Colorado painter Vance Kirkland (1904-1981) created five distinct periods with many seriesthroughout his career. He made s...
mind for many ideas and developed my kind of work. I think my paintings are stronger for having worked thatway.” 1Kirkland...
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The Abstract Expressionism of Vance Kirkland


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Vance Kirkland was painting in Denver, far from the coastal centers of the abstract expressionism movement. This essay discusses the ways that Kirkland was influenced by, and influenced Abstract Expressionism.

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The Abstract Expressionism of Vance Kirkland

  1. 1. Colorado painter Vance Kirkland (1904-1981) created five distinct periods with many seriesthroughout his career. He made significant contributions to Abstract Expressionism with his 4thperiodof inventive resist techniques and individual compositions.Kirkland’s most identifiable abstract expressionist works are those with mixtures of oil paint andwater, floated onto a gradation background of oil paint on canvas, laid flat on a table. These resistingliquids—with varying proportions of oil paint to water—were poured and spooned from jars. Then,using various instruments such as wads of tissue, q-tips and straws, he composed the liquid mixtures ofoil paint and water into his distinctive bubbling, swirling, multi-layered, elegant patterns (see photos onstudio wall of Kirkland working). Kirkland created these works from 1953 to 1964. To reach the centerof the larger paintings and save his back, Kirkland lay across four straps, suspended from the ceiling ofhis studio, hovering about 1½ feet above the painting that was in place on the work room table.A selection of these oil and water paintings are highlighted in the larger museum ExhibitionRoom I (all but two are by Kirkland); also in Kirkland’s Studio building (mixed in with other series ofpaintings) and with an additional painting from 1964, Concerning Burma, in the back stairway. Nameplates, with the Abstract Expressionism logo, indicate these works as well as those by other artists.Concurrently, with the beginning of his 4thperiod of Abstract Expressionism (1950-1964),Kirkland was still creating surrealist paintings (2ndperiod, 1939-1954) and hard-edge abstractions (3rdperiod, 1947-1957). His love of Surrealism kept him from starting Abstract Expressionism in the late1940s. At that time, Kirkland was being shown in New York and was aware of the so-called “New YorkSchool” of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and others, butKirkland did not feel that he had fully explored Surrealism.Also, Kirkland was included in the 1947-1948 Abstract and Surrealist American Art exhibition at TheArt Institute of Chicago with Pollock, Rothko, Newman, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, ClyffordStill, Arshile Gorky, Ad Reinhardt and others, but Kirkland was placed with the Surrealists and Dadaists—Eugene Berman, Peter Blume, Federico Castellon, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, George Grosz, HelenLundeberg, Matta, Man Ray, Kay Sage, Kurt Seligmann, Yves Tanguy, Dorothea Tanning and others.Kirkland was carried by the prestigious New York gallery Knoedler & Co. from 1946 to1957 andwas known for his surrealist watercolors and tempera paintings. For these, Knoedler gave him threeone-person shows (1946, 1948, 1952), a co-show with Max Ernst (1950) and a co-show with BernardBuffet (1952). After 1953, Kirkland stopped all watercolor and did only three more surrealist paintingsthat are known, all in 1954. The owners of Knoedler, who had invested much to promote Kirkland as asurrealist, watercolor painter, were so upset that they ceased carrying his works.In addition to Knoedler, during this time Kirkland had been included in 18 group shows at TheArt Institute of Chicago, 6 group shows at the Kansas City Art Institute and 11 gallery shows with theCalifornia Watercolor Society. After he stopped watercolor and Surrealism, he was never shown in anyof these places again during his life. Kirkland had dared to change and, by doing so, bequeathed to the artworld a much more diverse and strong career—done in isolation in Denver. Kirkland stated, “So, byminding my own business, and working on my own, I think that it was possible to develop in this part of thecountry. Although I was well aware of the entire history of art and 20thCentury art, I’ve honestly cleared my
  2. 2. mind for many ideas and developed my kind of work. I think my paintings are stronger for having worked thatway.” 1Kirkland not only delayed his adoption of Abstract Expressionism because of his immersion inSurrealism, but he had to feel he could contribute something unique to the abstract movement and notjust repeat what others were doing. Kirkland commented, “You can draw inspiration from the same ideasand sources that other artists have had, but you have to find some new way of doing it on your own. Then youhave the right to think that you are a creative artist and not an imitative artist.” 2These contributions came inthe form of four series and several sub-series which can be seen in the current exhibition at KirklandMuseum:Kirkland’s First Resist Technique—unique mixtures of watercolor paint anddenatured alcohol (1950-1953): This gave him textures that he could somewhat control but alsoresulted in accidental patterns. Kirkland’s first Abstract Expressionist painting, that we know of, is hungin the Studio’s watercolor room: Sea Mysteries, 1950. Four other watercolor paintings with denaturedalcohol are also on view in that room: Colorado Quartet (1952, minute amount in right orange leaf), RockyGlen (1953), Martian Dance (1952) and Trio (1953). Kirkland returned to denatured alcohol in 1962 to doa series of about eleven pure abstraction paintings with various combinations of ink wash, denaturedalcohol, oil paint, water and silver and bronze powders.Broken Glass Series (1951-1954): Three paintings from this series are on view on theoutside wall of the studio foyer. The breaking of the glass introduces a random element of AbstractExpressionism, along with the pressing of the glass pieces onto wet paint, and the resulting aleatorypatterns after the glass is outlined and lifted off the painting. Then Kirkland would sometimes paintother images and refine the painting so that there is again a balance of accident and control in this series.Kirkland’s Second Resist Technique—unique mixtures of oil paint and water (1953-1964): This gave Kirkland frothing, cratered textures unlike any other abstract expressionist, along withKirkland’s characteristic patterns and compositions. He could combine his love of watercolor painting byusing water with oil paint, and develop a whole new artistic vocabulary. For this series, as in the others,Kirkland enjoyed a combination of accident and control. The first painting with these mixtures, Fantasy(1953), is on view in the studio foyer’s inside wall, close to the old front door. All of the Kirklandpaintings in this Exhibition Room I also employ the oil and water mixtures as a final layer. There are fourmain series of oil and water paintings: Nebulae Abstractions, Roman Abstractions, Asian Abstractionsand Pure Abstractions.For six years (1953-1958) Kirkland did smaller paintings using the oil paint and water mixtures.As a former watercolorist, he was capable of achieving complex images and compositions within a small,given space, because of the limited size of watercolor paper. He knew other abstract expressionistswere working larger, but only when Kirkland felt he could make a better painting that was larger, andnot simply because it was big, did he move to large canvases in late 1958.Later, most of Kirkland’s dot paintings have the oil paint and water mixtures as a second of thethree layers. The position of the precise dots is decided by the somewhat accidental oil and waterpatterns underneath. So precision is decided by accident. He used his oil and water techniques until hisdeath in 1981.Valhalla series (1964-1966): Although the Valhalla paintings are considered Kirkland’s firstseries of dot paintings, they have equal amounts—and sometimes more—of oil paint and water mixturesalong with the dots, both as a final layer. They are therefore an important transition from the oil paintand water paintings to the dot paintings and are further examples of his Abstract Expressionism. AValhalla painting from 1965, Red on Blue, is displayed in the large Studio room.--by Hugh Grant, Founding Director and Curator, Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver1Grant, Hugh, Vance Kirkland—Mysteries in Space; catalog for Genesis Galleries Ltd., New York exhibition 1978-1979; publ.Paragon Productions, Denver; page 56.2Ibid., page 57.