The primary purpose of my visit to Denver was to spend time at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA Denver), which I highly recommend and I’ve written about in previous posts. While I was in town, I also visited a number of other cultural institutions and saw a whole bunch of amazing stuff that I’d like to share.
First up – Denver Art Museum (DAM). Split over two distinctive buildings in the heart of the cultural district, DAM is vast and it took me a couple of visits to get all the way around it. The taller North Building shows African, American Indian, Pre-Columbian, and Asian arts as well as European and American painting and decorative arts in the Western tradition. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but Pre-Columbian art really is amazing and DAM has an entire study centre devoted to it, including rows and rows of collection objects, organised by region. Well and truly my happy place.
The spiky North Building at DAM is an impressive architectural statement but must be a challenge to work with. (Why do architects like making museums with sloping walls?) These spaces are predominantly devoted to temporary exhibitions although there is also a display of 19th century American art and sculpture, depicting a world of large skies, wagon trails, exotic locals and bucking broncos. I particularly enjoyed the exhibitions; Rhythm and Roots: Dance in American Art shows dance traditions of indigenous peoples as well as jazz, ballet, and the Charleston. Next door to this exhibition is an incredible space, called the Dance Lab, (#dancelab to see more) which is a long, dark room, filled with pumping music and a huge projection screen running the length of one wall. The screen shows approximately 15 people, all visitors who have danced in response to the music. Their movements, only a few seconds long and then looped, are overlaid with bright day-glo squiggles and shapes. The atmosphere is more nightclub that museum and all ages were in there and enjoying it.
The top floor exhibition, Women of Abstract Expressionism was a joy; there is so much energy, strength and vitality in the paintings. I am pretty ‘take it or leave it’ with a lot of the AbEx crew and find the posturing of its male stars a bit wearisome, but this show reminded me that the scale and colour of these paintings can be wonderfully overwhelming and uplifting – I left the galleries feeling really good.
One of the most striking things about DAM is the number of seating areas and interpretation spaces. Most rooms have at least a couple of seats to aid contemplation and slowing down. I also encountered a number of rooms that were like cabinets of curiosity, filled with sofas, desks, nooks, objects, books, art, and games. My jaw was on the floor when I stumbled across the first one; the room was so inviting, I just wanted to move in, put my slippers on and get comfy. DAM is not an experience to be rushed, and while its scale can be daunting, there are plenty of pit-stops along the way.
Secondly, History Colorado Center. Having learnt a huge amount from the social history museums I visited in Dallas, I hoped this museum would do the same for my understanding of Denver – and it totally delivered. I didn’t know the Dust Bowl in the 1930s was the result of over-farming the land, and lack of diversity in the crops. Post-WW1, European wheat growers were out of action, so it was the boom years for Mid-Western farmers. But when droughts came, closely followed by the Depression, the region faced grinding poverty and had to cope with dust-storms that destroyed crops and cattle and buried houses under many feet of barren dirt. It was so bad, children were dying from the dust in their lungs. The History Colorado Center is filled with interactives and immersive experiences that are very visceral. To tell the Dust Bowl story, there is an audio-video interactive that is like entering a small family home in the 1930s. You sit in the front room, and are able to look out the window and see the winds picking up and the skies darkening. It gets louder and darker, and the whole room shakes and rumbles as the commentary tells the story of a family hoping that the house holds together and doesn’t get blown away.
The top floor of the museum is the temporary exhibition space. I visited El Movimiento, The Chicano Movement in Colorado, which focusses on civil rights for Mexican Americans, and includes protests to improve school conditions for Chicano kids, strong anti-Vietnam War statements, and issues around identity. It proved to me yet again that America is deeply divided and museums are a great place to learn about both recent history and its impact on the present. The other exhibition I visited on this floor was something totally different – Awkward Family Photos. Many of these I’d seen online before, but I liked the presentation as the space was arranged like a private sitting room. Everyone in there was laughing out loud, it was a lot of fun. There was also a photography studio and dress-ups so you could submit your own family photo and enter a competition for the most awkward. Loved it.
Nearby to both the History Colorado Center and DAM is the Clyfford Still Museum, which holds his archive, the majority of his output (many paintings are still rolled up and yet to be catalogued), and a beautiful gallery that, as per the stipulation of the gift, may only show Still’s work. I learnt about Still when I was an art history student 20 years ago; it was a treat to see the real things in such a dedicated setting. The man may have been ego personified, but he also created very beautiful paintings. I hadn’t seen his early work of the 1930s before, and found the elongated faces and distorted bodies to be disturbing and reminded me of what I’d learnt about the Dust Bowl. If concrete is your thing, I would also recommend the Clyfford Still Museum for its architecture. Allied Works Architects used cast concrete to create fine vertical ‘fins’ that line many of the walls. The concrete has chipped and flaked away along the edge of the fins, creating an amazing play of light and an interesting echo to the verticality in the paintings.
And one final stop – the Denver Botanic Gardens. I wanted to visit because there is an exhibition of sculpture from the Walker Art Center dotted throughout the gardens, but this didn’t end up being my focus. I fell in love with the glasshouse – more gorgeous concrete – designed by Denver architects, Victor Hornbein and Edward D White, Jnr. in 1966. A large Japanese garden, including water lilies and bonzai, was ridiculously photogenic. Thanks to late-night opening hours, I was able to wander around at dusk, and the early-Autumn light was stunning.
So, in conclusion, go to Denver. What I’ve mentioned above is only the tip of the iceberg.
Header image: The Seasons, 1957, by Lee Krasner