Balancing Act

The art season runs from September to May, roughly paralleling the academic year. There is even a corollary to summer school, in the form of the art world's light summer season, which is just now winding down. It's September, the kids are back in school, and a new season is about to get under way at any time.

But before that happens and it's too late to reminisce, I'd like to recall last season, which was important in several ways -- not the least of which is the fact that it began the weekend after September 11.

This exercise is more than a nostalgic stroll down memory lane. A number of things took flight in the art world last year that will assuredly come home to roost this year, for better or for worse.

Perhaps it was the timing of the season -- hard on the heels, as it was, of one of our country's most trying events -- that resulted in a year of mixed messages and contradictions. Whatever the reason, when it comes to 2001-2002, there was good news, and there was bad news.

I'll start with the good news.

There was a real surplus of first-rate exhibits just about everywhere, among them several that indicated directional shifts and trends. Surely the most obvious recent curatorial current was the presentation of shows devoted to the art history of the West in general, and Colorado specifically. There have been more shows of this type since 1999 than there were in the previous two decades. Apparently, the turn of the millennium put everyone in a retrospective mood.

Local interest in Western art history is a relatively new phenomenon. Until now, Western art has generally been ignored around here, or -- worse -- regarded as an embarrassment.

Nothing demonstrates this dramatic shift better than the Harmsen Collection, which was unveiled last fall at the Denver Art Museum. The collection, which is housed on the DAM's seventh floor, was put together (and subsequently donated to the museum) by Jolly Rancher millionaires Dorothy Harmsen and her late husband, Bill Harmsen.

The huge Harmsen booty contains many notable works of Western art -- in particular, important paintings by the Taos and Santa Fe masters, including a transcendentalist-style Raymond Jonson that is a genuine masterpiece.

More evidence of the Western-heritage craze was found in Colorado Landscapes and the New Age of Discovery, put on last winter at the Loveland Museum and Gallery. In this beautiful exhibit, painter, collector and curator Doug Erion explored Colorado art from the early twentieth century. Among the standouts were stunning paintings by Broadmoor Academy teachers Birger Sandzen and John Carlson.

Like the Harmsens, Erion included the works of early modernists such as Vance Kirkland and Charles Bunnell as part of the story. Many of the paintings in the show came from yet another collection that, like the Harmsen, was put together by local millionaires -- in this case, Kathy Loo and the late Dusty Loo.

It's not clear what will eventually become of the Loo Collection, (though word is that Kathy Loo would like to see it on public display somewhere). Let me put my two cents in: I think the DAM should avidly pursue getting it, and the sooner the better. Oh, I know that the museum has announced that it will not accept gifts for the time being, what with the new wing under construction and all, but they'd be crazy not to make a play for this one.

As revealed by the inclusion of Jonson, Kirkland and Bunnell in these collections and shows, the rubric "Western art" is no longer limited to landscapes and cowboys and Indians. The term also comprises the early modernism done out West, such as transcendentalism, cubo-regionalism and surrealism.

It's hardly surprising, then, to also find Colorado abstractionists from the '40s through the '60s getting reappraised in the market as an outgrowth of the retro-mania. A number of these artists, some of whom have been dead for decades, were either the subject of solos or were included in group shows last season. And ongoing or new interest in long-dead artists is not the norm; contrary to popular belief, when an artist dies, demand for his or her work generally does, too.

Still alive and able to enjoy the recent revival of interest in his work is octogenarian Al Wynne, whose paintings became well-known last season. This reappearing act on Wynne's part came after a many-year hiatus from the Denver exhibition scene. An acknowledged master of Colorado abstraction since the 1950s, Wynne is among the premier abstract-expressionists working in the West.

Wynne's work was featured in 5 Abstract, at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, alongside that of three other abstract painters (Clark Richert, Dale Chisman and Bev Rosen) and a modernist sculptor (Bob Mangold). The show, organized by MCA director Cydney Payton, was one of the most significant efforts of the entire year.