Vin Hoffman

Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art | April 26, 2009

The Kirkland Museum in Denver, CO houses over 3,300 collections of various modern art. The main theme of the Kirkland Museum is modern art from 1890 – 1975.  Carrying on the theme throughout the museum, it showcases the different art movements of the 20th century such as: Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Bauhaus, Modern, and Pop Art.  After viewing the museum as a whole, there are three principle collections focused upon: The Decorative Arts & Crafts Collection, The Colorado Modernist Collection, and the studio of Vance Kirkland.

The Original Building & Studio

The Kirkland Museum is the oldest commercial art building in Denver and a National Trust Associate Site.  As it stands now, Kirkland’s original studio home has been renovated and additions have been built on to accommodate the large collections. His original studio still remains the same. The original museum building commissioned by Henry Read in 1872 was constructed as his Students’ School of Art.  Read was one of the thirteen founding member of the Artists’ Club in 1893 which later became the Denver Art Museum.  Kirkland rented this building for his studio and later purchased the building and started The Kirkland School of Art in 1932. The Kirkland School of Art was very successful, and in 1946 the University of Denver offered Kirkland the opportunity to start the School of Arts as it’s Director on the campus. Many of his original students followed him to the University of Denver.  He continued to use the Pearl St. building for his art studio where he continued to work until his death in 1981.  The building was then inherited by Hugh Grant.

Vance Kirkland

Vance Kirkland – (1904-1981) Born in Convoy, Ohio, November 1904 and died in Denver, Colorado, May 1981, at the age of 76. After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1928. He was the founding Director of the School of Art at the University of Denver (1929-32, 1946-69).  He is considered one of the most important painter/educators in Colorado history.  His work covers a wide array of different art techniques and periods.  He began with his realist watercolor paintings, Surrealism, Hard Edge Abstraction, and Abstract Expressionism which evolved into his world famous Dot Paintings.

Kirkland loved using and collecting decorative art that contained great design elements.  He surrounded himself with art and appreciated it’s value and influence in his everyday life.  A small portion (10%) of the museum was actual items from Kirkland’s’ private collection.  The museums collections were inspired by Kirkland’s’ decorative modern art tastes and continues to grow to this day.

Dot Paintings

To create his famous “Dot Paintings”, Kirkland used an innovative mixture of oil and water for his first layer on the canvas.  He then wiped off the water beads and used the “oil and water don’t mix” principle.  This created random, accidental splatters on the canvas to which the dots were built upon.  His dots were created with different sizes wooden dowels, as he strived for a precise round shape for his dot work.  His color schemes were very alive and vibrant singing of color.  He rigged up four leather straps to suspend himself above the canvas to create the dots without the physical demand of bending over.  The straps continued to be a significant support to Kirkland and his very short stature, standing 5’2”. These straps helped him achieve his unique style of dot painting on a large canvas. This “hovering” technique was also used to keep the canvas flat for the oil and water mixtures.  He used skateboards underneath the canvas to roll the canvas to the location under where he hovered over to create his dot work.  Another reason for the straps was the floating perspective Kirkland got while painting.  Kirkland stated, “There is no up or down in space”.  For the same directional reason he hated to sign his paintings.  He would say, “By signing this abstract painting, I am condemning it to be hung one way for the rest of its existence.”  Many Kirkland paintings are signed twice, along different edges, and he encouraged collectors and museums to hang them all different ways regardless of the position of his signature.

Color Combinations

His color schemes are often said to have a musical quality containing rhythm and beats that you can almost hear with your eyes.  Kirkland loved a wide variety of music specifically jazz music. In a friendly conversation with Gypsy Rosalie, Kirkland was ecstatic to hear how she described her “hearing” of colors.  Kirkland had also this unique gift to “hear” colors.  Kirkland and Gypsy Rosalie were both synesthetic, meaning, as they applied it, they could hear color.  It was later found that Kirkland’s paintings’ color combinations were directly related to classical music.

Kirklands’ Thoughts

Kirkland describes his own paintings as, “explosions in space”.  A reporter once asked him, “How do you know what an explosion in space looks like?”  Kirkland replied, “Prove me wrong.”  In 1982, just a year after Kirkland’s death, the Hubble telescope (ironically made in Denver, CO) sent back images of the galaxy and stars.  The images confirmed that Kirkland’s’ dot paintings were very similar.


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