It's always interesting when a commercial gallery attempts to mount a museum-quality exhibition of whatever it is that they're trying to peddle. Such a show has to perform quite a balancing act, to be serious, educational and informative and also create an environment that'll discreetly move the merchandise out the door.
Galleries in New York, for example, figured out years ago that themed shows, complete with serious and scholarly catalogs, were extraordinarily effective marketing tools. Rather than waiting for art museums to legitimize the artists whose works you want to sell, you do it yourself.
Instant credibility, instant legitimacy and, you hope, instant sales.
As far as I know, the current exhibition at David Cook Fine Arts in Denver, titled John F. Carlson and Artists of the Broadmoor Academy, which opened a week ago and will be up through Jan. 31, is the most ambitious show of this nature ever to grace our state.
Its genesis is simple. Cook, a longtime fixture on the Denver art-ethnographic scene, acquired a bunch of Colorado paintings from the estate of John F. Carlson, a National Academician who literally wrote the book on landscape painting (Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting).
Carlson taught at the Broadmoor Art Academy for a couple of summers in the early 1920s and painted extensively in the Pikes Peak region. Those paintings, although as pleasant and skillfully done as any of his oeuvre, have not been highly valued in the marketplace. Collectors have thought of Carlson as a master of the cool subtleties of the Eastern landscape who, in his brief time in Colorado, never figured out the harsh transparency of our Western light.
In this exhibition, Cook seeks to show that Carlson not only painted effectively, even brilliantly, during his time in Colorado, but also that he inspired and influenced a generation of artists who studied with him in Colorado Springs.
Let's start with the catalog, which includes no less than 44 color plates, as well as a fine essay by the redoubtable Stanley Cuba.
Stan, who co-authored the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's comprehensive catalogue of the 1989 Broadmoor Art Academy exhibition, has given us an eminently readable and admirably scholarly account of the early days of the Broadmoor Art Academy.
As many readers will know, the Broadmoor Art Academy was the predecessor to the Fine Arts Center. It came into being thanks to Spec Penrose, who donated the family mansion at 30 W. Dale St. (where the FAC now stands) to be used as the site for an academy of fine arts. Eminent artists, including Robert Reid, Earnest Lawson, as well as John F. Carlson, were hired as teachers. Colorado Springs became a magnet for both teachers and students.
Thanks to the academy and to its successor, the Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs became an important center of the visual arts. It's not even a stretch to say that it was, between 1920 and 1950, the most important such city between Chicago and San Francisco.
Cook's exhibition, crisply and professionally displayed in his LoDo space, is something of a mixed bag. There are a couple of breathtaking masterpieces, a few very good paintings and a lot of ho-hum mediocrities.
It's fair to say that the show is dominated by two spectacular Carlson landscapes: the 40x52-inch "Shadowy Valley" and the even larger (52x58-inch) "The Barrier." The former is a better painting, a real tour de force of compositional and technical skills. But it feels like an Eastern painting to me, cool, silvery and misty. "The Barrier," on the other hand, decisively captures the scale and energy of the Colorado mountains. These are big, showy, powerful paintings that grab the viewer and pull him into Carlson's world.
Like Jupiter and Saturn, they're surrounded by satellites -- a dozen or so smaller oils from Carlson's Colorado summers. Some of these are no more than oil sketches, while others are fully finished works. With the exception of "Windy Headlands" (which sure looks like a California scene), they're pretty ordinary.
Besides Carlson, many of the artists associated with the Broadmoor Academy are reasonably well-represented. There are a dozen or so Charlie Bunnells, ranging from very good to awful, a sparkling Earnest Lawson and a wonderful selection of Adolph Dehn's works on paper. Fred Shane's depictions of tourists at Balanced Rock, circa 1940, would bring a smile to anyone's face. And I was pleased to see Martha Tilley's extraordinarily fine "Portrait of Margaret Britton" in the show. Martha's work is rarely seen; too bad, since it's so good.
Cook has really done a remarkable job of putting together inventory for this show. Unlike museums, who simply borrow whatever they need, a commercial gallery has to actually acquire the paintings, whether by purchase or consignment. Even without the Carlsons, it'd take a well-heeled private collector a decade to put together a collection of this scope and depth.
Do Cook and Cuba establish John F. Carlson as an influential "Western" artist? In my opinion, no -- but so what? There are enough visual delights in this show for anyone: Carlson's two radiant masterworks, a couple of fine Birger Sandzens, Charlie Bunnell's journey from regionalism to abstraction, Earnest Lawson's jewel-like "Little Ranch"... it's a very long list indeed.
And, of course, most everything's for sale. Any seriously-addicted collector would want one of those big Carlsons; unfortunately, you'd need about 150 grand to walk out the door with one of 'em.
Let's see: Sell the house, sell the furniture, sell the car, sell the dog.
Buy a hot plate, a sixth-hand VW van and "The Barrier." I'll live in the van, look at the painting and eat ramen. Hmmmmm, 52 by 58 inches. Damn it, it won't fit ... oh well.