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Holy Chihuly! 

The Fine Arts Center unveils a glass masterpiece and a fine abstract show

click to enlarge Dale Chihuly, Seattle Washington, 2003 - JACK CRANE
  • Jack Crane
  • Dale Chihuly, Seattle Washington, 2003

This is it. This is the Fine Art Center's big weekend, when President Mike DeMarsche officially unveils the new, improved, fun, sexy, dynamic, cool, and infinitely better FAC! Or so the hype would have it...

Let's see. The fun starts with a $1,000 per plate dinner with former Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Thomas Hoving, moves right on to the official unveiling of the new Dale Chihuly chandelier, and continues with a lecture by Hoving: "The Cool, Fiery Genius of Dale Chihuly." (The lecture is $17 for FAC members; $20 for nonmembers, with limited seating, and the reception that follows is $30 for members; $35 for the general public.)

It's interesting and revealing that DeMarsche has chosen Hoving to headline the weekend. Hoving's a delightful promoter/visionary/ scoundrel, the man who single-handedly transformed the entire museum world.

Prior to Hoving's tenure at the Met, art museums were quiet backwaters, catering to scholars and connoisseurs. Members of the public were welcome to visit, but scarcely encouraged to do so; after all, why encourage the great unwashed to defile the halls of Culture?

Hoving changed all that. He saw the Metropolitan not as the sacred repository of the greatest artifacts of civilization, but as a major entertainment complex. He literally invented the blockbuster show ("King Tut"), and promoted new acquisitions with the inventive zeal of P.T. Barnum.

Just as the Met, post-Hoving's arrival, was far more welcoming, accessible and interesting than before, so, too, is the FAC after a year's worth of DeMarsche.

At this writing, the Chihuly chandelier had yet to be installed, but it's safe to predict that it'll be radiantly beautiful, an explosion of light and color in the museum's entry. And it's a very safe choice -- as solid, uncontroversial and crowd-pleasing as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing "God Bless America." And that's fine; folks who go to museums deserve to see objects of accessible splendor.

Walking through the re-created galleries and public spaces of the FAC, it's clear that this is not your father's Fine Arts Center; it's your grandfather's. As promised, DeMarsche has reversed the decades-long uglification of that great John Gaw Meem building. The skylights of the south corridor once again flood the building with natural light. The west gallery, once a dank, narrow space, is now illuminated by its original wall of windows. A lovely grouping of contemporary sculpture is displayed therein, each bearing a surprising message: "Yes! You may touch this sculpture."

click to enlarge Emerson Woelffers A Family Group, 1947
  • Emerson Woelffers A Family Group, 1947

Fifty years ago, the Fine Arts Center was not just a museum, but also a center for the creation of art. There was a highly professional art school, studios for artists and a remarkable local art scene. Thanks to school director Emerson Woelffer, you might have spent the summer of 1954 working with Robert Motherwell, who had come to help out his pal Emerson for a couple of months. Or, if you were especially lucky, you might have joined Woelffer and Motherwell on a trip to Boulder in Emerson's AC roadster to hang out with Mark Rothko.

Rothko, Motherwell, Willem DeKooning: those were Woelffer's friends and peers. They're the big dogs of abstract expressionism, while Woelffer is comparatively unknown. They spent their careers in New York; Woelffer lived here for six years (1950-1957), and then on the West Coast for the rest of his long life (1914-2003). Woelffer's not only an important artist, but, with his colleague Mary Chenoweth and the architect Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, one of the creators of the modernist aesthetic in 1950s Colorado Springs.

Emerson Woelffer: Life in the Abstract opens on Friday, June 12, also the first day the Chihuly chandelier will be on display to the public. Conceived by Hunter Frost (who we might refer to as the Grand Old Man of Colorado Springs Art, except that grand old men are not supposed to spend Friday evenings carousing at Southside Johnny's), it's a wonderful show. It's long overdue; to my knowledge, there has never been a Woelffer show in Colorado Springs. And it's a revelation; Woelffer wasn't just a good artist, he was a brilliant artist -- powerful, original, uncompromising.

Walking into the gallery, you're pulled across the room to the enormous (5 feet by 8 feet) "Untitled" from 1953. It's a furiously energetic jumble of primal shapes, numbers, letters, arrows, abstract birds and planes, painted right here at the FAC. Spreading the canvas on the floor of his studio, Woelffer used a long-handled brush and sure, vigorous draftsmanship to create a killer painting. This is the kind of bravura work that sucks the air right out of the room -- take a while, and then check out the rest of the art. "All Cool while the Sky was Burning," luscious, thickly painted, rich oranges and reds, has a nice jazzy title; no accident, since Woelffer, a drummer, often played with Marshall Sprague and the infamous Gut Bucket Seven. And take a look at "Sunday Sessions" (1955), "Artist Hand and Blue Mirror" (1961) and "Red A" (1951). They're entirely abstract, save for suggestive flashes of figuration. They're jagged, dissonant, rough-surfaced and incomplete. As single works, they're not quite satisfying; seen together, they are. Each work, like a single eloquent riff from Charlie Parker, is fine by itself; but together, like Parker's album Confirmation, they're sublime.

In California, Woelffer's work changed. It became clearer, lighter, simpler -- he lost the dark complexity that marked his years in Colorado Springs. He was still good, but no longer great; the difference between, say, Paul Desmond and Parker.

This is a great show; don't stop at the Chihuly, go see it.

capsule

Emerson Woelffer: Life in the Abstract

Opening June 12, along with An Exhibition by Dale Chihuly and public viewing of the newly acquired Chihuly chandelier

The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.

Call 634-5583 for more or visit www.csfineartscenter.org

  • The Fine Arts Center unveils a glass masterpiece and a fine abstract show

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