Art Review: The Denver Art Museum and the Art Hotel Are Really Showing Off

There has been a lot going on in and around the Denver Art Museum recently — so let’s get started.

Last year, William Morrow left the DAM after an extremely short tenure as the Polly and Mark Addison Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. His departure was seemingly by mutual consent. Museum director Christoph Heinrich and modern-art curator Gwen Chanzit took over his duties on an interim basis while a replacement was found (more about that in a minute).

Heinrich started at the DAM in 2007 as curator in the Modern and Contemporary department before being tapped for the director’s job in 2010. And in a way, the exhibit Showing Off, which is now on display, is a survey not only of the pieces that the museum has acquired during his time there (though there are a few things included that are slightly older), but also of the shows that have been mounted over those eight years.

For example, there are suspension pieces in the form of attenuated bags from John McEnroe’s “The Bathers” series, which was first shown in Embrace!, an installation exhibit that Heinrich put together. Another example is Andres Ruwald’s earthenware installation of tiles and simple shapes, “You will see,” which came out of Chanzit’s Marvelous Mud. There are even some pieces that were snagged from traveling shows (not the Rothko exhibit, sadly), such as an untitled sculpture from the Nick Cave solo; it comprises one of the artist’s signature figures standing on one end of a seesaw, with a hybrid animal sitting on the other.

The strategy used in Showing Off is a compellingly smart one, as it coherently builds the collection while documenting the DAM’s exhibition program dating back pretty much to when the Hamilton opened — just a year before Heinrich got there.

The show has been installed instinctually rather than according to stylistic considerations. In one passage, for instance, a hyperrealist drawing by Aspen’s Joseph Stashkevetch is hung adjacent to a minimalist Agnes Martin, with the two pieces linked only by their shared palettes. The Stashkevetch, “A Beautiful Fall,” was specially created for a solo a couple years ago, while the Martin masterpiece, “White Rose,” a grid of graphite on canvas, represents that artist’s less-is-more style. Heinrich told me that the donor of the Martin, Olivia Coan Jones, was completely unknown to the museum until her lawyers contacted the institution with news of the gift.

Across from the Martin is another of the collection’s recent gains, a magnificent Al Held; the post-minimal black-and-white composition was given to the museum in honor of Heinrich’s predecessor in the Modern and Contemporary art department, Dianne Vanderlip, whom I will talk about more in due course.

The show is dominated by works done by internationally famous artists such as Cave, Martin and Held, and also includes pieces by Glenn Ligon, Odd Nerdrum, Kerry James Marshall, Sol LeWitt and Vik Muniz. These star artists are presented together with works by a large contingent of artists who either live in Colorado or once did. This group includes, in addition to McEnroe and Stashkevetch, Martha Daniels, Amy Metier, Bill Amundson, Maynard Tischler, Stacey Steers, Daniel Sprick and Ben Jackel.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago in my review of Thief Among Thieves at MCA Denver, it seems that anything goes in contemporary art right now. That observation is borne out by the decidedly more high-end exemplars in Showing Off: Classic modernist formalism marks one pole, while neo-dada, post-pop and conceptualism mark the other.

As we walked through the exhibit, Heinrich mentioned that the DAM had chosen a new Modern and Contemporary curator to replace Morrow, but that he wasn’t yet ready to announce it. He pointed out that the DAM had twice conducted a job search on its own, but that those efforts had failed. So the museum enlisted a head-hunting firm to approach curators who weren’t looking for a job, but who might consider the one at the DAM if it were offered.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Heinrich then dropped a hint as to the identity of the new hire, when he plugged the DAM-sponsored July 18 presentation of Matthew Barney’s new six-hour film, River of Fundament. This was a clue because the new curator — who has since been announced — is Rebecca Hart. Formerly of the beleaguered Detroit Institute of Arts, Hart has written on Barney, acquired his work for Detroit, and even coordinated sections of River of Fundament. Clearly, she has a keen interest in time-based work — in particular, film, video and performance.

Hart will be filling a slot that was first established by Vanderlip when she founded the department in 1978. And Vanderlip has been back in town recently to curate the collection on view at the brand-new The Art: A Hotel, which celebrated its grand opening last week at 1201 Broadway, just steps from the DAM. Though she has curated shows in Europe over the past few years, this marks Vanderlip’s first curation in Denver since she left.

The collection she assembled includes loaned pieces, pieces owned by the hotel (some created especially for it), and pieces from the collection of Lanny Martin, chair of the DAM board and the person for whom Martin Plaza is named. Martin also owns a penthouse at the adjacent Museum Residences that is used for DAM events; not incidentally, he is also an investor in the hotel project.
The selections reveal that Vanderlip is still at the top of her game: The pieces installed in the hotel are invariably interesting — and many are downright great. Tapping her numerous national connections in the world of contemporary art — including famous artists with whom she’s had long associations — Vanderlip was able to come up with pieces that actually rival those at the DAM.

Artists represented include Larry Bell, John Baldessari, Deborah Butterfield, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, and Ed Ruscha and many others. Laudably, Vanderlip also included a number of artists associated with Colorado — both historic figures, such as Herbert Bayer and Vance Kirkland, and contemporary talents like Clark Richert, Phil Bender, Mary Ehrin, Sushe Felix and Betty Woodman. Hotel visitors will come across great pieces around every corner.

The hotel replaces a gravel-covered plot fronting a huge, multi-story concrete wall facing Broadway that blighted the street for years. The spot wasn’t originally intended to be the high-profile scar that it became — a vertically oriented building was always planned for this site as part of the original design of Daniel Libeskind’s Hamilton complex (which also includes a parking garage and the Museum Residences). Libeskind envisioned the mid-rise tower serving as a balancing element to Gio Ponti’s North Building across West 13th Avenue, with the two buildings diagonally bookending the entire DAM campus.

Interestingly, the designer of The Art: A Hotel, was Guadalupe Cantu, who came to Denver as a representative of Studio Daniel Libeskind to oversee construction of the Hamilton, the garage and the Museum Residences. The Davis Partnership Architects also worked on those projects, and Cantu was eventually hired by the Denver-based firm, where he now works and for which he designed the hotel.

The building, a cluster of interlocking canted volumes filling the narrow site in a very Libeskind-esque way, is marvelous. Some have criticized the use of stucco on some of the walls, but there’s also a lot of stone, glass and metal to offset it — and there’s nothing inherently bad about stucco, anyway. From my point of view, The Art: A Hotel — despite its awkward name — is one of the best new buildings downtown, completing the DAM campus even if its connections to the museum are only tenuous.

Showing Off
Through January 3 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue, Parkway, 720-865-5000,