The opening of the Clyfford Still Museum last month has prompted a resurgence of interest in early abstraction in Colorado, from the 1940s to the 1970s. In the beginning, Still was way ahead of even the most advanced artists here — as well as those in New York. Some Colorado practitioners weren't far behind, however. In fact, some were right up there with such New York School luminaries as Adolph Gottlieb and Helen Frankenthaler.
One of the things working against Front Range abstract expressionists is a lack of documentation: Their exploits rarely made the newspapers, and exhibition catalogues are few and far between. In addition, most of the artists are now dead. On a personal note, I had the chance to meet and talk with some of them, including Mary Chenoweth, Al Wynne and Ken Goehring, all of whom are deceased. It was right after I had gotten out of school, and I didn't realize that I should have tape-recorded these encounters, especially since I quizzed each of them about the scene and about who the other important artists were at the time.
So at this point, although research is being done as we speak, most of what we know about mid-century abstract expressionism in Colorado is based on the paintings themselves. Many are dated, and others can have dates assigned when compared with them. This evidence reveals that some artists in Colorado were beginning to do abstractions of one sort or another in the late 1930s, and by 1955, there was a full-blown abstract-expressionist school here, with many of the style's earliest and most influential proponents working in Colorado Springs. The surviving paintings further reveal that by the end of the 1950s, there were scenes in Denver and Boulder, too.
The leading center for interest in this field is the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, and to celebrate the opening of the Still Museum, the Kirkland is presenting Colorado Abstract Expressionism. I have to say that the show, organized by Kirkland director Hugh Grant, is much more broadly based than the title suggests, and in addition to examples of abstract expressionism, there's a lot of other material in later abstract styles that are related to abstract expressionism but are different.
An exhibit on this topic makes a lot of sense for the Kirkland, since the museum's namesake, Vance Kirkland, was the first local abstract painter to elicit the interest of scholars and historians. And Grant has done more to champion the history of art of the region than anyone by relentlessly displaying works by Colorado artists. More than any other artist who worked in an ab-ex manner around here, Kirkland had the ambition to create works on an enormous scale, like his colleagues on the East Coast.
The show is really more like four interrelated exhibits, each of which could be freestanding if there were room. First is the Kirkland solo in the main exhibition room. Then there's a show in the smaller exhibition room devoted to Kirkland's contemporaries. Scattered throughout these spaces and throughout the museum are the two other legs of this sprawling show — the abstract sculptures and later abstraction in painting. These works are separated from the permanent displays only by the small colored strip on the identifying label. The abstract-sculpture group includes pieces by both historic and contemporary artists, as does the later-abstraction section.
Among the Kirklands, Grant has shown that in the early '50s, the artist began to replace abstract surrealism with abstract expressionism, really hitting his stride in 1953 and '54, when his abstracted landscapes turned into pure abstractions. In the late '50s, Kirkland began to routinely create monumental abstract-expressionist compositions, and paintings such as 1959's "The Expanding Universe" are the real standouts in the entire progression. With more than two dozen Kirklands on view here and the dozen-plus at the Denver Art Museum right now (also meant to celebrate the Still Museum), there are plenty of opportunities to see what Kirkland was all about and why he's one of Colorado's greatest artists.
In the smaller exhibition room, Grant has assembled works by a who's who of artists from the '50s through the '70s, with prime examples from Chenoweth, Wynne, Goehring, Gene Matthews, Nadine Drummond and Jack Canepa. As I noted above, Grant has not limited himself to abstract expressionism, and the upside of that is the remarkable "Aquamarine," a color-field painting by Virginia Maitland from 1978, and Clark Richert's even more remarkable "Exterior," from 1962, which reveals a transition as Richert goes from expressionism to patterning a few years before he helped conceive of the art commune Drop City.
The other two parts of the show — sculptures and later abstraction — both seem to evaporate into the larger displays of decorative art from the permanent collection. This is exacerbated by the fact that all of the sculptures are small. Having said that, Edgar Britton's "Horizontal Squares" is not to be missed. In the later-abstraction portion, there's a marker for Grant's more-is-more ethos: He's used the oversized elevator as a miniature gallery. There's a horizontally oriented Jeff Wenzel acting as a lintel over the open doors, while inside the cab are three large paintings, an Ania Gola-Kumor, a Bill Hayes and a Warren Morrow. The show continues downstairs with a sweet Michael Gadlin, a nice Marshall Smith and a choice Amy Metier.
There are so many marvelous things in Colorado Abstract Expressionism that the show's amorphousness winds up being a minor complaint.
Necessarily more focused, since it's a solo, is Al Wynne: A to Z at Z Art Department, also conceived as a salute to the Still Museum opening. Wynne, part of the pantheon of early Colorado abstract artists, actually studied as a child with Boardman Robinson at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Though he traveled around early on with his wife, ceramicist Lou Wynne, he spent most of his career in a hand-hewn home and studio in the Black Forest.
The show at Z Art Department is the second Wynne solo to be presented at the gallery, and this time the focus is on both his early and later output. Several of these paintings are characterized by a layer made up of the loosely defined shapes that lay between the grounds and the surfaces. The paintings from the '60s, such as "Woman," show the influence the color-field movement had on Wynne, who by this time had abandoned doctrinaire abstract expressionism for good.
Many of the later paintings from the '80s and '90s demonstrate Wynne's skill as a colorist; those pinks, purples and grays he came up with are nothing short of sublime. In explaining the lyricism of his non-objective renderings, Wynne cited the influence of calligraphy — an art form in which he was fluent — as underlying his paintings. That characteristic is easy to see in everything he did, but particularly so in the ribbon-like shapes that billow near the surface in some of them, notably the untitled painting here from 1999.
I was thinking about the effect the Clyfford Still Museum's opening is having on Colorado, and it occurred to me that someday most people will just assume that he lived here — which, of course, he didn't. But that misconception can do nothing but help the abstract expressionists who actually did live here, like Kirkland and Wynne and the dozens of others whose efforts are just now coming to light.
Kirkland Museum: 303-832-8576, www.kirklandmuseum.org
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared weekly since 1995 in Westword. Paglia’s essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine, among others. Paglia has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books and monographs, most of them focusing on modern and contemporary art in the American West. He currently teaches art history at the University of Colorado Denver.