Wes and Missy Cochran of Lagrange, Georgia, are a middle-class couple of relatively modest means (he's a stonemason; she's a schoolteacher). Over the last three decades, they've managed to acquire over 400 works on paper by many of the most significant American artists of the second half of the 20th century. It's a remarkable achievement, and theirs is quite a collection.
Graphics by 20th Century Masters from the Cochran Collection will open tomorrow at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Gallery of Contemporary on the college's Austin Bluffs campus. The traveling show consists of 61 works selected from the Cochran collection, including graphic works by Dali, Picasso, Calder, Chagall, Lichtenstein, Motherwell, Rauschenberg, Warhol -- you get the picture.
Every artwork in the show is a multiple, that is, one impression of many. There are silk screens, lithographs, mezzotints, woodcuts, etchings and mixed media pieces. Every piece is framed and behind glass. And of the 61 works on display, 59 were created in the 20 years between 1970 and 1990.
Except for two or three notable pieces, the figure is absent from these works. What we're looking at is primarily a collection of late 20th-century graphic design, aptly symbolized by the inclusion of Robert Indiana's famous four-square "Love" print. It's not that most of the artists were themselves graphic designers per se -- it's simply that they influenced and were in turn influenced by the visual language of advertising.
That may be why the exhibition has a curiously dated look. Flat, glossy, and textureless as a magazine cover, these images seem pieces of ephemera, artifacts of consumption, not individual works of art.
That said, there are so many powerfully talented artists in the show that you'll find something to like. I was particularly taken by G.H. Rothe's mezzotint of two stallions fighting titled "Power Play." Rothe, born in Germany in 1935, immigrated to the United States in 1971, and made her first mezzotint in 1972. Unlike, say, silk screens, mezzotints are extraordinarily difficult and demanding to make. The image is laboriously created on a copper plate and is further refined by using a toothed tool called a rocker. In skilled hands, the resulting images have a rich and subtle tonal quality. "Power Play," far from being sterile and lifeless, is lively, immediate and endlessly pleasurable.
Conveniently hung beside "Power Play" is another fine piece, Jack Eaker's lithograph "West 25." It's a simple realist depiction of a downtown street in a decaying Midwestern city, a familiar urban landscape. But it somehow conveys a faint aura of menace, an unsettling restlessness.
It was pleasing to see a few modest black-and-white prints among the supersized silk screens that dominate the show. Raphael Soyer, one of three brothers who were prominent regionalist artists in the first half of the last century, is here represented by one of his last works, "Woman & Man on Couch," created in 1982 when he was 83. It's a fine little piece, a work that must have seemed awkward and old-fashioned in 1982. But today it seems intimate and timeless, particularly next to the Agams and Vasarelys that gleam on the gallery walls.
Sometimes, the '70s and '80s seem impossibly remote. Are Indiana and his contemporaries the Peter Framptons of their era, fated to disappear into well-deserved obscurity? Or are they like Tony Bennett, due for a revival? Dunno, but if you want to revisit those halcyon years and see some good art, don't miss this show.
-- John Hazlehurst capsule Graphics by 20th Century Masters from the Cochran Collection
Opening reception Friday, Dec. 10, 5 p.m.
Gallery of Contemporary Art, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Open Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 1-4 p.m.