Inside the Bayer Center: Aspen’s new museum is dedicated to the Bauhaus master and local icon.
At the dawn of modern Aspen in the mid-1940s, as Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke brought the Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer here to imagine the built environment of this new utopia, they planned for an institute that would gather great minds from varied fields to trade ideas, a music festival to host world-class symphonies, and ski infrastructure to get people into the mountains for inspiration and exhilaration.
They brought Bayer here to build what would become the Aspen Institute, to renovate the faded Wheeler Opera House and Hotel Jerome, to create the Sundeck atop Aspen Mountain, to renovate the crumbling Victorians around town and attempt to help define the community’s aesthetic values. In short, to turn “the Aspen Idea” into a physical reality.
But while art and design were near the center of this Utopian mission to the mountains — the International Design Conference in Aspen put the town on the vanguard of global art and design beginning in 1950 — they did not open an art museum.
Others would open museums in the decades to follow, which cemented the town as an unlikely hub of the avant-garde, including the pop-ups from the Center for the Eye and eventually, in 1979, the Aspen Art Museum. But there was no permanent art museum on the Bayer-designed Aspen Institute campus.
Now, more than seven decades after Bayer first arrive here, there is a museum: the Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies, which will enable the Institute to produce the quality of exhibition that matches its aesthetic history.
The Bayer Center, on the south edge of the Institute campus, will give Bayer’s work a permanent home here as it hosts exhibitions beginning with the life-spanning retrospective “Herbert Bayer: An Introduction.” The center’s executive director, James Merle Thomas, said he is aiming for it to be an active community hub and an engine for new ideas about art and design and the many interests of Herbert Bayer. Not, then, just another white cube museum honoring another dead white man.
The 8,000-square-foot museum, designed by Jeffrey Berkus Architects and Rowland + Broughton, was completed in late 2021. It had been slated to open in December, but has remained closed due to the pandemic and this winter’s surge of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The Center will finally open its doors to the public for the first time on Thursday, April 14, with an open house for locals and visitors to see the building, its opening exhibition and to toast Bayer and the Bayer Center with a reception.
What: Bayer Center Community Open House
Where: Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies, The Aspen Institute campus (600 Gillespie Avenue, Aspen)
When: Thursday, April 14, noon-7 p.m.
How much: Free
Tickets: Registration and proof of COVID-19 vaccination/test required; aspeninstitute.org
More info: The Bayer Center will host a public reception from 4-7 p.m. at the adjacent Boettcher Building, promising beer, brats and pretzels in honor of Bayer’s Bavarian heritage. The opening exhibition, ‘Herbert Bayer: An Introduction,’ will hang through Dec. 3, 2022. The museum has not yet established when it will begin opening regularly.
The Institute is expected to open the museum permanently this summer before the Aspen Ideas Festival begins in June, with regular hours and programming. They are currently hiring visitor service associates to staff it.
The Institute in 2012 shifted its visual art program to focus solely on Bayer, and has since then not accepted gifts or loans of artwork by other artists. A years-long string of shows has followed, focusing on Bayer’s diverse work. In 2018, the Institute installed Bayer’s “Anaconda” sculpture on the campus, complementing the artist’s iconic Aspen works like the Marble Garden and “Sgraffito” mural that peppering the 40 acres of the Bayer-designed campus.
After that decade-long lead-up, the Bayer Center is now a physical reality. Defining what it will be from here, Thomas noted, is the fun part.
“We’re on the cusp of transforming that into something that is concrete, lived, practiced, embodied, and experienced by everyone in this community,” he said during a walk-through. “And you only get to do that once. That feels very exciting.”
Plans for the center were announced in August 2019, at the height of the global Bauhaus 100 celebration, with a $10 million lead gift from Aspen Institute trustees and Wonderful Company co-owners Lynda and Stewart Resnick.
“The new Bayer Center is a wonderful step in honoring the magnificent work and legacy of Herbert Bayer,” Lynda Resnick said in early April via e-mail. “When Stewart and I made this donation to the Aspen Institute, we wanted to ensure future generations would have the opportunity to appreciate and enjoy Bayer’s tremendous contributions.”
The Bayer Center’s inaugural show is curated by Bernard Jazzar, who curates the Resnick’s art collection and who has been organizing Bayer shows in Aspen since 2007. This opening exhibition is meant to pique curiosity about Bayer and whet viewers’ appetite by attempting to cover his entire life from his birth in 1900 to his death in 1985.
It is, in the truest sense, an introduction, offering an overview of Bayer’s work from the 1910s to the mid 1980s and touching (if briefly) on nearly everything in this polymath’s multi-disciplinary practice, while placing an emphasis on Bayer as a painter.
“The more I’ve learned about Herbert, the more I was saddened that he was not better recognized as a painter,” Jazzar said.
While Bayer is best known as a designer and typographer, celebrated also for his land art, for the sculptures that dot the Institute campus or his public artworks, this show is filled with diverse paintings, watercolors and drawings, which, in fact, Jazzar noted, made up the majority of his output during his long and productive career.
Even during the global celebration of the Bauhaus centennial in 2019, Jazzar noticed Bayer was often put in a separate category from fine artists from the Bauhaus like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
“He did not separate,” Jazzar said. “Bauhaus leveled the field for the arts and said all the arts activities are equal. Why are we still putting on him the label of a designer? What about him as a complete artist? So I wanted to pay tribute and present something to even the field in a way and put more emphasis on the painter, which is what he considered himself.”
The show fills the Bayer Center’s two levels and 13 galleries with 170 works. It is broken up mostly by decades, so you can start on the lower level in a gallery with Bayer’s teenage drawings from his hikes through the Alps, including pieces made as early as 1913, then follow his development through the Bauhaus years in Weimar and Dessau and into the devastating rise of Hitler and the Nazis, which would force him to the U.S. and then to Aspen.
Four upstairs galleries are devoted his work from the 1960s through the 1980s, including his well-known geometric abstract works and some fascinating lesser-known creative detours.
The lawn outside includes a newly fabricated sculpture from Bayer’s “Chromatic Progression” series and serves as the new conduit to the Institute campus on its side and serves as the dramatic entrance to the Bayer Center.
This monographic exhibition also includes what the Bayer Center team is informally calling the “history room,” which is currently devoted largely to Bayer’s three decades in Aspen and includes photos, newspaper clips and correspondence that vividly document Bayer’s devotion to this town.
This show’s curatorial triumph, though, is the section of the exhibition devoted to Bayer’s work during the rise of German fascism in the 1930s when he was working as an ad man and designer in Berlin.
An informative display shows how his cover designs for the lifestyle magazine Die Neue Linie changed from the creatively unrestricted time he began in January 1930 to the years under Hitler and the National Socialist government until the January 1938 issue, which included a portrait of Mussolini over a surreal Bayer-designed landscape.
“This is propaganda, there’s no two ways about this,” Jazzar said. “And so he’s forced to work within the constraints of the National Socialist government more and more. And he finds that very suffocating. He writes about that in his diary that it’s becoming impossible to do good work.”
By that time, Bayer and his Bauhaus colleagues had been targeted in the Nazi’s infamous “Degenerate Art Show” and Bayer was plotting how to relocate to the U.S. (he would land in New York in 1938 and almost immediately create the watershed Bauhaus retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, an act of preservation for the Germany destroyed by Hitler).
In his fine art painting, Bayer responded to the rise of fascism by returning to the imagery of his childhood in Austria and the farming culture there. The exhibition shows the progression of this “Dunstlocher” series, still lifes of farming tools and barns, from idyllic to sinister from 1935 to 1937.
Those lead to his “Deposition” series, which place those tools alongside the Christian crucifix and the bloody deposition of Christ, a powerful allegorical statement about the violence erupting in Europe. The series is capped by a grim and rarely seen “Deposition” from 1940, which the Institute acquired and restored for this opening show.
“To bring this work back and to have it be the capstone of this narrative arc, that’s something that is possible now because of the Center,” Thomas said.
Of particular interest to local viewers, the exhibition includes a series of Bayer’s paintings depicting aspen trees and the local landscape.
Works from the late 1940s and 1950s like “Untitled (Trees — Purplish)” and “Aspen Grove” place the viewer inside a tight grove of aspens in fall. It has a humanizing effect on Bayer, who many may think of as a cold and detached stylist. In these visions of local nature scenes, we have to reckon with Bayer as a plein air painter tackling the same timeless trees that countless local artists have spent their lives painting again and again.
“You could do a whole exhibition on aspen trees, because he created so many,” said Jazzar. “He wanted to be alone with nature that that was part of what he needed to do on a regular basis.”
The show also includes Bayer’s photo collage “In Search of Times Past,” which eerily places images of eyes alongside the eye-like knots in local aspen trees, and several pieces from Bayer’s “Mountains and Convolutions” series, which was subject of a 2019 exhibition at the Institute, and the 1948 oil painting “Colorado” in which Bayer imagines abstracted mountains and rivers joining in a sort of Mobius strip with hints of columbine flower and birdfeather woven in.
In a light touch, the show also includes a few of Bayer’s paintings depicting a pair of pet owls he kept at his Red Mountain home, which were gifts to Bayer from the movie star and early Aspen visitor Gary Cooper.
These works, along with the ephemera in the history room, place Bayer here as a member of the community.
“I think people forget that he really was there,” Jazzar said. “He was on the Planning and Zoning Commission. He and (his wife) Joella were on the social scene and were part of the community.”
The history room also includes a homesick letter to Aspen Institute president Joe Slater from Bayer about his “exile” in California, where Bayer settled after heart attacks forced him to sea level in 1975.
Bayer’s late years comprise a moving and surprising section of the exhibition, showing the work Bayer did from 1975 to 1985 after health issues forced him to sea level in Montecito, California after three decades living in Aspen. This “Anthology” series of 80-by-80-inch paintings here bring together many of the seemingly disparate visual ideas he’d been exploring since childhood — combining natural imagery with the geometric abstractions, landscapes, numerology and typography in large-scale works like “Geometry of an Illusionist” from 1978.
“What he’s doing is he’s re visiting a lot of the themes and motifs and pictorial vocabularies that have been important to his life,” said Thomas.
‘MORE THAN A MUSEUM’
Every wall of this opening show could be expanded into a future exhibition here. With “Herbert Bayer: An Introduction,” Jazzar has planted seeds that will likely bloom in years to come.
For example, his treatment of Bayer’s groundbreaking 1953 “World Geographic Atlas,” which redefined the form as more than a collection of maps but an exhaustive portrait of Earth, includes an open atlas and a framed details from it. Looking at this modest display, Thomas mused on the possibilities it contained.
“This is very exciting, because this is like a hinge that opens on to like an entire year of programming,” he said. “You can imagine what an exhibition scaled up to this entire building would be about, that’s not just about Bayer, but, asking, ‘If you’re trying to make a picture of the world in 1953, what is that world?'”
With this life-spanning exhibition, curators and visitors can now dive deeper into specifics of Bayer’s life, work and influence.
“I think one of the things that this show meaningfully does is to help to create a kind of foundation or kind of vocabulary for understanding how all these things fit together through the life,” Thomas said.
The center is expected to announce an education coordinator and plans for programming soon and to make the center a destination for local school groups as well as global scholars working in modern and contemporary art and design.
The year-long run of this opening show, Thomas said, is ideal for our pandemic-disrupted moment because it will allow it to reach a wider audience than it might if it simply ran a busy summer season on hubbub on the Institute campus. As locals begin interacting with the museum, Thomas is hopeful the Bayer Center can help Aspen understand its artistic past — through Bayer himself and the wider lens of art and in the influence of events like the International Design Conference and figures like collector John Powers — and also define itself.
“I’m really seeing the center as a kind of laboratory for thinking about how we define community,” Thomas said. “We want to be more than a museum. I think the very nature of the fact that we’re a ‘center for study’ underscores how this can be a different kind of institution.”
Read Andrew Travers’ deep dive into Bayer’s decades in Aspen from December 2018, “Aspen’s Bauhas Roots: Honoring Herbert Bayer’s Influence” HERE.
More Aspen Times coverage of Herbert Bayer and the Bayer Center:
* “Herbert Bayer in Miniature,” Aspen Times Weekly, Aug. 18, 2016
* “Aspen Institute highlights Herbert Bayer’s poster art,” Aspen Times, Aug. 5, 2017
* “Rarely seen Herbert Bayer photographs on view at Aspen Institute,” Aspen Times, Nov. 1, 2018
* “Aspen Historical Society opens Herbert Bayer exhibit,” Aspen Times, Dec. 2, 2018
* “Aspen’s Bauhaus Roots: Honoring Herbert Bayer’s Influence,” Aspen Times, Dec. 19, 2018
* “Aspen Institute hosts experts for capstone of year-long Bauhaus 100 celebration,” Aspen Times, July 31, 2019
* “Contending with Herbert Bayer’s contributions to Nazi propaganda,” Aspen Times Weekly, Aug. 1, 2019
* “Lynda and Stewart Resnick give $10 million to establish Herbert Bayer center on Institute campus,” Aspen Times, Aug. 3, 2019
* “Bayer family donates 13 artworks to Aspen Institute,” Aspen Times, Dec. 21, 2019
* “Aspen Institute gets OK to build newest building on West End campus,” Aspen Times, Feb. 26, 2020
* “A ‘New’ Herbert Bayer Sculpture,” Aspen Times Weekly, April 29, 2021
* “Aspen Institute Names Bayer Center’s inaugural director,” Aspen Times, July 15, 2021.
* “Bayer Center to host open house in April,” Aspen Times, March 12, 2022