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Facing the Changes

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For nearly thirty years, Denver Art Museum curator Dianne Vanderlip had complete control of the Modern and Contemporary department, but she retired right after the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building was opened in 2006. It was a sad irony because, after begging for space for decades, she finally got it in the new facility, and then, almost immediately, she left.

But she did stay long enough to install the permanent galleries on levels three and four. Laid out more or less historically, the collections begin on level three with a small prewar modernist section followed by the orderly march of the American-dominated abstract styles – from abstract expressionism to minimalism. The newer material is on level four. Her replacement, Christoph Heinrich, plans to shake things up with a remodel of both floors meant to be completed by August in time for the Democratic National Convention.

When the building first opened, many said that sooner or later the walls would have to be straightened out, and it looks like it will be sooner. The canted walls in the small gallery just to the right of the entrance will be covered with rigidly vertical ones. In truth, the space -- most recently used as an annex for Color as Field -- never worked. Maybe it will now. Heinrich is giving the room over to a works-on-paper gallery, with an April debut exhibit that will feature prints selected by Boulder artist and University of Colorado professor Melanie Yazzie.

A space away, Heinrich has taken down the Sean Scully and Agnes Martin paintings, examples of non-objective abstraction, and replaced them with works of contemporary figuration, notably the Eric Fischl that had been hanging upstairs. Heinrich plans to re-hang the entire two floors on the theme of the human figure, so it looks like all the pure abstraction will be heading for the store rooms.

On level four, the space that was originally described as the new home of the Close Range Gallery, where the Betty Woodman installation is on view, will become the project space, whereas Close Range has been consigned to the trash bin of history. This new project space will be inaugurated with a multi-part video installation of work by Norwegian artist Bjorn Melhus, who takes soundtracks from movies and television shows and plays all the different characters himself using both costumes and computer-aided slights of hand. (I wonder how long it will be before the walls in this weird space are straightened up as well.)

This fall, in the Anschutz Gallery on lever two, Heinrich will present a major solo devoted to German artist Daniel Richter (see an example above). One of the last things Heinrich did before he left the Hamburg Kunsthalle, where he used to work, was a Richter solo, and the show in Denver will be a somewhat retooled edition of that.

Doubtless one of the reasons Heinrich was hired was to bring a European sensibility to the DAM. It does make one wonder how the Yankees around here are going to respond to it, though. -- Michael Paglia

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