It's no exaggeration to say that when Spark opened in the fall of 1979, it launched the alternative scene that is still a vibrant part of the city's artistic life. Soon after, in 1980, Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis came on line. A couple of years later, Core New Art Space opened, followed by the Edge Gallery and all the rest. In the intervening years, the alternative scene blossomed, and many galleries and organizations have come and gone since Spark first opened its doors.
Spark was founded by two artists, Andy Libertone and Paul Gillis, both of whom had only recently moved to Denver from Boulder. The artist pals rented a vacant Victorian store front at the corner of 33rd Avenue and Osage Street. The neglected structure had once been occupied by the Mancinelli grocery store, which had moved to a new building a few blocks away. "We were sitting on the floor when we came up with the idea," recalls Libertone. "Paul and I both lived there and had our studios there. We rented out the front to Carlos Fresquez."
Libertone and Gillis felt that an exhibition venue was needed to serve as an alternative to the handful of commercial galleries then in Denver that were displaying contemporary art. That's why it's called the alternative scene--and not, as many believe, because the art is alternative. In fact, as is true these days as well, many of the same artists exhibit in both the alternative and commercial realms.
According to Libertone, the thirteen artists who first came together to create Spark did so as a result of networking. "We talked to friends and they talked to their friends and that's how we came up with the original group," says Libertone.
But it wasn't as easy as it looks, says Gillis. "Finding the right people was the most important thing." And he adds that artists needed to have the time not only to do their own work, but to work on the gallery, too.
Gillis sees the lack of space for exhibitions as a perpetual problem for artists throughout history. "There was nothing new about the idea for Spark," says Gillis, "because co-ops were in the air at the time, and there had already been one in Boulder."
Gillis is referring to Boulder's Edge Gallery, not to be confused with the Denver co-op of the same name. The former Edge, which was located on Pearl Street, lasted for only a year after it opened in 1975.
Though neither Libertone nor Gillis had been members of Edge, many of their friends were--and so were the first artists to be recruited for Spark. A number of the former Edge artists were part of the Criss Cross group, which championed mathematically based abstractions. Clark Richert, a founder of Criss Cross and one of the first of the Edge group to join Spark, clarifies the distinction between the two Boulder-based associations. "Criss Cross had its offices in the Edge Gallery, but Criss Cross was not Edge," he explains. Edge was devoted to all kinds of abstraction, and Criss Cross championed a very specific pattern painting approach.
Gillis also drives home the point that "Spark was not a spin-off of Edge, as some people believe." Margaret Neumann is another of the first members of Spark, but she was not connected to either Edge or Criss Cross. She adds that "Edge was not Spark. There was no prescribed ideology that unified the Spark members. Edge was about abstraction, and Criss Cross was about structured abstraction...but at Spark there was a strong figural current also."
A figural abstractionist, Neumann was key to the founding of Spark. In fact, the evocative name of the co-op was actually taken from Neumann's now-deceased dog Sparky.
Neumann's point about the important role of figurative art at early Spark is well-taken, as the show reveals.
On one hand are the many hard-edged abstractions of the Criss Cross artists; on the other are figural paintings that feature a variety of unrelated abstract and representational styles. Interestingly, the work of Libertone and Gillis can't be neatly fit into this easy division between patterned abstraction and figural revival. The work of each is highly individualized.
The founding group remained in Spark until 1984. "We all quit at the same time," says Libertone. "Someone said it was because we all got jobs."