The center of art in the United States in 1929 was New York City. Artists flocked from across the country to study in its gritty cosmopolitan community where they banded together, pushed the boundaries and changed consciousness. Yet in that same year, one artist chose a different path and that has made all the difference for Colorado and indeed for western art history. Vance Kirkland was born with the confidence to take on the world, shake it up, and record the results in paint. He was a true pioneer, one who turned not east but west to Denver where he spent almost his entire artistic career creating ground breaking images uninhibited by the trends of the major art cities. Throughout his life he painted pieces that vibrated with color and vitality, and his later work – unique and sophisticated variations on Op (short for optical) art -- continues to fascinate as it tricks the viewer’s eye, commanding one to follow its undulating motion. Kirkland never liked to explain his work, preferring that each viewer form his or her own opinion. He even hated to sign his finished canvasses for fear of limiting the ways they could be hung and enjoyed. In an interview given towards the end of his life, Kirkland said, “It takes a different kind of mind, someone who could attempt to visualize, with me, what I am wanting to get across. I am hoping people can find something exciting as far as the relationships of color are concerned and the abstractions I have made.”
Kirkland died in 1981 leaving the people of Denver a legacy that includes one of the finest art schools in the country, a body of more than 1,100 paintings in five distinct periods and 500 drawings, a collection of important works by his contemporaries, as well as collected antiquities, more than 6,000 recordings of jazz, classical, and opera, and a strong and growing modern and contemporary art department at the Denver Art Museum. And thanks to the Vance Kirkland Museum and Foundation formed in 1996 and dedicated to finding sold and missing works, restoring, documenting and exhibiting this valuable collection, Kirkland’s work is being rediscovered by museums nationally and internationally. A European tour has been recently completed during which Kirkland paintings and drawing were shown at 13 museums in 10 countries. Kirkland’s work and life has been featured in three television documentaries and a ballet performed by Colorado Ballet. However, none of this would have happened if Kirkland’s father had had his way. I’ll get to this in a moment.
Watercolor dominated the first 27 years of Kirkland’s painting career and upon his arrival to Colorado in 1929, he, like many artists of the day, painted the landscape. Though Kirkland insisted on pushing the colors, the structure learned in his college courses coupled with the criticism of his professors affected this early body of work: It is the most representational of his career. He referred to the paintings created over these first 10 years as “Discovering the West.” His sense of humor often showed through the transparent pigment in such paintings as Garden Club and Nature Lovers. In these paintings, Kirkland featured lovely social ladies wearing the flowers and furs of the very things they had come to learn about. Kirkland wrote of one such painting that he could no longer find, that he thought it was purchased by the club depicted and immediately destroyed by its members.
As he tired of exploring the traditional western motif, Kirkland slowly moved away from realism toward surrealism as he focused on images of deadwood found in the high country. Through his eyes the branches danced with color and life. Interestingly, these paintings took shape during World War II. The horrors of the war added new meaning to his view of nature. To show just how small he felt man was to the world, Kirkland added ant-sized human figures that appear to be moving along the striations of the wood, inhabiting the deadwood – feeding on nature but never more important. In this way Kirkland reversed the scale of man with nature.
Out of the deadwood sprung flowers, which, over time, became prehistoric looking, surreal animals. Of this new frontier in his art, Kirkland wrote: “Living in the West surrounded by immense grandeurs of nature has caused me after many years to reflect away from the scenic world and escape into a personally created world of fantasy.”
Through the mid 1950s, Kirkland was in demand. The prestigious Knoedler Gallery in New York City carried his work for twelve years, giving him three one-man shows and a two-man show with surreal artist Max Ernst. Kirkland’s watercolors were featured in museum many exhibitions across the country including the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Dallas Art Museum and Los Angeles Museum of Art. That was until he abruptly dropped watercolor and switched to abstract painting in oil.
For Kirkland the idea of creating meant inventing something new, something that had not yet existed. He was inspired by other artists and collected many works of his contemporaries such as Miro, Matta, Zadkine, Locketz, Mirko, Mangold, Britton, Pereira and Polisello, as well as Roman, Egyptian, Greek, and Asian antiquities. He said that living with works of art was just the competition he needed to keep striving to make his own work better. He always spent money collecting – a disease he said whose only cure was to acquire more. Kirkland often purchased pieces for the University of Denver’s collection as well as the Denver Art Museum. He constantly pushed – some say fought with – DAM director from 1944 to 1974, Otto Bach, to collect more contemporary works, something the museum was not interested in at that time. Kirkland persevered, serving through the years as curator and trustee, and, according to Diane Perry Vanderlip, single-handedly created the Modern and Contemporary department that she now heads.
In 1953 all his ideas about teaching, collecting, and the evolution of art, along with his observations on what was happening in art around the country melded with his thoughts on outer space. He would later compare his theories with those of scientist Fred Hoyle (Big Bang theory) and the Pulitzer Prize winning astronomer Carl Sagan. The explosion that went off inside caused Kirkland to abandon the watercolors he had worked with for so many years and focus on non-objective, abstract work in oil. Some consider this move career suicide. The museums and galleries who had built a following for his previous work turned their backs on him. Anne Warriner, a writer for Cervi’s Rocky Mountain Journal summed it up in her August 31, 1966 column: “We asked Vance Kirkland why he changed his style of realistic painting, for which he was so praised and beloved, to space-age art which everyone questions. We can say, in fact, the art laity in Denver flat-out does not like it.”
But Kirkland was on to something and he really didn’t care who approved. These new paintings did not rely on subject matter but instead on thoughts and inspirations. In an interview for the Denver Post May 15, 1960, Kirkland explained: “For the artist to produce a work of art not dependent on an imitation or reproduction of a subject pertaining to nature, he faces the greatest problems and the greatest challenges of all. Because all he has to work with is his knowledge of what art is, the language of art, and some personal reaction to his times as experienced or felt through being inventive and thoroughly creative.”
Kirkland blared music as he mixed oil and water on his canvasses. In so doing, he developed the dynamic resist paintings of the second half of his career. As he had with the watercolors, Kirkland worked on flat surfaces experimenting with the reaction of the substances. These initial floating abstractions were generally of bright colors that appear to be exploding across the canvas. Through this work, Kirkland explored his own thoughts on the limitless boundaries and mysteries of space.
His new technique yielded equally wonderful results when he turned his attention to the old walls and buildings seen during his travels to the Roman ruins, Burma, India, and Cambodia. Of the rich organic shapes that emerged out of his memories, Kirkland wrote, “This series…[carries] overtones pertaining to places experienced in travel, only the paintings definitely do not represent places – just ideas stimulated by the arrangement of paint on canvas. In these paintings, the observer must participate.”
No longer hemmed in by the limitations of sheets of watercolor paper, Kirkland had large canvasses stretched so he could spread out and paint big. He again turned to the mysteries of space as he continued to perfect his technique. He called these paintings color vibrations for the way the paint appeared to actually vibrate across the canvas. Color fields of floating forms supported multiples of dots that followed and enhanced the underlying color patterns in these paintings.
Kirkland maintained a rigid schedule working six days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., sometimes longer. Yet he barely finished one painting a month. The canvasses he used for the dot paintings started at 16 inches square with the largest size being 75 inches by 168 inches. Kirkland said, “The large size of the paintings, and the very complex way of using little tiny dots, creates active instead of static canvasses. I discovered from a friend with a calculator that there were over 77,500 dots in a painting that is 75 inches high and 100 inches wide. I must say that is a good many dots. But I would not be able to do the painting, and achieve the vibrations of color and tricking the eye into moving around the canvas in any other way.”
But working on such a grand scale created its own set of problems. Sculptor Robert Mangold remembers stopping by Kirkland’s studio and witnessing the artist at work. “The biggest shock he ever gave me was when I went in on a weekend and he was hanging in a harness. I always wondered how he reached the middle of those paintings. He had developed this harness thing and he would climb up on a stepladder and hang out over the painting and make these dots. He used to paint with dowel rods he’d dip in the paint. I started off talking about what I came to talk about but after a while I realize that I’m not talking because I’m watching him and he’s not talking because he’s into what he’s doing. Finally he said, ‘What did you come for?’ I said, ‘Well, I guess I came to watch you paint because I’ve forgotten.”
The fun of these pieces, Kirkland said was that he could explore the mysteries of space, to visualize what might have happened billions of years ago. He was thrilled to read Carl Sagan’s book The Dragons of Eden and quoted Sagan where he wrote, “the only other type of person in an endeavor to which his kind of scientist could relate is the creative artist, mostly the painter. The painter works through the imagination and visualizes his dreams.”
Kirkland allowed no limits whether physical or mental to stand in his path of discovery through art. He demanded greatness of himself as he did of the many students he nurtured, cajoled, and flat out scared. However, none of this would have happened if Vance Kirkland’s father had had his way. –OR- Traits Kirkland developed no doubt at an early age.
Kirkland started painting as a boy growing up in Convoy, Ohio, a small farming community west of Cleveland. His father and grandfather, both doctors, wanted him to follow in their footsteps. Kirkland had other plans, though. He made a contact at the Cleveland School of Art, applied and was accepted. School, Kirkland quickly realized, was much harder than he first thought. He was ill prepared, as all the other students had some previous training. After several months, one of his teachers told him he was hopeless and that he should go home and dig ditches. He even failed his freshman watercolor class for using unusual colors in his compositions. Refusing to give in, Kirkland simply worked harder. By graduation, he had so improved that his paintings had received junior and senior year first prizes for watercolor, were awarded honorable mention at an exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art and he was asked to stay on at the school, was given a fellowship and started teaching beginning watercolor.
After his fellowship, Kirkland received an offer from the University of Denver to found the school’s first fine art department. The thought of pioneering in the West was thrilling to him and despite the fact that he was young for such a position – just 22 years old, he wrote, “I felt confident and knew I could handle the job.” In January 1929, armed with a graduate degree in art and teacher training, he left the Midwest for what he was warned by his professors would be a cultural wilderness.
To the art community, Kirkland may have seemed like a throwback to a past era, perhaps even disappointing in the normalcy of his appearance. He wore silk suits he had made in Hong Kong while visiting there and was always well groomed. In his later years, he walked with a cane and some times crutches and occasionally a wheelchair. The years of leaning over a table to paint had damaged his legs, hips and back, causing arthritis and resulting in two hip replacements. Sally Storey, who knew Kirkland along with her late husband Lewis, through the Denver Art Museum, recalls the cane coming in handy when he started telling stories. “When Vance got going, he would bang that cane on the floor for emphasis,” said Storey. “But you always knew he wasn’t that fierce.”
The first trip Kirkland took abroad was to Italy with fellow artist Albert Olson in 1930. On Capri both met Anne Fox Oliphant, a children’s librarian from Philadelphia, who after seven years of courting, chose Albert even though Kirkland also proposed. Olson brought his bride back to Denver but their marriage was short lived. He died in 1940, leaving Kirkland and the widow a chance to rekindle any possible romance. A year after Olson’s death, Kirkland married Anne.
At DU, however, Kirkland was less then satisfied with his position. Unable to focus on his own work and angered over the administration’s refusal to accredit his classes and offer degrees in art, Kirkland was fired four years after arriving in Denver. But he was well respected by his students many of whom began to drop by his studio for instruction. Eventually, Kirkland started teaching again, this time out of his studio. “I have found it to be a most satisfactory arrangement.” wrote Kirkland. “By carefully selecting students, a very gratifying standard has been maintained. This way I can continue my own work, working along with the students.” He took his newly formed school one step further when the University of Colorado offered class credit to their students who studied with Kirkland starting in 1933.
After more than a decade of successfully running the Kirkland School of Art, the Chancellor of DU asked Kirkland how he felt about coming back. “Vance said to him ‘You’ve got to be kidding! After what I went through,’” says Hugh Grant, Director of the Vance Kirkland Museum. “The Chancellor finally asked what it would take to get him back. Kirkland thought he would end the discussion by saying, ‘First of all you have to give me a salary larger than yours and second, complete autonomy for my department.’” Much to his surprise, they agreed. In 1946, Kirkland returned to DU as chairman of the Arts and Humanities bringing hundreds of students with him.
Kirkland’s relationship with the deans at DU, however, distracted and annoyed him once again. A friend of the family’s, Karin Bond, spent the summer of 1955 with the Kirklands and remembers many wonderful parties and discussions but also the constant frustration he felt from the school. “Every night when he came home from work he’d say, ‘Guess what I told them at the university today,’” she recalled. “He was put out from time to time so he liked to brag a little.” It was, undoubtedly, during the struggle of running the school that Kirkland gained his reputation for being combative.
"He really had to fight to get what he wanted,” says Grant. One such battle ensued when he was not allowed to teach life drawing of nudes, a basic in any fine arts school. “Vance figured the deans thought anyone who would do nude drawings would probably hold orgies in the room,” he recalls. To win over one particularly stubborn dean, Kirkland sent a postcard of a different Picasso nude drawing every day for a month. Kirkland finally got his way.
Though it wasn’t just the deans with whom Kirkland argued. Robert Mangold, who was hired by Kirkland in 1961 to teach in the sculpture department, remembers many heated discussions. Their arguments were never personal, however, and Mangold recalls that they always looked forward to seeing each other even though they knew the next meeting would surely spark conflict once again. “Anyone who said Vance was quiet and easy going would be missing the point,” says Mangold. “Normally, I’m not one to shout but if someone shouts at me I shout back. I do remember having done that – the faculty and students hearing us.”
But Mangold remembers his elegant presence, too. “You always knew Vance was in the room. He just had this way about him,” he says. “One time we brought our young daughter to an opening wearing this fluffy thing and white gloves. I introduced her to Vance and as he began to lean toward her, she stuck her hand out. Vance took her hand and kissed it. We never knew she had seen this kind of thing before but Vance had this quality. He took her around and told her about the work, this little 3-year-old girl!”
Kirkland retired from teaching at DU in 1969 and his wife Anne passed away the following year leaving him entirely to his art. He contracted hepatitis most likely while traveling abroad and his health began to decline. Yet the ideas for new paintings kept flowing out of him. Over the last 10 years of his life doctors would give him six months at a time to live. His will to create was so strong it literally kept him going. Three months before he died, Kirkland had friends strap him to his chair while he painted so he wouldn’t fall over when he passed out from exhaustion. He painted up to the last two days of his life and left one painting unfinished. He was still planning yet another series of work and maintained his charming sense of humor to the end. His last words were to the nurse who asked for his arm to which Kirkland replied, “Only if you give it back.” On May 24, 1981, at the age of 76 Vance Kirkland surrendered to the hepatitis that so weakened his body but not his spirit.
Grant recalls, “Vance wanted no memorial ceremony or funeral service of any kind because he felt they generally made people sad. Instead, he wanted people to go to his studio or somewhere else and enjoy his paintings, which he considered positive. He said, ‘People don’t need to bother with me anymore – the paintings are enough.’”
Today, it is still possible to visit Vance Kirkland’s studio by appointment in its original Arts and Crafts period building on 13th Avenue and Pearl Street. Always on display are more than 70 pieces by Kirkland covering the major periods of his work, as well as selected Colorado sculptures, paintings and ceramics and about 2,000 decorative art objects that augment his collections. The joy, excitement, angst, and curiosity that went into his work surround the viewer who ventures into this oasis in the heart of Denver.
In addition to his paintings, Kirkland will also be remembered for is his tireless support of the arts: not only in his own contributions but in that of the hundreds of men and women who studied under him, as well as in those who have yet to attend the school of fine arts he built for DU, and, of course, in the Denver Art Museum’s growing contemporary collection. In a lecture he gave to his students Kirkland wrote: “Most people think of art as something far removed from life, something far-out, unnecessary, a useless frill of education. Many students achieve an education, even a Ph.D., without even touching man’s achievements in the arts. Try traveling around the world sometime and confront yourself with the civilizations of the world, and you will soon realize how much art man has produced because he has needed it. There is so much to enjoy and so little time. Life is too short.”
The Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Arts carries most of Vance Kirkland's work, as well as a stunning collection of Colorado's finest artists.