Believe it or not, abstract art has a long, sparkling history in Colorado. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Colorado Springs itself was a hotbed of the state's abstract movement. Even art devotees, myself included, are taken by surprise when they learn how much the city has contributed to modern art.
Beginning this weekend, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center will pay homage to local abstract works with Colorado Springs Abstract. Curator Blake Milteer says the show isn't comprehensive, as it features only 18 artists. But it includes 104 of their paintings, prints and sculptures, culled from the FAC's collection, private owners and the artists themselves. The relatively tight focus, Milteer hopes, will allow viewers to dig deeper into the artists' visions and, ergo, the intimidating field of abstraction.
The collection actually still feels expansive, with artists including Lew Tilley, Ellen O'Brien, Bill Burgess and Betty Ross. Even the famed Robert Motherwell's signature fat, black action brushstrokes appear in the show. Motherwell, it turns out, taught a few art classes in the city, during a time when abstract art was starting to blossom.
"You start to get artists coming from afar, bringing influences from Europe [and] New York to Colorado Springs," says Milteer.
The show begins in the 1940s, the era when the Fine Arts Center absorbed the old Broadmoor Art Academy. Works continue chronologically through today, with one piece finished only a few weeks ago by 77-year-old Don Green.
"There's a great tradition over the past 60 years in abstraction," Milteer says. "Where does it go from here? I would argue that one of the most compelling trends in abstraction is what you might call conceptual abstraction, where artists are using very contemporary materials to express very contemporary ideas."
However, many artists return to the original point of inspiration: the Colorado landscape. Although many works are abstracted beyond readily recognizable imagery, Green pares some of his works down. "Eclipse," a steel, copper and glass sculpture, portrays a moon slung over a triangular mountain. The slopes of the mountain contain cross-sections of plate glass, which has a fresh green tone, and the metals are hammered into a pleasing, organic bumpiness. The entire work emotes balance and serenity, emotions not immediately associated with abstract art.
But Green feels that with more education, people can appreciate and understand the genre. He notes that people say, "'I don't know much about art, but I know what I like.' But what people mean is, 'I don't know much about art, but I like what I know.' And if you don't know anything about art, what are you going to like?"
Milteer understands people feeling disconnected from abstract art.
"The hard part about abstraction," he says, "is that it's not unusual to see an abstract poster print over the bed at the Super 8."
So the symbolic, spiritual level so many abstract works possess falls prey to topical and often tacky decoration. But on the flip side, he says, one of the most "enduring" aspects of abstract art is the abundance of interpretations it invites.
Green agrees: "It is not concrete. You abstract the thing until it becomes a line, a shape, a color, a texture. And it works in space. And that is all abstract artists do, is just simply say, 'It's a line, it's a shape.' You can call it anything you want, then."
Milteer says Westword art critic Michael Paglia helped him refine the idea for the FAC's show. Paglia recently helped create Colorado Abstract: Paintings and Sculpture (on display through March 8) at the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art. A book (by the same name), developed in tandem with the show, outlines the history of modern art in the state.
Recent history has seen a sharp decline in cutting-edge art, especially in Colorado Springs, due to changing priorities and the rise of cultural centers such as Denver, Taos and Santa Fe. But, Milteer says, "Colorado Springs was a significant arts center. And I hope we can be again."
That also goes for abstract art, with its pass reputation.
"There's this aspect of the language of abstraction that still very much bears elaboration," Milteer says. "I don't think everything's been said."