By Irene Rawlings
There’s classic Western as well as contemporary and much more in these mountains.
Skiing in the American West probably got its start when some old miner strapped a couple of barrel staves to his feet so he could navigate the deep snow. Times have changed. The West’s champagne powder attracts the affluent from all corners of the globe, and each resort town has dozens of art galleries and antiques shops to coax even the most passionate skier off the slopes.
If you fly into Denver, try to arrange your visit to coincide with the First Fridays Art Walks. All of the galleries and museums stay open late and a free shuttle circulates among the art districts, stopping not only at the art venues but also at indie bookstores, coffee shops and restaurants. Better yet, plan to attend what locals call “The Art and Cattle Show”—the annual National Western Stock Show and Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale (January 7–22). Paintings, drawings, bronzes and watercolors—most with a ranch or cowboy theme—sell fast in down-home, rodeo atmosphere.
The newly remodeled American Indian art galleries in the Denver Art Museum are known for their world-class collections of pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art and artifacts as well as Western American art. The building—a castle designed in 1971 by Italian architect Gio Ponti and covered with more than a million glass tiles—silhouettes against the sky like a fort on the frontier. The 2006 Daniel Libeskind-designed addition (the Hamilton Building) is an explosive tangle of jutting titanium-clad forms. Somehow it all works.
Just to the west, the newly opened Clyfford Still Museum houses more than 2,400 works by Still (1904–80)—about 90 percent of everything he created. Roughly 60 paintings and 60 works on paper by this giant of abstract expressionism are on display at any given time in a rectilinear, highly textured concrete building.
The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art is a hidden treasure, housed in Vance Kirkland’s historic 1910 studio, just a few blocks up 13th Street. Easily the best thing about this eclectic museum is the fact that the director, Hugh Grant, enjoys guiding interested visitors through rooms full-to-bursting with paintings by Kirkland and other notable Colorado artists, and excellent examples of 20th-century furniture and decorative art—Saarinen chairs, Ruba Rhombic glass, complete sets of Russel Wright dinnerware. While walking through the very accessible room settings, one fascinated visitor paused to note that it was a little like falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland.
Even when LoDo (lower downtown—near the train station) was down on its luck, it encompassed one of the finest collections of late 19th-century commercial buildings in the American West. Now, many of the structures in this 23-square–block warehouse district have been turned into art galleries, antiques shops and restaurants. The Adjaye-designed Museum of Contemporary Art, a non-collecting museum modeled after the European kunsthalle, has made its home in LoDo. Many notable galleries are also clustered close by. Don’t miss the Robert Motherwells at Robischon Gallery (which used to represent the estate) as well as limited-edition Kendrick Moholt photographs of Chris Antemann’s decidedly naughty, quasi-18th century porcelain vignettes and David Kroll’s highly refined oils juxtaposing nature—birds, fish and landscape—with exquisitely detailed man-made art objects such as porcelain pieces. Through December, Robischon is showing the historically-referenced narrative paintings of Wes Hempel, who can certainly paint a nude—sometimes even with wings.
Visions West, a gallery with roots—and two locations—in Montana, opened a place in Denver to join the active art scene and showcase a more contemporary take on animal imagery and western landscape. For museum-quality Navajo rugs, Apache baskets and Cheyenne beaded moccasins, stop in Dave Cook Fine American Art. In the Golden Triangle, Goodwin Fine Art (in an industrial-looking gallery with great lighting) hangs a new show every 6-8 weeks. Look for the poetic, dreamy compositions of Jill Hadley Hooper or the elegantly spare oils of contemporary realist Travis Conrad Erion. “I especially like that Erion invites the viewer to join him on a multi-layered journey of allegory, illusion and social criticism that’s expressed in his work,” says owner Tina Goodwin.
Driving up the I-70 corridor west from Denver, you come first to Vail and then to Aspen—with plenty of small towns to explore in between. Vail is a pedestrian-only resort that was once a large open meadow owned by a sheep farmer. You can step out the door of most hotels and condos in central Vail and walk to the lifts—and dozens of galleries—in a matter of minutes. The venerable Claggett/Rey Gallery has been in business for 22 years and shows a broad spectrum of traditional art—sculptures by Dan Ostermiller and Ken Bunn, paintings by Quang Ho and Gary Niblett. “The resort towns in Colorado continue to be a great art market,” says owner Bill Rey. “Vail will always be a good because it is close to Denver, a nice place to visit and, well, people enjoy buying art when they’re relaxed and on vacation.” Practically next door, the Master’s Gallery showcases traditional and contemporary works by many artists, including Earl Biss, Peter Max, cowgirl artist Carrie Fell and even Dr. Seuss.
Aspen, an 1880s silver-mining town, is the grande dame of Colorado skiing. Carefully preserved, brightly painted Victorian houses lining the streets of central Aspen attest to its early prosperity. Today, Aspen is a star-studded resort known as much for its art scene as for its world-class skiing. Joel Soroka Gallery shows fine-art photography in an unpretentious second-story space. David Floria Gallery shows contemporary art by well-knowns and carefully curated newcomers. Harley Baldwin Gallery delights in showing cutting-edge, sometimes-controversial contemporary art like large-scale photo-based works by Gilbert & George; it also shows the British duo’s more gently humorous “Urethra Postcard Art.” Right next door, E.S. Lawrence, Aspen’s oldest gallery, shows art that’s whimsical and fun, such as Paul Jacobsen’s Adirondack-chair wall sculptures. You’ll want to linger in Keating Fine Art, talking with the very knowledgeable Gordon Keating. Simon Daniels of Daniels Antiques has a huge Black Forest collection with many pieces by Johann Huggler but he might also display a collection of brass and chrome Zeiss telescopes from the 1940s. McHugh Antiques sells a stylish mix of European antiques and antique textiles.
In Telluride, another old mining town that’s successfully reinvented itself, Telluride Gallery of Fine Art celebrates its 26th year with exhibitions of children’s-book illustrations (think Maurice Sendak and Babar illustrator Laurent de Brunhoff), works by iconic illustrator Mark English, photographs by installation artist Sandy Skoglund and rubber-and-diamond studio jewelry. “January’s show features Mark English, who is American’s greatest living illustrator,” says Telluride Gallery owner Will Thompson. “We grew up with his work on postage stamps and national parks posters. I first saw his original work in 1979 and just fell in love.” English was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 1983, Thompson adds. Also, on the first Thursday of every month, stop by The Stronghouse Studios, an artists’ cooperative where many of Telluride’s emerging artists work.
Jackson Hole, Wyo., is a valley surrounded by mountains, the Tetons and Gros Ventre. The charming, still-cowboy town of Jackson sits at the southern end of the valley. Trailside Gallery, which opened in 1963, helped create an enthusiasm for traditional Western Art. The Legacy Gallery represents more than 100 traditional artists—from sculptor Henry Jackson to jeweler Kelly Charveaux to gouache specialist Michael Coleman — and has branched out into more contemporary styles. Stop by Tayloe Piggott Gallery to see new works by glass master Dale Chihuly, glass-and-limestone sculptures by Jane Rosen or found-materials constructions by James Castle. “I represent 20 or so artists at the gallery and more through my art consultation business,” Piggott says. “After the downturn of 2008, we’ve seen a flight to value amongst our clients, and great art continues to sell.” Also in Jackson, Altamira Gallery is showing Donna Howell-Sickles’ cowgirls and Jared Sanders’ evocative “Back Roads” series, and Diehl Gallery has Richard Painter’s dramatic animal compositions on charred wood and Simon Gudgeon’s sleek bronze birds.
Fighting Bear Antiques is a must-see for Molesworth and rustic-antler furniture and a huge collection of American Indian art, including beaded cradleboards and Navajo chief’s blankets. Promise yourself that you’ll come back during Fall Arts Week (September 6–16), when the mountainsides are ablaze with color and all of Jackson turns out into the streets to enjoy more than 50 events centering on art, music, cowboy poetry, couture and cuisine of the Old West. The Jackson Hole Art Auction—an annual extravaganza hosted by Trailside Galleries and Gerald Peters Gallery during Fall Arts Week—realized $9.5 million in sales (more than 90% of the lots were sold). Many paintings went over their pre-auction estimates, including oils by Frederic Remington, John Clymer, Clark Hulings and Morgan Weisting.
The National Museum of Wildlife Art, always worth a visit, celebrates with Western Visions R with the annual Miniatures and More Show & Sale, ever-popular because who doesn’t have room for a 10 x 12-inch oil of a polar bear by Ralph Oberg or a similarly sized oil of a pika by Dwayne Harty?
Serious collectors go out of their way to visit Thomas Nygard Gallery on East Main Street in Bozeman, Mont. But if you’re skiing Big Sky or Moonlight Basin, you’re only about 50 miles away. Without doubt, it is worth the trip. Nygard sells 19th- and 20th-century Western art in a classic Western setting. You’ll find early paintings by George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, action westerns by Remington and Charles Schreyvogel and sweet-faced Indian children by Grace Carpenter Hudson. Over on West Main Street, Nikki Todd shows contemporary (both representational and non-representational) art by Western artists at Visions West Gallery.
With so much terrain that is only hikeable (the Highline Ridge to Kachina Peak, for example), Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico (at the southern end of the Rockies), has a relaxed vibe and attracts the more laid-back kind of skier. The town of Taos is a scenic half-hour drive away. Stop first at the Taos Art Museum, in the historic home and studio of artist Nicolai Fechin to see works by Fechin and all 12 members of the Taos Society of Artists (1915–27)—most studied and traveled in Europe before settling in Taos where living was cheap (compared to Paris or New York) and the quality of light was magical. After the first of the year, the director will be raiding the museum’s vault to hang a show of Taos Masters, including iconic works by Ernest Blumenschein, Oscar Berninghaus, Joseph Henry Sharp and E. Irving Couse, to name a few. “It will be a fabulous show,” says museum director Erion Simpson. “Many of the paintings have not been on public view in a very long time.”
The home itself is a work of art—carved, molded and painted by Fechin to be his perfect mix of his native Russian, American Indian and New Mexico Spanish. Then walk over to La Fonda de Taos, a late 19th-century adobe hotel right on Taos Plaza, to see several oil paintings by the novelist D.H. Lawrence that were declared obscene in his home country, England, in the early 20th century but are pretty tame by today’s standards. The paintings ended up in Taos when Lawrence moved here in the early 1920s at the invitation of art patroness Mabel Dodge Luhan. You will also want to see her sprawling adobe hacienda, which is only a five-minute walk from town. Now it’s an inn, and you can stay in Mabel’s room or her former glassed-in sun porch, which has panoramic views of Taos. The Harwood Museum of Art and the Millicent Rogers Museum are testaments to the lure of the Land of Enchantment, as New Mexico calls itself. Burt and Elizabeth Harwood moved here from France in 1916, bought several adobe buildings and immediately began collecting the work of Taos Artists. The high-fashion Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers moved to Taos in 1947 and fought for the classification of Indian art as “historic,” giving it protection and status.
Things have certainly changed in the western mountains since that old miner first strapped on his barrel staves. The rise and fall of gold, silver, cattle and oil have all contributed to the west’s boom-and-bust cycles. Fresh powder still falls in abundance, but the mountain towns have become just as famous for another, equally alluring sport. It’s called shopping.