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Art Hopping 

Three current Denver and Boulder shows exhibit the differences between art as commerce and art for its own sake

We live, in case you hadn't noticed, in a smug and insular little city. That's why it's a good idea to get out of town every once in a while.

And that's why I was on the road alone last Saturday, on an artquest. The goal: to visit three exhibitions in the Denver area: Impressionism: Paintings Collected by European Museums at the Denver Art Museum, Colorado Abstraction: 1975-1999 at the Arvada Center and Vanguard Art in Colorado:1940-1970 at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.

First stop, Denver Art Museum. It was only 10:30 a.m., but the place was already jammed with lines of good-natured folk waiting to get in the show. Took my place in the line; filed in with everyone else after a few minutes.

The show itself is a pleasant enough collection of good to excellent Impressionist paintings. There are perfectly acceptable pieces by Sisley, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Cassatt, Caillebotte and others. You won't find any masterpieces here; if there were a Best of Show award, I'd give it to Gustave Caillebotte's "Le Pont de l'Europe." It's not, strictly speaking, an Impressionist painting at all (Impressionism, after all, really refers to a crackpot 19th-century theory about color and perception to which most so-called Impressionists paid absolutely no attention). Caillebotte has carefully rendered an ordinary street scene dominated by the iron trusswork of a modern bridge. It's a striking, asymmetrical composition, with its interesting mix of strolling pedestrians, older buildings and the harsh geometries of the new Industrial Age.

Cezanne's "Bathers in Front of a Tent," one of several paintings of similar subjects by the artist, is another fine painting. Its spare, elemental composition seems to anticipate modernism; it's interesting to compare it with Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." There's an extraordinarily fine Forain in the Impressionism show and a wonderfully intimate Boudin, "Panoramic View of Portieux."

What's good about the exhibition is fairly obvious. Here's a well-chosen group of fine paintings from literally dozens of European museums, which you can see in toto by shelling out $17.95 to the Denver Art Museum. It's unlikely that an Impressionist exhibition of this depth and quality will ever visit Denver again, so everybody ought to visit this one, right?

Well, yes and no. The Denver Art Museum has chosen to display this show in a series of galleries especially created for this exhibition that are, unfortunately, far too small to accommodate either the art or the visitors.

It is literally impossible to move freely through the exhibition; you simply have to let yourself be carried along by the crowd, as if you're leaving a Bronco game. The exhibition spaces, dim, crowded and claustrophobic, are simply unworthy of the art displayed therein.

But maybe the fault is not with the museum, but with the very nature of the blockbuster show itself. When a museum brings in a truckload of overhyped Impressionists, its goal is not to bring art to the masses, but to pack warm bodies into the museum. These shows are expensive; you need to sell a lot of tickets and bring in the cash in every possible way.

Don't believe it? Consider this: When you leave the exhibition, you're confronted by a gift shop specially created for the show. A tastefully lettered banner tells you where you are: "Impressionism -- The Shop." You can buy Impressionist coffee mugs, Impressionist umbrellas, Impressionist nightlights, Impressionist shopping bags ... you name it, they got it!

Remember Mel Brooks as Yogurt in Spaceballs, his Star Wars parody? Asked to explain the Force, Mel throws back a curtain to reveal the Spaceballs Store and proudly proclaims, "The moichandise! The moichandise!"

Impressionism is ultimately not about art, but about commerce. These paintings, deracinated and jumbled together, are only there because they're supremely promotable, not because of their intrinsic merit. Such shows serve the institutions that host them, but not necessarily the people who attend them.

It was a relief, then, to escape into brilliant Colorado sunshine and head for the Arvada Center for Arts and Humanities. In case you haven't been there, it's as if the Fine Arts Center, the Business of Arts Center and the Pioneers Museum were all located in one wonderful complex, with plenty of parking.

Colorado Abstraction: 1975-1999 is one of the best shows I've ever seen, bar none. The art is absolutely stunning; there's not a weak piece in the show. Museum director Kathy Andrews, who curated the show, concentrated on painting and sculpture, and included only artists who still live and work in Colorado.

In many cases, that means that works from the '70s are juxtaposed with more recent efforts, offering a window into growth and change. Dale Chisman's striking "Kind of Blue" (you're right -- it is in homage to Miles Davis), done just a few months ago, contrasts nicely with "Ode" from 1974.

Even though separated by 25 years, they're both strong, mature works. "Kind of Blue," calligraphic brushstrokes floating on a deep-blue ground, is a haunting and subtle work by one of our regional masters.

Virginia Maitland's "Bright Red" from 1999 is just a brilliant and wonderful painting. Curtain-like forms in blues, greens and blacks are given life and defined in space by a dramatic red slash down the center of the canvas.

Clark Reichert's cool, precise and trippy "H-Eka-Radon" places ascending linear clusters of dodecahedral (I think) crystalline structures against a linear grid. Sound arid and lifeless? It's not; as he often does, Reichert creates a world that is as strange and magical as, say, the world behind illusion's veil in The Matrix.

Fifteen years ago, Jeffrey Keith was doing small abstract oils characterized by rich color and thick, creamy layers of paint. One of these is on display (owned, interestingly, by Denver City Councilmember Susan Barnes-Gelt), paired with a newer piece, which is just as rich, luscious and vibrant as its companion. The difference? The older is 14 inches by 18 inches, the newer 78 inches by 146 inches. And as every artist knows, it's a lot easier to make a good small painting than a good big one.

There's a single painting in the show that is not, strictly speaking, an abstraction, nor is it even part of the show. It's a magical painting by the late John Fudge (1940-1999), accompanied by a graceful note from his widow, Jane, who also wrote the exhibition catalog.

Many of the works in the exhibition are available for sale. As I looked over the price list, I thought about the Impressionist exhibit. One of the major subtexts was the oft-repeated saw about the "poverty and ridicule" endured by the suffering artists as they sought legitimacy for their art.

Alas, the disdainful bourgeoisie preferred the safe and conventional painters of the day blah blah blah. Ironically, what was once daring has become conventional; owning a good Impressionist painting doesn't mean that you have good taste. It just means that you have an enormous amount of money.

I suspect that (assuming that any of the museums would sell) the average painting in the Impressionism show would bring tens of millions. By contrast, you could buy "Kind of Blue" for seven grand, "Bright Red" for six, and "H-Ekta Radon" for 10. That's $23,000 altogether, about what you'd pay for a good used SUV, and you'd own three of the finest paintings created in the state in the last generation.

On to Boulder and BoMoCa (the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art). It's a relaxed, cheerful place, situated in a renovated warehouse a couple of blocks from the Boulder Public Library. Vanguard Art in Colorado: 1940-1970 is a look at the artists who preceded those in the Arvada show. There are a few artists who are in both shows. Curated by ardent collector Dr. John Woodward, Vanguard purports to be a comprehensive survey of early abstract and modernist art in Colorado. It's not; but it is an interesting, even fascinating exhibition of artists who have been virtually invisible since the late 1950s.

Anyone from Colorado Springs will be delighted, since fully half of the artists in the show lived and worked in the Springs. It's a reminder of the time, not so long ago, when Taos and Santa Fe were sleepy backwaters, Denver and Boulder were dull and stupid, and the artistic action was right here in River City. Let's call the roll. The quick: Ken Goehring, Al Wynne, Emerson Woelffer and Janet Lippincott, Walter Wilson and Lew Tilley. The dead: Boardman Robinson, Charlie Bunnell, Laurence Barrett, Guy MacCoy and Mary Chenoweth.

Many of the works on exhibition are drawn from Woodward's personal collection. His prejudices, understandably enough, show through. Charlie Bunnell is represented by a half a dozen substantial oils, while Laurence Barrett and Boardman Robinson are restricted to a couple of minor works.

Al Wynne, Mary Chenoweth, Nadine Drummond and Ken Goehring all have major works in the show. I was particularly drawn to Drummond's "Burn Out" from 1958, dark and somber vertical forms in blacks and browns. Charlie Bunnell's "Cripple Creek in Winter" is one of his best: light, airy and dancing on the bridge between representation and pure form.

As much as any piece in the show, Martha Epp's spidery abstraction hints at the links between these artists and those of the next generation. A teacher at North High in Denver for many years, Epp's students included Dale Chisman and John Deandrea (whose famous sculpture "Linda" has been a favorite of vistors to the Denver Art Museum for many years).

After a day's art orgy, any conclusions? Sure, and let's do it in the spirit of our upcoming Best Of issue.

Best Museum: BoMoCa. What's not to like about an old warehouse with plenty of light and a friendly little black dog wandering around the galleries?

Best Show: Arvada. If you can't find something to like there, you're living in the wrong century (but don't worry, it'll soon be over).

Piece I'd Steal if I Could Get Away With It: "Bright Red." Virginia, I think I love you.

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