15 Artists at Kirkland Museum Not Radical At All

Art Exhibit at Kirkland Museum, featuring artists who broke with tradition, closed on August 14th.

“The influence of decadent Parisians…Picasso and Cezanne..has even been felt in the West. Santa Fe has been damaged by it and Denver has not wholly escaped the blight… . In Western art, Western literature and bourbon, I’ll take mine straight,” wrote Lee Casey in The Rocky Mountain News on February 11, 1948.

Some still feel that way about their art, their literature and their bourbon, but in 1948 lines were drawn in the snow of art styles that would rival the current political, never-the-twain-shall-meet, division between the Tea Party and Progressives. But these are artist who back then were labeled as “conservative” and “radical.” I’m sensing a time warp here. In 1948, a group of 15 radical artists broke from the then 20-year-old Denver Artists Guild. Ten of them were professors at the University of Denver, “who believed that the boundaries of art must be explored and that the DAG was too provincial for their taste,” according to the Kirkland Museum website. I hear that roar of yes and nothing much has changed in 63 years from you radical artists out there. The art world is just not as exciting as it was in 1948.

Back then, this modernist group of artists requested and received a simultaneous exhibition at the Denver Art Museum adjoining the Denver Artists Guild Exhibit in December of that year. The press called it a “schism” and a “showdown.” The public turned out in droves to see “radical” art. It was one of the most exciting events of Colorado art history, as documented in the archives at the Vance Kirkland museum. Otto Bach, then director of the Denver Art Museum and Vance Kirkland, director of the school of art at the University of Denver, were both actively involved. The fifteen artists were:

Duard Marshall
Jean Charlot
Don F. Allen
John E. Billmyer
Mina Conant
Richard Sorby
Marion Buchan
Angelo Di Benedetto
Frank Vavra
EO Kirchner
Moritz Krieg
Louise Emerson Ronnebeck
William Sanderson
Vance Kirkland
Paul K. Smith

Just as the Impressionists broke with the Académie des Beaux-Arts and the 1913 Armory Show in New York brought the scandalous work of Brancusi, Matisse, Braque and Duchamp to America. The 1948 division in Denver showed that modernism had rooted itself in Colorado brought by John E. Thompson when he came to Colorado in 1914 with his Fauvist and Impressionistic style. Thompson was included in what became known as the Denver Armory Show in 1919 (the 25th Annual Exhibition of the Denver Art Association at the Denver Public Library). Incidentally, it was the Art Association that became the Denver Art Museum in 1923. That show was called a “Fraud” and a “Monstrosity” and labeled as “Bolshevism in Art.” Highly charged political terms.

But why the continued reaction to radical modernist art in 1948? Outside of New York, there was still a strong resistance to modern art until post WWII. Thomas Hart Benton rejected the modern art scene in New York and moved back to Kansas City in 1935. He and many other regionalists, including Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh, were focused on creating an American artistic identity, without relying on European styles and influences. In essence, that is what this group of 15 were doing in exhibition today. Exercising their independence and individualism to create the kind of art they wanted to make.

Some chose modernism and maintained that path throughout their careers. Another group remained regionalist, focused on realism. These two divergent styles remain well trodden today, readily viewable in art exhibits around the state. It’s hard to imagine the work today as being radical and the most fascinating elements of this exhibition are the newspaper clipping and articles where the debate was hashed out in print. Viewing the work of these 15 Denver modernists, one must call them tame and conservative compared to modernism around the country and especially in Aspen and Colorado Springs, which had a far more advanced scene in the 1940s, thanks to the Bauhaus and Herbert Bayer and Mary Chenoweth.

But one sees in this exhibition is an engaged art community, a media that fueled and wrote about the divergent ideas behind the art and a community that came out in droves to see both the radical and the conservative exhibitions. With only one newspaper and one alternative weekly, Denver no longer has a dynamic dialogue happening surrounding art. It’s time somebody did something about that.

In the meantime, this show at the Kirkland Museum, which remains a Colorado treasure, was very strong. Next up is Colorado Art Survey V opening Aug. 25 and running through Nov. 6, 2011, featuring works from their permanent collection of Colorado painting and sculpture.

1311 Pearl Street
Denver, CO 80203
Tues-Sun, 11 am – 5 pm


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