Time Marches On

The Arvada Center is presenting the epoch-defining two-part exhibition Colorado Abstraction, 1975-1999, which fills the entire two-story facility. Last week I reviewed Part I, a breezy look at the key abstract painters and sculptors who emerged in the 1970s. This week I look at Part II, which presents the artists of the 1980s and 1990s. Both parts were organized by museum director Kathy Andrews.

Like the show itself, Part II -- which is handsomely installed in the second-floor galleries -- is bifurcated. For the artists who rose to prominence in the 1980s, Andrews typically paired an older piece with a newer one; for those who came to the fore in the 1990s, she included only a single piece.

In compiling her list of artists from the 1980s, Andrews relied on a decade's worth of experience at the Arvada Center; many of these artists have been the subject of solo shows there, while others have made appearances in group shows. But the 1990s generation was another matter. For this group, she relied on guidance from others. "I had the most trouble coming up with the younger artists," she says. "I talked to a lot of people and asked them who they thought were the most important abstractionists right now."

Although Andrews visited numerous studios, some of the artists got her attention in a more informal way. "As I began to look, a buzz about the show developed, and many artists called or sent slides," she says. Some of their works wound up in the show. "I was impressed with all the artists, but especially the younger ones. They know what they're doing and why they're doing it."

There were two important abstract artists, however, who did not accept an invitation to participate -- an incredible circumstance, since many who were not invited would have killed to be selected. According to Andrews, Mark Travis never responded to her repeated requests, and Brad Miller begged off, saying he was too busy.

The resulting Part II is distinct from Part I, not just because of the different date range, but also visually. The aesthetic distinction is a function of the tremendous changes contemporary art has undergone in the past 25 years, and Andrews says she's "delighted the two shows look so different from each other."

In the 1970s, abstraction was still the main course for many artists, even if movements like pop art and hyper-realism had already reintroduced representation. By the 1980s, though, abstraction was in trouble. The revival of recognizable subjects became all the rage, not just because of the pop artists and the super realists, but because of the rise of the ultimate '80s style, neo-expressionism. Artists were also leaving behind media like painting and sculpture to embrace installation and conceptual art.

The 1990s, however, witnessed a return to abstraction despite these countervailing tendencies. This may be part of the same reflexiveness that has us looking backward at the past century. Or, more likely, it demonstrates the continuing appeal of modernism.

Jane Fudge, an associate curator at the Denver Art Museum who wrote the brochure that accompanies Colorado Abstraction, discusses the current situation. She even goes so far as to label abstraction in recent years an "academic" style.

This observation reveals an interesting problem. Abstract art has never found general acceptance with the public -- even when it was unrivaled as the style of choice for contemporary artists. And today, vanguard artists and their supporters have also turned against it, increasingly seeing abstraction as a reactionary approach.

In other words, whereas the general public views abstract art as something that's really wild and out there, enthusiasts of cutting-edge art have thrown it into the waste bin of history, regarding it as quaint and even old-fashioned.

This diversity of opinion demonstrates the ever-widening gulf between the public and the art world, a predicament that will become graver in the coming years and may have a deleterious effect on art.

Andrews hasn't addressed these issues in either part of the show, however. She simply celebrates abstract art without critiquing it. "My intention was to honor artists working in abstraction today," she says.

The hanging arrangement of Part II -- which begins at the top of the grand staircase -- does not manifest the division between the artists of the 1980s and those of the 1990s, a pity because it's left to the visitor to sort out the two generations. To keep them separate, it may be helpful to refer to the exhibition checklist printed on the back of the brochure.

One of the first artists on display is Homare Ikeda, who is represented by a pair of fabulous signature paintings. Ikeda's style is a response to abstract expressionism, in which he takes an all-over approach to composition while exploring the nature of paint. In "Untitled," an oil on canvas from 1989, Ikeda uses thousands of tiny daubs of paint applied thickly in the center. "Untitled (Benighted Time)," an oil and wax on canvas done last year, is also densely painted. Though similar in style, "Untitled" is brightly toned, whereas the later painting is dark and murky.