It was back in the fall of 2006 that the Denver Art Museum rolled out its outlandish freestanding addition which is located directly across the street from the museum's Gio Ponti-designed main building. The addition, dubbed the Frederic C. Hamilton Building, was designed by visionary deconstructionist architect Daniel Libeskind as his first project in the United States. The titanium-clad structure has a complex form, being a cluster of triangulated volumes that spread out as they rise.
It became world-famous even while it was under construction, and pictures of it wound up in newspapers, periodicals, on television and the web from around the world. Unquestionably Denver had hit a publicity homerun, and it could be argued that the DAM got its money’s worth for the building based on the buzz alone. But it was not without controversy. Many of those commentators, as well as legions of the exhibition-goers, had problems with the interior. Those same features that make the exterior sing—the radically canted-walls, the soaring spaces that rise to triangulated spikes, the multiplicity of slanted roofs—make the interior a confusing labyrinth of oddly shaped spaces.
Not that there aren’t champions of the unorthodox interior. Chief among those is Christoph Heinrich, the museum’s deputy director, its Mark and Polly Addison Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and soon-to-be director, as of December 31. Heinrich came to Denver from the Hamburg Kunsthalle where he was director, not long after the new building was completed. Since taking the job, Heinrich has kept busy; just last year he oversaw a massive reinstallation of the permanent galleries and curated a major solo show dedicated to Daniel Richter. This fall he’s lifted the curtain on his latest and most ambitious undertaking to date, a spectacular and wide ranging installation show called “Embrace!”
“For us ‘Embrace!’ is like a second opening after the first one three years ago,” says Heinrich, referring not just to his show but also to the reason why there needs to be a second opening. As is well-known, there have been issues with the roofs and that has meant that periodically the museum has been shrouded in scaffolding—as it has been for most of 2009. Happily, the completion of the roof repairs roughly coincided with the opening of “Embrace!”
Where others see limitations inside the Hamilton, Heinrich sees possibilities. He came up with the idea for “Embrace!” almost as soon as he first got to the DAM late in 2007. The show’s title—exclamation point and all—is meant to convey Heinrich’s goal of having art work that “embraces” the “engaging and sculptural environment” to be found inside the building. In extolling the cacophony of shapes that comprise the interior, Heinrich uses the example of a small part of the ceiling that rises above the rest, “if you would talk about a more predicable architecture, you would probably say ‘it’s a mistake’, but in terms of Libeskind’s architecture it’s just something that happens when the crystalline structure comes together.”
Heinrich began to organize “Embrace!” by identifying possible spaces for installations and then he assembled a mental list of artists that he wanted to consider. He narrowed that imaginary roster down to the seventeen that make up the show. With so many of them and with each being represented by a major effort, “Embrace!” turns out to be one of the largest installation shows ever mounted in the United States. Heinrich has made an effort to be broad-minded in terms of mediums, with the show having examples of painting, sculpture, drawing, and types of new media. And he has cast his net far and wide for participants, with artists coming not only from Denver and elsewhere in the U.S. but also from Europe, Asia and Africa.
Sixteen of the artists created new pieces specifically for “Embrace!” while one is represented by a piece that was already in the museum’s collection. But Heinrich points out that even this work is being given its debut in “Embrace!” “not one piece in the show has ever been seen before,” he points out. The artists that were charged with doing new specially-conceived pieces came to the Hamilton to be shown the spaces chosen for them. In some cases however the artists requested different spots more to their liking and the curator for the most part acquiesced to their choices. “Some of the artists wanted to have another space than I had for them,” says Heinrich, “since we wanted the artists to work with their space, we let some of them choose. We wanted them to bring in their energy and it didn’t make sense to tell them where to go.”
Considering the fact that the installations were mostly specifically-made for the spaces in which they are housed, artists needed to be working on them, sometimes for weeks or months, beginning in September, and, of course, that was while the museum was open, and filled with visitors who could look over the artists’ shoulders. After suggesting facetiously that he should have posted signs that read “don’t feed the artists,” Heinrich notes that “with many of these projects there was a great opportunity for visitors to see the art grow, to see how it gets its shape.” Though he does add that some of the artists worked behind closed doors so that they could experiment with their pieces.
The show gets underway on level one just around the corner from the main entrance in the atrium where German artist Katharina Grosse has created an air-brushed neo-abstract expressionist wall-painting that rises the entire height of the four-story building. Using compressors and sprayers—and a cherry picker—Grosse laid on large swaths of vibrant colors that collide with one another. It’s eye-dazzling and owing both to its prominent location and its enormous size, it starts off “Embrace!” with a bang. Tucked in around the corner from the Atrium on level one in the former gift shop space (now relocated to the lobby) is a group of vinyl words chosen by local students and members of local community groups that have been writ large, so to speak, by Rupprecht Matthies, also from Germany.
Up that first flight of stairs in the atrium is level two. On the way are wall-hanging elements from American artist Jessica Stockholder’s found object installation. This prelude is meant to lead viewers to the main part of her piece which is in the Anschutz Gallery, a cavernous space that’s one of two changing galleries drafted for “Embrace!” The Anschutz also houses the work of two other “Embrace!” artists. The second is Germany’s Christian Hahn, who has done a mural in black and white emulsion that takes advantage of the gallery’s vertical expanse. The third is Zhong Biao from China who combines drawing with mirrors for his piece. The space is filled out by a lounge area, meant not just for rest but as a place of contemplation.
Outside the Anschutz is an anteroom with a theatrical ceiling, one part of which rises like an internal chimney. This is where Shinique Smith, an American artist, chose to install her suspension piece incorporating found clothing bundled into shapes. The anteroom also provides an entrance to the other changing exhibition space that’s part of the show, the Martin & McCormick. On the outside wall of the gallery, Denver artist Rick Dula has painted a hyper-realistic depiction of the structure hidden by the surface of the wall. This mural is clearly the heir to a series of paintings he did that followed the Hamilton’s construction.
Adjacent to the Dula piece, the Martin & McCormick Gallery is a mid-sized space that has been turned into a black box with all the dividing walls removed. Inside is a digital projection piece in which words and symbols move and morph across the bare walls. The whole thing runs according to a computer program developed by Charles Sandison, who was born in Scotland but lives and works in Finland. Off to the north, on the way to the Western art galleries, is a space that had been a children’s play area, and sort of still is, considering the bungee cord maze by Tobias Rehberger from Germany that visitors need to wind their way through.
Continuing the ascent of the atrium stairs and thus continuing through the show, visitors come to an installation made up of vinyl wall hangings by American Matthew Brannon on display on the walls of the landing—the Robert and Judy Newman Overlook—midway between levels two and three. Just off the atrium’s third level landing is a small though cavernous gallery where Dasha Shishkin, a Russian artist who lives in New York, has created a painted installation. On the atrium walls that rise from the third to the fourth level, Lawrence Weiner, a pioneer of conceptualism in America, has installed one of his signature pieces based on words.
The third level is mostly given over to the museum’s permanent collection of modern and contemporary art, and that’s also the case with the fourth level where many more of the artists in “Embrace!” are on view. Suspended near the atrium walkway, Denver artist John McEnroe has hung elongated ovoid shapes made of cast plastic, a favorite material of his, done in matte black. The dark vaguely organic blobs contrast mightily with the angularity and lightness of the enveloping building. Nicola López from nearby New Mexico, uses cut-up pieces of printed paper to construct her installation in the Kent and Vicki Logan Gallery. In the prow gallery—a remarkably dramatic space so-called because of the prow-like protrusion that juts over the street below—American artist Kristin Baker has created a three-dimensional “painting” using steel. In the Fuse Box, a small gallery given over to electronic art forms, Denver artist Timothy Weaver and his students have created a triptych of projections based on the atmosphere. In the African Gallery, El Anatsui, from Nigeria and Ghana, is represented by a tapestry of sorts that’s made out of bottle caps and wire. (The Anatsui is the only piece that was not created specifically for “Embrace!”)
“Embrace!” has more than a few surprises, even beyond the fact that everything in it is being shown for the first time. Perhaps the most interesting revelation is the continued strength of painting and sculpture which dominate in this show at least, over high tech methods. It’s clearly too much of a stretch to say that the included works together or individually have redefined the Hamilton’s difficult interior, but the show does noticeably expand the building’s usable spaces in several places, and that’s got to be counted as something of a success. And anyway, in orchestrating “Embrace!” in the first place, curator Heinrich, given his ambitious goals, had no choice but to succeed, and on several scores he apparently has.
“Embrace!” runs from November 14, 2009 - April 4, 2010 at the Denver Art Museum.
This article was written for and published in art ltd. magazine