Here's a no-fail idea for an exhibition: Call it One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado. Find a tough-minded curator who's willing to choose 10 artists, one for each decade in the last century, to represent every Colorado woman artist since 1900. Commission the curator to write a scholarly account of each artist for the catalogue of the exhibition. Sit back and watch the fur fly.
Even before the exhibition opened a few days ago at the Metro State Center for the Visual Arts, curator Katherine Smith Warren had managed to infuriate a fair number of Denver's art mafia. Why? Not because of the artists chosen, but because of those omitted. By choosing Eve Drewelowe to represent the '50s, you leave out Mary Chenoweth. And what about Anne Parrish? Elizabeth Spalding? Virginia Maitland?
Center director Sally Perisho, who preceded Gerry Riggs at the UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art, knew perfectly well that this delightful little show would cause a delightful little furor, and is, we can assume, delighted.
It's a great show, particularly if you don't bother to question its premise. Never mind that the very idea of the show is at best debatable -- be glad of the opportunity to see 10 fine artists, most of whose work is rarely shown.
And who are they? In chronological order: Henrietta Bromwell, Anne Gregory Van Briggle Ritter, Laura Gilpin, Gladys Caldwell Fisher, Ethel and Jenne Magafan, Eve Drewelowe, Beverly Rosen, Eppie Archuleta, Betty Woodman and Virginia Folkestad. Of them, Ritter, Gilpin, and the Magafan twins lived and worked in Colorado Springs, which makes the exhibition of particular interest to Springs residents.
Henrietta Bromwell, proper, shy and withdrawn, was a Victorian lady of gentle birth who never married. Warren's sympathetic account of her life shows just how difficult is was for a talented woman to have a career of any kind in that era, even a modest and unthreatening one as a painter of landscapes. Bromwell's careful, immaculately composed views of turn-of-the-century Denver and its environs are at least as competent as similar works by a dozen of her male contemporaries, all of whom were far more successful in their time. I particularly liked her "Small Denver Scene by the South Platte," full of misty light, atmospheric and evocative.
Anne Gregory van Briggle Ritter was one of the most accomplished Colorado artists of the last century. Her legacy includes not only her own sparkling canvases, but also the great vases and tiles which she, together with her first husband Artus Van Briggle, designed and created in Colorado Springs at the beginning of the last century. Artus died in 1904, and Anne then assumed full creative control of the pottery. With a Dutch architect, Nicholas van den Arends, she conceived and largely designed the Van Briggle Memorial Pottery at Uintah and Glen, arguably one of the finest buildings in Colorado. Still standing, the pottery building has been disfigured by later additions, but its complex architectural harmonies and glowing tilework are fitting memorials to this gifted artist. Curator Warren has assembled a fine selection of Ritter's paintings, tiles and ceramic vases. Astonishingly, this is, as far as I know, the first time that Anne's ceramics and paintings have been exhibited together.
Remember the old song "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool"? Laura Gilpin was a gay woman before being gay was even remotely acceptable. Moreover, once having decided to become a professional photographer, in an era where there were few role models for professional art photographers of any gender, she succeeded spectacularly. Although best known for her sensitive depictions of the people and landscapes of the desert Southwest, Laura was born in Colorado Springs and did some of her finest work in our city.
Unhappily, there's not much of it on display in this exhibition, thanks to the refusal of the Amon Carter Museum, to which Gilpin's estate was bequeathed, to lend works from its holdings. Still, there are some fine pieces to be seen, notably "Bryce Canyon" from 1930.
It was a treat to discover the work of Gladys Caldwell Fisher, a Denver sculptor whose work is now virtually unknown. Or maybe even completely unknown, as evidenced by the fact that, four years ago, when the Denver Art Museum held a massive "housecleaning" auction, they sold the only Fisher in their collection. Indefatigable collector Jim Raughton snapped it up (supposedly, for sixty bucks!), and it's part of the show. It's a sinuous, sensuously carved hardwood sculpture of Rikki Tikki Tavi (the mongoose in Kipling's Just So stories). Like all of Fisher's works, it's extraordinarily tactile; go ahead, try not to touch it! And while this one is wonderful, Fisher's "Malayan Collar Bear," carved in 1947 from Belgian black marble, is, as Father Guido might say, more than wonderful. The finely polished form of the bear emerges magically from a rough-hewn block of marble. The carving is extraordinary, as extraordinary as the medium, a deep black marble without the slightest hint of veining or striation.
The Magafan twins, Ethel and Jenne, came of age in the early 1930s. Students of Frank Mechau, and heavily influenced by his spare regionalist style, they were able to pursue careers in art solely because of depression-era makework programs for professional artists. Through the Work Projects Administration, the federal government commssioned hundreds, if not thousands, of murals to be executed in government buildings throughout the country. The Magafans won many such commissions, mostly in small-town Nebraska post offices. For this show, Warren has managed to round up several maquettes for various murals, including one by Ethel which failed to win a commission: a depiction of the Lawrence Massacre for the Lawrence, Kansas post office. It's a wonderful work: monumental, dynamic, moving. Had the good citizens of Lawrence been able to face their own history, they would have gained whatever redemption a fine work of art might have brought.
There's a lot of good work in this show, but there is, in my opinion, only one masterpiece: Eppie Archuleta's 1979 "Rio Grande," an enormous (108" x 144") weaving of handspun wool. Archuleta, the avatar of a 300-year-old tradition of Hispanic weavers in the San Luis Valley, is scarcely unknown. In Japan, she'd be considered a living treasure; here in America, she's seen as a skilled practitioner of a mildly interesting rural craft. Yet "Rio Grande," created by a woman whose art is informed almost wholly by tradition, is easily the most sophisticated work on display. Its pattern is deceptively simple, repeating vertical elements in muted, subtle colors. Approach it closely, and it's literally overwhelming, drawing the viewer into a different reality. Step back, and it's quiet, dignified, unobtrusive. It shares a gallery with Betty Woodman's splashy, oversized and noisy ceramics, and makes them disappear.
Great art simply makes its surroundings vanish; go look at Pollock's "Autumn Rhythm," and try to remember what else was in the gallery. According to Sally Perisho, "Rio Grande" is for sale -- if our own Fine Arts Center, which has so many great hispanic weavings, has any sense they'll buy this one.
And if I win the lottery, I will.