Visual Arts » Artbreak

DAM's Good Show

Curator Diane Vanderlip's contemporary legacy on display

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Retrospectacle, the Denver Art Museum's latest "Really Big Show" (as Ed Sullivan might have said) is engaging, entertaining and, I guess, thought provoking. It's visually sweet, intermittently faintly irritating, and mostly amiable; sort of like a particularly good episode of Friends.

The exhibition might also be titled All About Diane because it celebrates Diane Vanderlip's 25-year tenure as founder and curator of the Modern and Contemporary Art Department at the Denver Art Museum.

In that quarter of a century, Vanderlip has acquired over 5,000 pieces of modern and contemporary art for the Museum's collection. Less than 80 of them are on display in this show, which nevertheless occupies several spacious galleries. That's because many contemporary artists favor grandiosely scaled pieces, which can only be displayed in institutional settings.

Look, for example, at Damien Hirst's 1995 piece, "Party Time." Hirst, you may recall, is the guy who sectioned the carcasses of slaughtered animals and lined 'em up in separate transparent containers filled with formaldehyde. This earlier piece is just as repellent. It consists of an enormous ashtray (8 feet in diameter and 2 feet deep), half-filled with tens of thousands of cigarette butts. It literally stinks; a foul miasma that permeates the gallery, every hangover and headache you've ever had made palpable.

Or consider Richard Serra's "Basic Maintenance," consisting simply of two rusty plates of hot-rolled steel stacked vertically, six feet by six feet overall, weighing in at a modest 2,950 pounds. Serra, often characterized as America's greatest living sculptor, is best known for "Tilted Arc," a vast slab of rusty steel that once bisected the plaza of New York's Federal Building. Whatever its artistic merit, the timid liberal bureaucrats who worked there found the piece so unpleasant that they successfully petitioned to have it removed. Serra's feelings were hurt, no doubt, but it was a great career move. Institutions such as the DAM are lining up to buy ever-bigger hunks of rusty steel for big bucks, enabling the artist and his three Chesapeake Bay retrievers to live in style in a fabulous SoHo loft.

As the exhibition fact sheet notes: "The massive and unconventional nature of many of these works requires special installation and care." Well, yeah -- but it also underscores the symbiotic relationship between contemporary artists and the institutions that acquire and exhibit their work. Many of the pieces are designed for public display in controlled-access environments. It's often didactic, scolding, even aridly intellectual, and lot of it looks like junk. Yet by plopping it down in a museum setting, it takes on a gravity and seriousness that's a little intimidating. You think Hirst and Serra suck? Just shows what a dimwitted clod you are, philistine boy: Back to the suburbs with you!

Happily, Diane Vanderlip has eclectic tastes and a discerning eye. Of the 80-odd works on display, many are wonderful. There's Robert Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic," still moving and powerful. And there are a dozen works by Colorado artists, which, even in the august company of artists such as Matisse, Duchamp, Warhol and Katz, more than hold their own.

I particularly liked Clark Richert's "World Game," a 1990 depiction of Denver rendered in Richert's maniacally precise idiom, a dreamy science fiction, full of arcanely beautiful images. And there's one of John D'Andrea's eerily realistic sculptures, this time of the artist himself preparing a plaster cast of a nude model. Vance Kirkland, long the dean of Colorado artists, is represented by three pieces that span 40 years. The most recent, "Explosions of Energy Near the Sun Fifty Million Years B.C.," is as youthful, high-spirited and sunnily optimistic as a cheerleader's convention at Disney World. Not bad for a 74-year-old artist!

Every good show has its share of don't-miss pieces, works of art that are alarmingly good, original or just plain fun -- and this show's no exception. Go take a look at Anish Kapoor's untitled work, which is a simple concave disc of stainless steel, over 6 feet in diameter, lacquered in a brilliant, glossy blue. Look closely; interference fringes vanish and coalesce, strange reflections dazzle the eye. It's simple, trippy, cheerfully weird. And don't even think about touching Mary Ehrin's "Purple Python Pool," a giant (72 by 180 inches) purple poof of ostrich feathers encircled by a faux python.

And finally, take off your shoes, wait in line, and take a little stroll down Lucas Samara's "Corridor #2," a hall of mirrors, where you seem to float in an infinite space, populated only by your own endless reflections. Solipsists, take note ...

In sum: a great show, and a fitting tribute to an inspired curator.

Retrospectacle, the Denver Art Museum's latest "Really Big Show" (as Ed Sullivan might have said) is engaging, entertaining and, I guess, thought provoking. It's visually sweet, intermittently faintly irritating, and mostly amiable; sort of like a particularly good episode of Friends.

The exhibition might also be titled All About Diane because it celebrates Diane Vanderlip's 25-year tenure as founder and curator of the Modern and Contemporary Art Department at the Denver Art Museum.

In that quarter of a century, Vanderlip has acquired over 5,000 pieces of modern and contemporary art for the Museum's collection. Less than 80 of them are on display in this show, which nevertheless occupies several spacious galleries. That's because many contemporary artists favor grandiosely scaled pieces, which can only be displayed in institutional settings.

Look, for example, at Damien Hirst's 1995 piece, "Party Time." Hirst, you may recall, is the guy who sectioned the carcasses of slaughtered animals and lined 'em up in separate transparent containers filled with formaldehyde. This earlier piece is just as repellent. It consists of an enormous ashtray (8 feet in diameter and 2 feet deep), half-filled with tens of thousands of cigarette butts. It literally stinks; a foul miasma that permeates the gallery, every hangover and headache you've ever had made palpable.

Or consider Richard Serra's "Basic Maintenance," consisting simply of two rusty plates of hot-rolled steel stacked vertically, six feet by six feet overall, weighing in at a modest 2,950 pounds. Serra, often characterized as America's greatest living sculptor, is best known for "Tilted Arc," a vast slab of rusty steel that once bisected the plaza of New York's Federal Building. Whatever its artistic merit, the timid liberal bureaucrats who worked there found the piece so unpleasant that they successfully petitioned to have it removed. Serra's feelings were hurt, no doubt, but it was a great career move. Institutions such as the DAM are lining up to buy ever-bigger hunks of rusty steel for big bucks, enabling the artist and his three Chesapeake Bay retrievers to live in style in a fabulous SoHo loft.

As the exhibition fact sheet notes: "The massive and unconventional nature of many of these works requires special installation and care." Well, yeah -- but it also underscores the symbiotic relationship between contemporary artists and the institutions that acquire and exhibit their work. Many of the pieces are designed for public display in controlled-access environments. It's often didactic, scolding, even aridly intellectual, and lot of it looks like junk. Yet by plopping it down in a museum setting, it takes on a gravity and seriousness that's a little intimidating. You think Hirst and Serra suck? Just shows what a dimwitted clod you are, philistine boy: Back to the suburbs with you!

Happily, Diane Vanderlip has eclectic tastes and a discerning eye. Of the 80-odd works on display, many are wonderful. There's Robert Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic," still moving and powerful. And there are a dozen works by Colorado artists, which, even in the august company of artists such as Matisse, Duchamp, Warhol and Katz, more than hold their own.

I particularly liked Clark Richert's "World Game," a 1990 depiction of Denver rendered in Richert's maniacally precise idiom, a dreamy science fiction, full of arcanely beautiful images. And there's one of John D'Andrea's eerily realistic sculptures, this time of the artist himself preparing a plaster cast of a nude model. Vance Kirkland, long the dean of Colorado artists, is represented by three pieces that span 40 years. The most recent, "Explosions of Energy Near the Sun Fifty Million Years B.C.," is as youthful, high-spirited and sunnily optimistic as a cheerleader's convention at Disney World. Not bad for a 74-year-old artist!

Every good show has its share of don't-miss pieces, works of art that are alarmingly good, original or just plain fun -- and this show's no exception. Go take a look at Anish Kapoor's untitled work, which is a simple concave disc of stainless steel, over 6 feet in diameter, lacquered in a brilliant, glossy blue. Look closely; interference fringes vanish and coalesce, strange reflections dazzle the eye. It's simple, trippy, cheerfully weird. And don't even think about touching Mary Ehrin's "Purple Python Pool," a giant (72 by 180 inches) purple poof of ostrich feathers encircled by a faux python.

And finally, take off your shoes, wait in line, and take a little stroll down Lucas Samara's "Corridor #2," a hall of mirrors, where you seem to float in an infinite space, populated only by your own endless reflections. Solipsists, take note ...

In sum: a great show, and a fitting tribute to an inspired curator.

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