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15 Colorado Artists collective pioneered modern art in Denver (VIDEO)

"The Transfigured Night," by William Sanderson, was part of the 15 Colorado Artists exhibit at the Kirkland Museum. Image on loan from the Sanderson Art Collection, Northeastern Junior College Foundation, Sterling, Colo.

In 2011, when pretty much anything goes in the world of visual art, it’s hard to imagine what a big deal it was 60 years ago when a handful of Colorado artists left the realm of the real behind to go in a more abstract, modern direction.

With 10 DU art instructors — including Vance Kirkland (BA ’25) and William Sanderson (BA ’26) — in its ranks, a collective calling itself simply 15 Colorado Artists split from the Denver Artists Guild in 1948 to follow its modernist muse.

“We are not trying to break up the guild,” Kirkland told The Denver Post in November 1948. “We are simply interested in progressive ideas in art and the guild isn’t.”

In December 1948, the two groups held side-by-side exhibitions at the Denver Art Museum, and people came from all over the city to see the schism, which the newspapers covered extensively.

This summer the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art in Denver featured work by the rebel group in the exhibit 15 Colorado Artists: Breaking With Tradition. Co-curated by Hugh Grant and Deb Wadsworth, the show featured more than 100 pieces from the artists who were once at the forefront of modern art in the state.

“It’s hard for us today to put ourselves back in 1948 and really imagine these pieces being as controversial as they were,” says Maya Wright, membership and events manager at the Kirkland Museum. “People wrote scandalous things in the paper about the work [of the] 15, but to us they don’t actually look so cutting edge because now we’re in an era where art can be really, really crazy.”

Artwork in the exhibit ranged from purely abstract works by Kirkland, John Billmyer and Eo Kirchner to representational, if nonrealistic, pieces by artists such as Paul Smith and Mina Conant (BFA ’49), who specialized in whimsical paintings of characters drawn from the worlds of fairytales and childhood. Married couple Conant and Billmyer met as art students at DU in the 1930s and later came back to teach at the University. Other DU art faculty who were part of the original 15 were Marion Buchan, Kirchner, Duard Marshall, Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, J. Richard Sorby and Frank Vavra.

“Ten of the 15 worked at DU and were friends and worked together that way, so some people see DU as part of that energy that helped create the 15,” says Wright, who is working on a master’s degree in art history with a concentration in museum studies from the University of Denver.

This summer’s show also included a collection of newspaper articles from the late 1940s that detail the rise of the 15 and Denver’s differing views on modern art. A February 1948 editorial by Lee Casey in the Rocky Mountain News opines that “within a few years an original Picasso or Cezanne will be valued mainly for the frame.”

“In Western art, Western literature and bourbon,” Casey wrote, “I’ll take mine straight.”

The 15 Colorado Artists collective (membership was by invitation only) lasted until the 1970s and ended up with far more than 15 artists in its ranks. But the Kirkland exhibit dealt only with the original 15 and the impact they had on modern art in Colorado.

“It was a magical, seminal moment in Colorado art and emblematic that modern art was becoming widespread in America,” Grant says. “Just as regionalism became a truly American art form, modern art by regional artists in different parts of our country created truly American art forms. … This pivotal moment in the history of Colorado art strengthened and is integral to the development and expansion of American art.”



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