A Visit to the Denver Art Museum
Last week Ellen and I spent a rainy afternoon at the Denver Art Museum (unfortunate acronym, DAM).
It’s a dynamic place, despite rooms full of paintings by dead white men. In fact, many of the dead white painters were set on startling their viewers out of preconceived ways of seeing.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, for example, with his oil-on-canvas “Summer” from the year 1573. It’s a man’s head—from a distance very like any number of Renaissance formal portraits—but every feature, every single bit of him is made from some summer fruit or vegetable. His teeth are perfect peas, his lips cherries. His nose is a nubby cucumber with apricots for nostrils. His eyebrows are made of wheat, his ear is a pear. There is a heart-shaped artichoke growing out of his chest.
Not far away hung an early bit of disorientation by Pablo Picasso, who spent his life altering the way people see. This was a landscape from northeastern Spain, and at first glance it looked like a fairly representational, albeit faceted, view of a mountain town—ala Cézanne in Provence. But look again, and you realize that the house in the foreground appears in two different perspectives: you see it from the side and the front both at the same time.
Picasso was messing with time, too. An orderly row of poplars march up a mountain road throwing shadows from an unseen sun off to the right. But there below the road is a grove of olive trees, their round crowns obviously lit from the left. That rascal Picasso had apparently not heard Firesign Theatre’s immemorial song, “Oh, How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All?”
The dead guys were surprisingly cool, but what made Ellen and me stop and stare and really ponder were some of the contemporary works in the museum’s new wing. The underground cartoonist Robert Crumb was represented there with a pencil sketch faux magazine cover featuring head shots of Ari and Jackie O. The startling thing was not the social satire, which was razor sharp, but the realistic (almost photographic) draftsmanship Crumb displayed in contrast with the looseness of his more famous “Keep On Truckin’” cartoons.
In the next room hung a rumpled metal curtain, maybe eight feet high by 12 feet wide, made by an African artist entirely out of what he called “bottle caps.” Nine thousand of them. These must have been screw caps that he cut and flattened into colorful metallic rectangles and then sewed together with copper wire. The overall effect of light and texture was like being inside a glass of bubbling champagne.
Down the hall a walk-through installation by Sandy Skoglund (“Fox Games,” 1989) recreated an entire restaurant interior. Except that everything in it is painted red: walls, chairs, tablecloths, silverware, napkins, wine glasses, baskets of red dinner rolls. And the place is alive not with people but with dozens of life-sized foxes, all painted blue. The foxes are frozen in astonishing poses, crouching on tabletops, leaping into the air, snarling, pouncing, rolling on the ground: everything, including—maybe especially—the chromatically opposite colors designed to throw your expectations for a loop.
We were stalled out in front of a big, post-modernist urban scene, painted in the spirit of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Hell” (circa 1490), when we began to hear things. At first we thought there might be a child complaining in the next room, or a door open to a hallway, or something. But then we peeked around a corner, and there on the floor was an open suitcase with a disembodied head speaking to us. Actually the head was a projected image, like a hologram of a woman’s face. And she was looking very distressed in her suitcase, her eyes darting right and left, up and down, as if she knew she was stuck. And she was repeating sentences, mostly domestic inanities, but occasionally something scary like, “Fire!” Scary for her and hypnotic for us.
She was irresistible. Four or five chairs had been placed in front of her so that museum-goers, like us, could sit and watch her for what could have been a very long time.
We couldn’t linger because it was nearly five o’clock. The museum was closing, and little knots of usher/guards were gathering in the main rooms. On the way out, though, I did get to see what I think was my favorite piece of the day, Richard Serra’s “Basic Maintenance” (1987). It’s just two massive pieces of rusty steel, two squares about three inches thick and six feet on a side balanced one atop the other. They’re tilted as if leaning against the side wall. Nothing quite lines up (ala Picasso). The squares are obviously tremendously heavy. Slippage has happened, or is at least indicated. Life is precarious, it seems to be saying, perhaps crushingly so.
And exhilarating. A DAM good show!