Friday, February 19, 2016

JEWEL BOXES: On the scene report from Denver's quirky Kirkland Museum, by guest blogger Murphy Birdsall

Kirkland Museum, Denver, CO, built in 1910
photo by Michael Schonbach
(yes, that dot in the picture is me)

The clock is ticking on the current incarnation of the more-than-mildly eccentric Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art in Denver. The much loved venue, with its "Annie's Attic" atmosphere, will be open for just another couple of months; it will close on May 1, prior to a move into its vastly expanded new digs downtown. Ground was broken for the new Kirkland in September, 2015, and the opening date of the modernized building is set for some time in 2017.

Happily, my longtime friend and fellow design aficionado Murphy Birdsall was on the scene recently, and filed this breezy memoir of her day at the museum for all of Mad for Mod's readers. I really enjoyed seeing this remarkable collection through such perceptive and joyful eyes. Thanks for the tour, Murphy!!

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Animals, Color and the Cosmos at Denver's Kirkland Museum

words and pics by Murphy Birdsall 

Whoa, what the heck do I look at, with my wide-open eyes ricocheting from floor to ceiling, wall to wall? A cozy seating area from a 1930s ocean liner, a riveting Coloradan painting, a bakelite radio and doorways to rooms beyond ... I’ve just stepped into the Kirkland Museum.

My sister had suggested that this might be a place to go while I was visiting her and her husband in their art-filled Victorian brick Denver home. They tried to describe it to me: Vance Kirkland, the painter & art educator, his work done while hanging belly down in a sling (he was short, the canvases were large, and it would otherwise have been difficult to reach the entire work), and the museum filled with 20th century decorative arts, along with his paintings. Describing didn't come close to experiencing.

It's a feast. And I immediately thought of my friend, Judy Polan, writer of this blog, and how much she would love this. So much of the collection is Art Deco and Mid-Century furniture and decorative objects. I knew she had to come here.

 Art Deco child's tableware
by Acro Agate Co, Clarksburg, West Virginia
They made marbles for the boys, and "doll dishes" for the girls.

 It turned out she had come there, and knew well this overflowing collection. I am thrilled 
 to be contributing a guest post.

I had to narrow the focus of the piece, so I scrolled through the photographs I had been able to take on my phone, and went with what I found. Mainly, I saw color and a  surprising number of animals. I had been capturing what shots I could get in the crowded exhibits, particularly of designs that I wanted to email to Judy, to say, "Look at this!" ... Things that delighted me.
 Above: Alexander Calder demitasse cup for Braniff Airways
Boy, those were the days - airplanes that were orange, blue, lemon yellow; Pucci-designed flight attendant uniforms; and Calder demitasse cups, adorned with a 
multi-colored many-legged creature.
Below: Pony Chair by Finnish furniture designer Eero Aarnio
Cute, huh? I'm sure Judy has written about Aarnio's Ball Chair. [You're right, Murphy; a link is here.] This soft orange pony would look perfect beside it, like your own little pet, with platform hooves.

And then, shelves crammed with Clarice Cliff's Bizarreware ... 

In 2007, Judy introduced me to the British Art Deco designer, Clarice Cliff, in the terrific piece she wrote (with its gorgeous photographs) for Modernism magazine. It is impossible to imagine not responding with joy to Cliff's brilliant, goofy tableware.

[You can link here
to the article.]


Above: Knit dress inspired by Kirkland painting

This stunning dress was made by Russian artist/costume designer Nadezhda Bogdanova, who was inspired to create it by seeing a painting by Vance Kirkland. The soft tubular gown is brilliantly colored, has an elegant neckline and slinky back, and even looks comfortable to wear. 

 I wish I had taken a picture of the specific painting of inspiration, which hangs above this    exhibit, but I will only say that it is along the lines of his "Forces of Energy From a Sun in the Open Star Cluster K 1."

Detail from Vance Kirkland's "Forces of Energy" painting
Which brings me to the Cosmos.

Vance Kirkland was synesthetic, experiencing music as color. This connection across senses is most obviously apparent in his later Abstract Periods, when his work explored the universe. With titles such as "Experience of Mysteries in Space,' "The Energy of Explosions Twenty-Four Billion Years B.C." and "The Illusion of Mysteries Near Mars," he reportedly took notes of color schemes he visualized while listening to classical music (generally compositions with some dissonance: Bartok, Ives, Stravinsky e.g.) and used these color combinations in evoking the forces of the universe.

A final note about Vance Kirkland that amused me, was his feeling that his paintings should not be considered to have a "right side up." He might sign it on the back, but he rarely put a signature on the face -- that would limit the direction in which the work was exhibited.

The museum is like that -- a vast maze of color and design in which you are allowed to stumble upon, or peer intently at, forces of energy. Highly refreshing.

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Note from blogmeister Judy:
I'll keep you posted on the relocation of the Kirkland Museum
to downtown Denver, as work progresses. I would, though, urge anyone who can 
to visit this remarkable collection in its existing venue.
Its singular charm will not be easily recreated.

Normandie Art Deco Vignette
photo credit:

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