The Fine Arts Center, in case any of us needed reminding, is a pretty wonderful institution. A new exhibition, drawn from the FAC's permanent collection, makes that abundantly clear.
Inner Beauty: Contrasting Aesthetics from the Permanent Collection is supposed to give museum-goers "the opportunity to compare and contrast how artists over time have treated similar subject matter."Well, maybe -- in fact, the show's simply an excuse for curator Scott Snyder to root around in the basement, and bring out interesting stuff for all of us to enjoy. Scott, himself a recent acquisition (he was formerly fine arts curator at Rockford, Illinois), brings a fresh, unprejudiced eye to his task, and the results are altogether pleasing.
Some of the pieces on display are old friends, like Richard Diebenkorn's monumental abstract from 1958. Diebenkorn is an icon of American art, and this painting -- big, splashy, confident and alive -- is surely one of his best. Given adequate gallery space (and maybe the proposed new addition will solve that problem to some extent), paintings such as this would be on permanent display. Present realities limit this painting, and many others of equal worth, to cameo appearances. I asked Scott Snyder what percentage of the FAC's collection is on display at any given time.
"Oh," he replied "if you include ethnographic material, less than one percent -- in fact, not even that -- not even a percentage of a percent."
If I could only own one painting by one contemporary artist (and isn't it fun to play those kind of games?), I'd choose one of Chuck Forsman's powerful, politically charged landscapes. The FAC, to its credit, acquired one of Forsman's best pieces a couple of years ago, a sweeping panorama of a Native American man, his children, and his dogs, overlooking an extensive landscape from a high vantage point. Sounds unremarkable, but for the landscape, which divides itself into halves. To the left, a typically Southwest view, the big sky, a distant thunderstorm, the clear, hard light; to the right, an enormous dam, a towering black wall, the discharge point, massive concrete structures. Snyder has paired the Forsman with an E.I. Couse depiction of an Indian hunter, dressed in a loincloth, armed with bow and arrow. It's interesting to note how differently two Anglo artists, separated by 75 years or so, chose to portray the Native American. Both Couse and Forsman see aboriginal Americans as anomalies, barely participating in history. But Forsman, whose edgy landscapes are heroic in scale and ambition, may be the successor to Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. In works such as "Stormin the Rocky Mountains, Mt Rosalie" and "Mount of the Holy Cross," these 19th-century Europeans first defined the American West -- a majestic, undefiled, Edenic wilderness, impossibly remote, impossibly beautiful. A century and a half later, Forsman shows us a different West; scarred and altered, yet still strangely beautiful.
Gus Foster's enormous panoramic photograph from 1988, "Chimayosos Peak," is paired with three of Laura Gilpin's quietly masterful prints from the first half of the last century. Gilpin, born in Colorado Springs, is universally recognized as one of the finest photographers of her era. She lived in the Springs for many years, producing extraordinary images such "Garden of the Gods in the Moonlight," a platinum print from 1926. It's small, intimate, understated; by contrast, Foster's piece aspires to be as big and as remote as its subject.
I doubt whether J.G. Torres' 1934 painting has ever been exhibited before. It's a wonderfully folky period piece, by an artist about whom we know nothing. A cottage, a group of folks around a table, flowering gardens, mountains in the background, a couple of musicians -- an Hispanic family, probably in New Mexico or southern Colorado. Either way, it's wonderful.
Art museums are only as good as their supporters. The Fine Arts Center, first created by private philanthropy, thrives thanks to the continuing generosity of those whose lives it has enriched. The aforementioned Couse, as well as several other fine paintings in this show, were given to the FAC by Max and Virginia Hagenauer, both recently deceased. Virginia's devotion to the FAC was legendary; she scolded me more than once for writing unkind things about the institution that she loved. So long, Virginia, and thanks -- you and Max will be missed.