Art History |

Art History

Stewart Oksenhorn

Dean Sobel, the director and chief curator of the Aspen Art Museum, is quite modest about the institution he has led since the turn of the millennium. On the eve of the museum’s 25th anniversary, it might be expected that Sobel would be pumping up a quarter-century of accomplishments, and hailing the museum as a vital piece of Aspen’s cultural turf.

But Sobel has been doing some large-format thinking of late, which has given him a broad and not so parochial perspective on the Aspen Art Museum. “One Hour Ahead: The Avant-Garde in Aspen, 1945-2004,” Sobel’s forthcoming book due out next month, takes a vast view of contemporary art in Aspen, from the arrival of Bauhaus icon Herbert Bayer in 1946 through the ’70s heyday, when working visits to Aspen were de rigueur for virtually every major pop and minimalist artist, to the opening of several significant galleries in the ’90s. In that history, Sobel makes a critical assessment of the Art Museum’s place.

Aspen’s art scene was once marked by a haphazard vitality: Major artists came and set up shop on their own; the photography school Center of the Eye moved its headquarters regularly; the ambitious residency program, Aspen Center of Contemporary Art, wandered from The Aspen Institute to the Brand Building. With the opening of the Aspen Art Museum in 1979 ” originally known as the Aspen Center for the Visual Arts ” came a sense of permanence and organization. And in Sobel’s view, some of the primordial energy leaked out of the scene. “The Aspen Art Museum became the home for all of that. All this restless activity became institutionalized, and somewhat less interesting,” said Sobel.

The Aspen Art Museum has become a significantly more interesting place since Sobel became director in January 2000, a point that will be emphasized this summer. Instead of basking in its achievements, the museum will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a series of eye-opening and enlightening events and projects that will, in effect, extend the museum walls.

The museum has commissioned four site-specific sculptures and installations, by four different artists, to mark its birthday; three of those will be installed outside of the museum. Each of the artists ” Jason Middlebrook, Roxy Paine, Liam Gillick and Olafur Eliasson ” will appear separately to speak about their work. The publication of “One Hour Ahead,” Sobel’s 136-page book featuring more than 150 images, will be celebrated with a public lecture by Sobel on July 12.

Another special event, An Art Museum in Aspen?: An Evening with the Museum’s Founders, scheduled for Aug. 11, will bring together notable figures in the museum’s history, including founders Dick Carter and Missy Thorne and founding director Philip Yenawine for a panel discussion. Artists William Wegman, Robert Mangold, Thomas Demand, Susan Rothenberg and others have donated pieces to an art auction to benefit the museum; a preview exhibit of the works will be held in the museum’s upper gallery beginning July 2.

A time for change

The museum has, quietly, kicked off its celebration with the installation last week of Liam

Gillick’s “Nineteenfortysixxisytrofneetenin.” The London artist’s stainless-steel sculpture, rendered in 15 colors, stands in a field on The Aspen Institute grounds. The title of the piece refers to the year that Herbert Bayer arrived in Aspen, and kicked off what Sobel sees as Aspen’s significant role in the avant-garde. Sobel sees an ideal synergy between Gillick’s modernist, architectural sculpture and the site at The Aspen Institute, one of the cornerstones of modern Aspen.

“Liam’s work is about invoking the era of high modernism, as if there was a kind of utopian and artistic vision for modernism as an ideology,” said Sobel. “And The Aspen Institute physically and conceptually embodies that idea of high modernism, the idea that you could collect ideas in literature, architecture and art in one sensibility. The Aspen Institute is a perfect backdrop for Gillick’s work.”

“The art world was in a state of transition, and that just happens to be when we opened our doors,” said Sobel. “It didn’t take a genius to see that things had changed. It was easy to see that, that this was outmoded, this was new.”

The newness was coming from several directions at once in the late ’70s. Young artists like Eric Fischl and David Salle were breathing life into narrative and figurative painting, a style claimed by many to be dead. Bill Viola took video, primarily a documentary medium till then, and used it as an expressionistic one. Older artists Willem de Kooning, Joseph Beuys and Philip Gaston, holdovers from earlier artistic movements, rolled with the times and remained influential. And Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons and Susan Rothenberg represented part of the first wave of notable female artists. All the aforementioned artists, and others, are included in “Circa 1979.”

“One of the most palpable shifts in the art world was when a young generation of artists started painting again,” said Sobel. “The late ’60s and ’70s were marked by everything but painting. Painting had fallen by the wayside. Artists like Fischl and Salle were painting not minimally or ironically, but expressionistically and even bombastically.”

To illustrate the point, Sobel points to “Three Spokes,” the 1977 Rothenberg oil painting on the cover of the exhibit invitation. He calls it “an incredible example of the transition.” The flat, line figure of a horse is in a monochrome red; it is bisected down the middle by a white line, a device lifted from minimalism. “It’s not about space, or a horse in a field,” said Sobel. “In the art world, this was radical ” she’s making horse pictures. She’s painting, but it was also associated with the things that painting had been supplanted by. She’s a pivotal figure dragging the ’70s into the ’80s.”

No less significant is Rothenberg’s gender. “There were very few women artists with a big reputation, going back to the cave paintings up to 1975,” said Sobel. “You’d be hard-pressed to name five. She was part of a generation in the ’70s, women artists who received recognition equal to her male peers. Women were just machoed out of the art world. Until 1975. And then there’s tons of them.”

The Art Museum follows the “Circa 1979” opening with three additional commissioned pieces yet to be installed.

Jason Middlebrook’s “The Beginning of the End,” a sculpture in polystyrene, plaster, acrylic paint, silk plants and dirt, will be installed in an overgrown patch of riverside land near the museum, with the exact site still to be determined. Viewers should find the sculpture oddly familiar: the Brooklyn-based Middlebrook, whose work frequently references earlier art, riffs on Robert Indiana’s ubiquitous “LOVE” image, which has appeared on everything including U.S. postage stamps.

“What he’s done is taken that object and turned it into kind of a relic,” said Sobel. “It’s now a sculpture, falling and decaying, with moss growing on it ” as if this monument was fresh and clean centuries ago and is now a ruin, and all that means.”

In the grassy field outside the front door of the museum, near a stand of spruce and cottonwood, will stand “Dead Tree,” New Yorker Roxy Paine’s stainless-steel sculpture in the shape and size of a living tree. “There’s something strangely evocative about these tree ” and strangely repellent too,” said Sobel, noting that “Dead Tree” joins “Bluff,” in New York’s Central Park, in Paine’s steel tree series. “They become a kind of comment on nature and the environment. It almost becomes like a stand-in for a real tree, and you can’t help comparing this reproduction to the original.”

The final installation is “I only see things when they move,” an indoor installation by Danish-born Olafur Eliasson, that will occupy both of the museum’s galleries. Apart from that, the piece is a mystery. But based on the success of Eliasson’s recent “The Weather Project” ” a yellow-orange semicircle reflected off a mirrored ceiling that approximated the sun, and drew a staggering million viewers to London’s Tate Modern in three months ” Sobel anticipates the best.

“He deals with light, reflection, mirrors and natural elements,” said Sobel. “His work is about the sensations of natural phenomena ” light, steam, water ” but all created artificially. So it’s about the tension between nature and technology.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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