15 Colorado Artists—Breaking With Tradition

It was creeping inexorably across America—modern art! An alarm was sounded by Rocky Mountain News columnist Lee Casey on 11 February 1948:  “The influence of decadent Parisians…Picasso and Cezanne…has even been felt in the West. Santa Fe has been damaged by it and Denver has not wholly escaped the blight.”

Eleven Denver newspaper articles in 1948 trumpeted the conflict between “conservative” and “radical” artists. These debates climaxed with the break from the 20-year-old Denver Artists Guild by a group of rebel artists calling themselves 15 Colorado Artists. The modern group requested and got a separate, simultaneous exhibition adjoining the Denver Artists Guild exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, 3 December 1948 to 1 January 1949. Newspaper headlines blared: “Time for Showdown in Artists’ Range War” and “Modern vs. Traditional Painting Inspires Denver Artists’ Schism.”

Although the avant-garde 1913 Armory Show in New York had a profound impact on American academia and some artists and dealers, there was generally a strong resistance to modern art until after WW II in America. Thomas Hart Benton rejected the New York—Paris art scene and moved back permanently to Kansas City, Missouri in 1935. He and other regionalists concerned themselves with developing an American artistic identity without relying on the European styles in vogue at the time. Yet modern art styles eventually became established outside New York as this exhibition demonstrates.

On May 5th, the Kirkland opened 15 Colorado Artists—Breaking With Tradition, showcasing the founders of “the 15″—Don Allen, John Billmyer, Marion Buchan, Jean Charlot, Mina Conant, Angelo di Benedetto, Eo Kirchner, Vance Kirkland, Moritz Krieg, Duard Marshall, Louise Ronnebeck, William Sanderson, Paul K. Smith, J. Richard Sorby, and Frank Vavra. Works by all 15 artists have been located, several from the 1948 exhibition. Interest in modern art had been growing for some time in Colorado but in 1948 it came to a head. Lines were drawn in the sand of art styles. People came in droves to the two dueling exhibitions, people took sides, arguments ensued and artists called each other names—which were printed in the newspapers. It was a magical, seminal moment in Colorado art and emblematic that modern art was becoming widespread in America. Even more extraordinary, modern art would command attention in the same city where the big winter event, since 1906, was the National Western Stock Show.

 —Hugh Grant, Founding Director and Curator

15 Colorado Artists—Breaking With Tradition

May 5 through July 31, 2011 

Burlesque (1947) by Angelo diBenedetto

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