Kirkland Museum: Colorado Abstract Expression


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For docent training Module 3: Colorado Art and Artists

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Kirkland Museum: Colorado Abstract Expression

  1. 1. Significant Abstract Expressionism was not limited to New York and San Francisco. In this exhibition,Colorado artists are recognized for their contributions to perhaps America’s most important art movement, onethat moved the art capital of the world from Paris to New York. This survey is not comprehensive, as spacelimitation necessitated omissions. The works on display are all from the permanent collection of KirklandMuseum.~The New York Scene~It is a matter of debate exactly how to define Abstract Expressionism. The two seminal art critics for thissubject, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, did not agree. Looking just at the so-called “New YorkSchool”—one has the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock; the jagged lines of Clyfford Still; the luminous squares ofMark Rothko; the nightmarish women by Willem de Kooning; the “Zips” (paintings) of Barnett Newman (withvertical lines against a color field background); the monumental black calligraphic lines against white canvas ofFranz Kline; the black forms against various colored backgrounds of Robert Motherwell (of his 172 paintingstitled Elegy to the Spanish Republic beginning in 1949); with additional distinctive paintings by Arshile Gorky,Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Ad Reinhardt and others.It is also a matter of debate when Abstract Expressionism started. It has been generally accepted thatwhen Pollock did his first drip painting in late 1947, it launched the movement. But with the Clyfford Still Museumin Denver revealing many of that artist’s works for the first time, it appears that Still may have been engaging inAbstract Expressionism as early as 1944. But wait, Hans Hofmann was also doing drip-like paintings about 1943to 1944, although it is thought that he went back and pre-dated some of his paintings.Despite these lively, ongoing discussions, Abstract Expressionism was so powerful, so fresh, so tantalizing,that it propelled these disparate, individual careers, each as vital as the others. At the core of the movement, theartists poured out their emotions onto canvas. The paintings are mostly pure abstraction where texture, color,line and form convey feelings, purposely or unconsciously. References to subjects, if any, are not carefullydelineated or deliberately rendered, but appear as if dream-like or coming from a spontaneous reaction tosomething. Vague memories, either pleasant or dreadful, are perhaps expressed. For instance a color fieldpainting can be soothing or agitating or exciting.Although Abstract Expressionism has been dominated by painters, there have also been contributions tothe movement by sculptors. David Smith started in the late 1940s to construct steel sculptures which can relateto Abstract Expressionism, as did Ibram Lassaw in the 1950s, with Anthony Caro and Mark di Suvero into theearly 1960s. Some of the best known abstract expressionist painters created sculptures including BarnettNewman who completed six, such as the famous Broken Obelisk of 1963, now floating on a pool in front of theRothko Chapel in Houston; also de Kooning doing bronzes in the 1970s. Abstract Expressionism shook the artworld and it has never been the same since.~The California Scene~California had a considerable number of abstract expressionist artists but they did not band together in aformal group, just as the New York School was only loosely associated. Hans Hofmann taught the summers of1930 and 1931 at the University of California, Berkeley. Clyfford Still moved to the East Bay area near SanFrancisco in 1941 and received a little noticed one-man show in 1943 at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Themuseum even misspelled his name on the gallery wall as “Clifford Stills”. He had been working in the localshipyards, but was given a teaching position at the California School of Fine Arts in the fall of 1946, where hetaught until the fall of 1950 when he moved to New York. In 1947, Still was given a second one-man show at the
  2. 2. California Palace of the Legion of Honor, which was greeted with great acclaim and he became a lasting influenceon California art. Mark Rothko was given a one-man show at the San Francisco Museum of Art in the summer of1946. He was also invited to teach at the California School of Fine Arts, which he did for the summers of 1947and 1949.Other significant artists working in San Francisco who espoused Abstract Expressionism include RichardDiebenkorn, Sam Francis, Elmer Bischoff, Edward Corbett, Sonia Gechtoff, Frank Lobdell, George Stillman andothers.~The Colorado Scene~Colorado had a brush with the New York School when Clyfford Still taught at the University of Colorado atBoulder during the summer session of 1960. Abstract expressionist painters in Colorado have been located innumerous cities and towns. Colorado Springs had a particularly strong group including Charles Bunnell, GeorgeCecil Carter, Mary Chenoweth, Ken Goehring, Harvey Litvack (also in Boulder), Elise Train, Emerson Woelfferand Al Wynne. In Denver, artists such as Jack Canepa, Dale Chisman, Roland Detre, Nadine Drummond, AniaGola-Kumor, Charles “Bill” Hayes, Vance Kirkland, Pawel Kontny, Roger Kotoske, Clark Richert (also in Trinidadand Boulder), Beverly Rosen, Craig Marshall Smith, Ruth Todd, Jeff Wenzel, Ann Sink White and others havemade distinguished contributions. In Boulder, Helen Davis, Virginia Maitland, Gene Matthews and Amy Metierhave given us unique abstract expressionist works, as have Watson Bidwell in Greeley, Mel Strawn in Salida andDave Yust in Ft. Collins.After one gets beyond the who-was-first puzzle, it is just as fascinating to consider which artists took theideas of Abstract Expressionism and expressed them eloquently, regardless of when they did it. For that reason Ihave gone beyond the 1950s and 1960s to expand the interpretations of Abstract Expressionism. It is a deepenough well from which to continue to draw, and to gain further adherents. Abstract Expressionism wasn’t just amovement; it was a phenomenon and continues to entice artists into its distinguished ranks. The best artists arenot imitating anyone; they have taken its philosophy and made it their own.Unusual media and methods can be found in this exhibition. Vance Kirkland developed two resisttechniques, the first using mixtures of watercolor and denatured alcohol starting in 1950; the second usingmixtures of oil paint and water starting in 1953. Ruth Todd did paintings using sawdust (mid 1950s). Collage wasused by Mary Chenoweth (1950s), George Cecil Carter (1950s), Clark Richert (1962) and Jeff Wenzel (2002).Wall sculptures with bamboo rods were used by Roger Kotoske (late 1950s-early 1960s). Pawel Kontny usedmarble dust (early 1970s). Charles “Bill” Hayes guided some 60 thinned layers of acrylic across each of hiscanvases with rubber window squeegees (1980s).Colorado has sculptors that have worked in ways that relate to Abstract Expressionism. Edgar Britton didsome pure abstractions such as his Horizontal Squares (c. 1959, with myriads of platelets of metal connected withsmall metal rods into a 21½” high sculpture); Yin and Yang (1964) for the bank at First Avenue and St. Paul St. inDenver; Genesis (c. 1967) bronze for the Antler’s Plaza in Colorado Springs; and others. Bob Mangold did a seriesof steel shapes with a puddled bronze patina over them such as Cat Box (1964); around 1966 he fabricatedsculptures of steel rods welded together in various pure abstract shapes; his wind driven Anemotive series,starting in the 1960s, when colors are mixed in unexpected ways as the painted pieces move; his PTTSAAES (PointTraveling Through Space At An Erratic Speed) beginning in the mid-1990s. Abstract expressionist painter AlWynne did metal constructions such as Untitled (1967, 66½” high); Untitled (late 1960s, 50” high) and Stop! Go 3(1970s, kinetic sculpture, 21” h). James Dixon, when making bronze sculptures, sometimes casts the slurry whichis left as a residue of the casting process, incorporating the accidental textures into his works such asCommitment (1996) and Patrick Sketch (2006); other Dixon sculptures have many rods put together in randomways, making all-over patterns. Other Colorado sculptors working in strong, idiosyncratic ways in metal andacrylic include Robert Delaney, Dorothea Dunlop, Barbara Locketz, David Mazza, Chuck Parson, Elizabeth YanishShwayder and Carley Warren. Ceramic sculptor Carroll Hansen did clay stepped sculptures in the 1960s; alsominimal, nonobjective bronze sculptures in the 1960s; and has fabricated and placed clay strips and formstogether since the 1980s. Paul Soldner is well known for his spontaneous ceramic (raku) sculptures.With their inventive techniques and original images of Abstract Expressionism, Colorado artists haveenriched modern art.--by Hugh Grant, Founding Director and Curator, Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver