or more in-your-face confrontational, like "Hearts and Minds," which addresses gang violence and is perhaps his greatest work. In it, Tunson orchestrates a bevy of images, including striking portraits of handsome young black men and depictions of targets, drugs and money; all of it is organized beneath a pair of gigantic handgun paintings that bracket the piece on either side at the top. In "Delta Queen," another of his over-the-top installations, he mixes the wistful sensibility of the rodeo piece with the socio-political content of the gang piece. "Delta Queen" is the most densely composed of the group.
In the 2000s, Tunson continued his lifelong exploration of race with his provocative "Remix" series, which put together racist depictions of Africans and copies of modern-master paintings, and the outrageous "Universal Bunnies" series, which plays off the archaic racist phrase "jungle bunnies" in combine-paintings and sculptures.
Also in recent years, Tunson has created a body of abstract paintings and one of abstract wall-relief sculptures, with both types referring to abstract expressionism. Though these may seem unprecedented in his oeuvre, Tunson has always used approaches that are most associated with abstraction, even when dealing with recognizable subjects.
I would say that Floyd D. Tunson: Son of Pop is in the elite category of the greatest shows ever devoted to any contemporary Colorado artist — think Dale Chisman at RedLine, or Robert Mangold at the Arvada Center. If you haven't seen it, you really should.