I had never heard of an artist named Vance Kirkland until I visited a new museum in Denver devoted to his life and work this summer. Matt Masich wrote an article about Kirkland and this new museum. The article appeared in Colorado Life magazine shortly after it opened in 2018. In it, Masich called Kirkland “Colorado’s most-revered artist” and referred to him as “an incredible underdog”. Is this a compliment, a statement about artistic indomitability, something he felt like he had to say? I don’t know and never will. I do know that I had never seen anything done by Kirkland until I visited this museum, and I know that liking any artist is a matter of personal taste. I also know that the staff of this new museum at 1201 Bannock Street, very close to the Denver Art Museum, insisted that I take a copy of Matt Masich’s article with me to learn more about Vance Kirkland.
The Vance Kirkland Gallery behind the Welcome Desk in the new Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art contains examples of the 5 major periods of his paintings. Hard-working Kirkland did more than 30 series. I don’t know how many years he painted but suspect he began as a young man in the 1920s and continued producing art until he died in 1981. He moved from what he called Designed Realism to Surrealism, kind of like moving from Rene Magritte to Salvador Dali. Next he tried Hard Edge Abstraction but abandoned it for Abstract Expressionism reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. His final phase produced Dot Paintings. Masich claims that he mastered 5 different styles during 5 working periods and calls Kirkland’s output during his dot period his masterpieces that were completely original. He claims that dot paintings were invented by Kirkland and that he had to complete these huge art works by strapping himself into a harness that drifted over blank canvas. Didn’t Georges Seurat and others do dot paintings? However, Seurat and other pointilists chose realistic subjects, not abstractions. Art appreciation is forever both relative and complicated.
Masich says that Vance Kirkland “painted with gleeful disregard for all rules”. This might also be said of Vincent Van Gogh. On a personal level, Kirkland did clash with his teachers and received a lot of Fs during his education. He was the founding director of a new art school at the University of Denver but resigned in disgust 3 years later to become a full-time painter. Three women turned down his marriage proposals before he met Anne, a widow whom he married in 1941. I asked the woman who showed Ruth and me around if Kirkland ever had a show of his paintings and she said he did…..in Russia, not Colorado. One of the 3 women who turned him down had a son named Hugh Grant, not the actor. Grant became Kirkland’s mentor, made documentaries about him, called him Uncle, inherited his estate, and started a museum to display Kirkland’s work. Grant wisely collected furniture, pottery, and decorative items created by other, sometimes famous artists like Frank Lloyd Wright and Tiffany, so the rest of this new decorative arts museum is devoted to Kirkland and Grant acquisitions, like the art deco basket below. These are worth seeing as is a complete re-creation of Kirkland’s messy studio that contained the earliest TV I have ever seen.