Making it their own

Colorado Abstract Expressionism from the Kirkland Museum


“Colorado Abstract Expressionism from the Kirkland Museum,” on display through April 1, features paintings from Kirkland’s in-depth collection of works by Colorado artists. It is organized by Kirkland director Hugh Grant, who wrote a short introduction available at the museum.

The show is particularly fitting in view of the November opening of the Clyfford Still Museum, which brings works by top abstract expressionist Still to its new Denver home base.

Interest in abstraction by Colorado artists from the 1940s through the 1970s was extensive and notable and continues today, although they never received the media attention paid to the big New York names.

The exhibit presents 88 works by 43 artists from the permanent collection.

“The best artists are not imitating anyone: they have taken its philosophy and made it their own,” wrote Grant.

This was a time in history when the focus of the art world moved from Europe to America, especially New York City, with works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still (who taught in Boulder in 1960), Willem DeKooning, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, as well as sculptors David Smith and Mark di Suvero (think of the giant red/orange piece by the Denver Art Museum and Denver Central Library).

California housed a number of abstract expressionist artists, although they worked independently. Still worked and taught there in the 1940s. Rothko exhibited and taught there in the 1940s. Other names: Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, Elmer Bischoff and more.

Vance Kirkland of Colorado exhibited his earlier surrealist works in New York, but the gallery dropped him when he switched to his first phase of abstract expressionism in 1957, which involved resist technique, with watercolor and alcohol, then most recognizable, using oil and water. “Nebula Near Jupiter,” illustrated, is one of many in this technique included in this exhibit.

A visit to Kirkland’s studio, around which this lovely little museum is built, shows the leather harness he devised that allowed him to lie horizontal above these large canvases while painting. Oil and water were poured onto the flat canvas and then worked with sponges, tissue, q-tips, straws and other objects.

He was for many years chairman of the university of Denver’s art department and a central force in organizing Denver artists.

The exhibit is displayed alongside the Kirkland’s world class decorative arts collection, is in upstairs galleries and in the packed lower level. (Even the huge elevator is hung with art). “Velocipede” by Craig Marshall Smith of Highlands Ranch is centered on a downstairs wall. “Trees” by Roland Detre is on the main floor.

Sculptors also worked in ways that relate to abstract impressionism and a number of small works are included in this interesting show, including several by Edgar Britton, who had a studio on Littleton’s Main Street for a period. (The first purchase by Littleton’s Fine Arts Committee was Britton’s “Solar III,“ located in Gallup Park, near Bemis Library). Al Wynne, Bob Mangold (whose work is in the Englewood/Museum of Outdoor Arts collection), James Dixon, Chuck Parson, Elizabeth Yanish Shwayder and Carley Warren are represented.

The Kirkland Museum is located at 1311 Pearl St., Denver. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. (Due to the fragile nature of the collection, children under 13 are not admitted). 303-832-8576. Admission: $7/$6.


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