One of my favorite places is the Kirkland Museum in Denver. It has the feel of a secret, tucked in an unassuming building you could miss if you weren’t looking for it, and it’s packed with treasures. It showcases not only Vance Kirkland’s own art, which earned him a reputation as one of the premier painters working in this region in the 20th century, but also his generous collection of other people’s paintings, drawings, furniture and decorative objects. Kirkland came to Colorado in 1929 to found the University of Denver School of Art, and he served as a teacher, mentor, and inspiration for a generation of Colorado’s artists, particularly those working in abstraction. Kirkland’s spirit seems to course through a new book of work by Colorado’s contemporary abstract artists, Colorado Abstract: Painting and Sculpture, with essays by Westword art critic Michael Paglia and former Rocky Mountain News art and architecture critic Mary Voelz Chandler.
In the introduction, Paglia considers Colorado’s history as a hub of modernist art. Many of the artists who came to Colorado to paint over the last century were as drawn to the landscape as were predecessors like Albert Bierstadt, but more recent artists were less inclined to interpret what they saw literally. Charles Bunnell‘s 1936 watercolor “Pikes Peak,” for example, is black and white, with cliffs looming like squared-off industrial colossi that Fritz Lang could have envisioned. Vance Kirkland painted some surrealist mountain scenes, such as his 1947 “Landscape with Root Forms,” and then eventually blasted off into the universe with his nebula series.
Few of the 52 contemporary Colorado artists featured in the book are making landscapes, abstracted or otherwise, but many of them are creating sculptures that harmonize with the Colorado landscape, as several of the works in this book are featured as outdoor public installations. One of my favorites is Carl Reed’s “Dawn Ring,” which rests outside the Aurora Central Library. Constructed in steel and oak, it reminds me of a lariat, or some rusty relic of Colorado’s mining past, even though it’s not meant to look like anything specific. Chandler writes, “A critic once termed Reed’s sculpture ‘avant-garde Amish,’ a wry way in which to address the dichotomy inherent in his work, where fundamental meets minimal.”
Flipping through a book of contemporary abstract art tells you as much about your own taste as it does about the artists that are featured. For some reason, I’m drawn to mixed media and collage that features bits of text or symbols, such as Don Quade’s delightful “Letters to India” and “Postcards from Barcelona,” with a pleasing maroon, mustard, and ice blue color scheme, random letters and numbers, and in “Letters to India,” a stylized ghostly lotus-flower image. In this same vein, I love Emilio Lobato’s work, which includes yellowed sheets of text that look like they came from ancient dictionaries, expertly balanced in composition with opaque black or red shapes that almost look like something recognizable—is that a scythe? Or an oil derrick?—but don’t quite.
Sue Simon‘s sharp paintings incorporate harmonious patterns and color schemes and scientific text, such as DNA sequences or molecule diagrams. Ana Maria Hernando’s work is also great, especially a piece with an unforgettable title, “A Small Mountain of Doubts in My Jungle Night”: eight black panels with scalloped edges, white spots that suggest stars, a pile of multicolored shapes building from the bottom, and rising in the middle, the bold red outline of a lotus flower.
Another artist who incorporates language into his work is the Iraq-born Denver artist Halim Al-Karim. Some of his work grapples with somber themes that suggest the fraught history of his native country, while others speak to its cultural history. “Pink Language” is a densely worked canvas filled with forms and shapes that look like some ancient Mesopotamian language, and “Clay Window of Baghdad” is an intricate work with delicate interlocking forms made out of clay that suggest Cuneiform or hieroglyphics.
On the other hand, I’ve never really enjoyed work that seems intent to gross you out or jar your perceptions of body image, such as Martha Russo’s sculpture “Plug,” made out of clay, pig intestine, and fruit, that looks like a body part you should be thankful you don’t have. Chandler praises Russo’s work, writing, “For Martha Russo, the body is ripe for conceptual dissection, as demonstrated in pieces that offer the pleasure of being vaguely recognizable, continually challenging, and always beautiful.” My reaction is clearly my fault, not the artist’s—I once spent a shocked afternoon in the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin, which is filled with work by internationally acclaimed contemporary artists. I wandered from one room of art made out of dead animals or entrails to another filled with pieces that were of depressing austerity, bewildered.
But that’s what’s endearing about abstract art—freed from responding to it on the basis of how accurately the artist renders a recognizable object, you can instead judge it based on the feeling it gives you personally. Even those of us who haven’t studied art formally can express our opinions about public art. I loved Sarah Fox’s painting “Part Deux” simply because its mint green and red color combination and use of wheel-like shapes reminded me of the Bianchi Milano café bike I’ve seen around town. Colorado Abstract is packed with too much strikingly good work to mention it all—from Terry Maker’s darkly glittering “Side 1,” made out of shards of vinyl records to David Mazza’s carefully balanced steel sculptures. Based on the evidence of this book, Colorado’s contemporary art scene appears to be thriving.
Many of the artists featured in Colorado Abstract are teachers in the state’s art schools, so part of their legacy, like Kirkland’s, could prove to be the many future Colorado artists whose careers they foster.