Mile-High Masters

The definitive art history of Colorado has yet to be written, but even without a scholarly guide, it's not hard to list the great ones. In terms of mid-century-modernist abstraction, for instance, it is widely known that Herbert Bayer, who lived in Aspen, and Denver's own Vance Kirkland towered over the rest. Though both died decades ago, their work remains relevant to the current art scene here -- and that constitutes a couple of remarkable from-beyond-the-grave feats. Their shared preeminence is demonstrated in many ways, but none more clearly than this fact: The Denver Art Museum has real depth in the work of only three artists, and Bayer and Kirkland are two of them. (The other is New York School giant Robert Motherwell.)

Unfortunately, the DAM displays their work only rarely. Luckily for us, the Emil Nelson Gallery, just west of the museum across Bannock Street, is hosting an incredibly good Bayer show right now. Plus, the Kirkland Museum announced last week that it is permanently loaning the city a trio of canvases that are among the largest projects the artist ever took on -- but more about that in a minute.

The exhibit herbert bayer: maquettes, prints and posters marks the second time this gallery has given the late artist a solo. But while last season's exhibit was made up of owner Hugo Anderson's own Bayer holdings and those of his uncle, this time everything's from the collection of the artist's family. Anderson now represents the family, and that's undeniably a major coup in the local art market. But it is something of a surprise, considering how modest a place Emil Nelson Gallery is.

Located in a turn-of-the-last-century row house, the Emil Nelson does not look like a typical art gallery. The standard today is the chaste, spotlight-lit rectangle, but Emil Nelson is more like the galleries of yore. Instead of being crisp and institutional, the place has a cozy residential atmosphere because it was once a house and is extremely cluttered, with diverse treasures crowded everywhere. It reminds me of how most galleries were when I was a child -- more like curio shops, and not so much like today's mini-museums. Come to think of it, these characteristics make it the perfect setting for the work of an artist who was already famous half a century ago.

Bayer first came to Colorado in 1946, when he moved to Aspen to become a design consultant for the development of the ski resort and of the Aspen Institute. He was born in Austria in 1900 and began to study architecture in 1919 after serving in World War I. In 1921, he entered the Bauhaus, a legendary and revolutionary German art school that preached for a union of all the arts. While a student there, he studied with Vasily Kandinsky, whose influence is easy to see in some of Bayer's later work. In 1925, Bayer became a teacher at the Bauhaus in typography and graphic design. But with the rise of the Nazis, Bayer was forced to flee Germany in 1938, essentially at the last minute before all hell broke loose. He wound up in New York and eventually settled in our state, making a long-lasting contribution to the local cultural scene.

Given his Bauhaus training, it's not surprising that Bayer was interested in doing many different art forms. The show at the Emil Nelson includes examples of his sculpture maquettes, prints and posters, but there are also works on paper and some remarkable paintings stuck around the edges in the storage areas. The paintings are not technically a part of the exhibit, but they might as well be, since they are displayed so close to the things that are.

Bayer went through a number of stylistic phases over his very long career, including surrealism, abstract expressionism and figural abstraction. Pieces from all those genres are on display, but he is best known for geometric abstraction, the style of choice at the Bauhaus. In the 1960s and '70s, Bayer returned to his Bauhaus roots, and it is this style of work that dominates the Emil Nelson outing.

Entering the intimate gallery, viewers are immediately confronted by a table covered with small, painted wooden maquettes that are in individual Plexiglas boxes. There's a playful quality to these pieces -- and not just because their colors recall the shades found on children's toy blocks. Anderson says the pieces remind him of toys, especially of model trains. And like model trains, these maquettes represent things that are meant to be much bigger.

The maquettes were to be realized as full-sized monumental sculptures, like the more-than-fifty-foot-tall, taxicab-yellow "articulated wall," at the Denver Design Center on South Broadway. For "articulated wall," a steel mast was set perpendicular to the ground and specially cast concrete rectangles were mounted to it, stepping in and out as they rise. The Emil Nelson show doesn't include a model of "articulated wall," but it does have the closely related "undulated wall," from 1967, made of wood and Masonite painted white. Also following on the same formal and chromatic concept is "yellow stacked squares," one of the best objects in the show.

"Articulated wall" is the only large-scale Bayer currently on public view in Denver, though there was once another one: Bayer created a major indoor installation for the lobby of the Anaconda Tower, at 555 17th Street. I remember it well and feel fortunate to have seen it before it was foolishly ripped out during a remodel in the mid-1990s. The installation included a shallow pool of water lined with tile and trimmed out in white marble, with large white marble forms, including rectangles, diamonds and semi-circles, set on end. It was fabulous. No one in the art world knew it was endangered -- after all, who in his or her right mind would ax the Bayer material? -- but art dealer Sandy Carson caught wind of the impending vandalism and saved the lobby piece. However, she came in too late to foil plans to annihilate a Bayer mural on the Anaconda's mezzanine, which was painted over. The installation was to be hauled to the dumpsters, but it is now safely in storage at the DAM and will hopefully be re-erected somewhere, someday. The Emil Nelson show has a small model of the Anaconda piece, with the pool painted black and the edges and the forms painted white.

There are so many remarkable maquettes in the show that you might miss all the great works on paper. I especially liked the large untitled lithograph on the back wall in which stripes and crescents intersect one another so that they almost resemble organic forms. Plus, there are all the gorgeous Bayer-designed posters, many of them in racks, that are the most affordable pieces included, costing only a few hundred dollars apiece.

As I surveyed the show one last time, it occurred to me that herbert bayer: maquettes, prints and posters wasn't an abbreviated museum show, but a full-scale production that was shoehorned into the tiny spaces of the Emil Nelson Gallery.

Just a few blocks up Capitol Hill, at 13th and Pennsylvania, is the wonderful Kirkland Museum, where there's always a large selection of Kirkland paintings. Recently the museum announced that three of the artist's most important creations -- "Space Mysteries," 1958, "Vibrations of Scarlet on Crimson," 1968, and "Explosions in Unknown Space," 1976 -- will be hung in the Newton Auditorium's Grand Gallery, which will be adjacent to the still-to-be completed Ellie Caulkins Opera House. The Grand Gallery will make up the lobby space at the orchestra level of the opera house, which is being inserted into the historic 1904-1908 Newton. On the concourse level, works by Stephen Batura and John DeAndrea have been commissioned.

The Newton name was affixed to the auditorium in 2003 in honor of former mayor Quigg Newton. Interestingly, Newton displayed Kirkland's paintings in his office during his term, which is why museum director Hugh Grant felt that it was fitting to display Kirklands in the newly renovated Newton Auditorium.

"Space Mysteries" and "Explosions in Unknown Space" are examples of the artist's experiments in mixing oil and water. "Vibrations of Scarlet on Crimson" is a classic dot painting in an op-art style and, at fourteen feet across, has the distinction of being Kirkland's largest single-panel painting.

Kirkland invented both the oil-and-water mixture and the transfer-painted dot techniques, as well as the subject matter: an imaginary view of outer space. "Kirkland was sad that humans were destroying their own environment, so he went to the stars," Grant says. "The paintings are a sort of commentary on our disregard for our own earth. Needless to say, he was a Democrat." As was Newton, I might add. Another interesting connection is that November 3 was the hundredth anniversary of Kirkland's birth, meaning he was born in 1904 -- the same year the Newton Auditorium was designed!

It will be the summer of 2005 before the Newton Auditorium is completed, which is when the public will get to see those Kirklands. In the meantime, check out the museum itself, where there are many examples of the master's work on display right now.