Denver

“Embrace!”

Denver Art Museum

In the late 1990s, the Denver Art Museum sought to bring the “Bilbao effect” to Colorado. It selected architect Daniel Libeskind to oversee a $110 million expansion, and he designed a jutting, crystalline building with sharply sloped walls and ceilings. While some critics praised the unconventional structure, which opened in October 2006, others panned it, decrying in particular the challenges its angled spaces presented for the display of art. Not helping perceptions were a leaky roof and attendance that fell below optimistic projections.

In 2008, a year after his arrival from Germany as curator of modern and contemporary art, Christoph Heinrich announced his desire to hit the reset button. He conceived “Embrace!” an ambitious exhibition in which seventeen artists from around the world would create works responding directly to the building’s architecture. These participants ranged from up-and-comers (Dasha Shishkin and Shinique Smith) to little-known locals (Rick Dula and John McEnroe) to blue-chip names (Jessica Stockholder and Lawrence Weiner). The offerings are boisterous and impressive, not only for the sheer physical breadth of the works but for the eclectic variety of materials, styles, and approaches.

Creating for visitors a kind of treasure hunt, the artists commandeered spaces on each of the addition’s four floors—not just galleries but, in some cases, unlikely nooks and walls. Shishkin, for example, seized on an oddly shaped, low-ceilinged niche on a landing for her enigmatic, wraparound mural Dying Christ Rushed to the Hospital (You Are Going to Need My Help, Sweetheart) (all works cited, 2009). A prototypical text piece by Weiner, emblazoned on a wall near the top of the building’s irregularly shaped, 120-foot-tall atrium, reads AS TO BE IN PLAIN SIGHT. It helps make the show’s point of rethinking the building and spotlighting areas that had gone previously unnoticed. No work is more front and center than Katharina Grosse’s visually dramatic George, a soaring sixty-foot-high abstraction spray-painted directly onto a prominent slanted wall in the atrium. Its loops and swirls of bright greens, purples, and other colors exude spontaneity and energy.

Beyond merely asking viewers to look at parts of the addition that they might not otherwise have noticed before, the show pushes them to rethink the architecture and even the realization of the building. By installing an electric plug in a previously pristine wall of the atrium and whimsically stringing a yellow extension cord along the stairs, above a landing, and into the gallery with the main section of her work, Wide Eyes Smeared Here Dear, Stockholder ties together much of the exhibition and speaks to the interconnectedness of the architecture. Dula’s impeccably realized trompe l’oeil mural, based on a photograph the artist took from its exact site during the building’s construction, puts viewers in direct contact with the structure’s material history. Nicola López’s R.A.W., with its network of tiny woodblock representations of radiating, interconnected roads sprawling across the sides and ceiling of a third-floor gallery, compels visitors to take in the totality of the space—not just the walls where art is usually hung.

Offering a well-conceived contrast to Libeskind’s flamboyance is Denver artist McEnroe’s Bathers, the most minimalist of the exhibition’s offerings. The installation’s main section consists of thirty-four long, globular resin forms, which hang about nine feet above a fourth-floor walkway along the atrium and spill into the open space. These black-and-white pieces look vaguely like stalactites and create a cavelike passageway.

Walking through the doors into Charles Sandison’s Chamber, the viewer is immediately immersed in an environment of light, color, and motion. Ten floor projectors emanate constantly changing swirls of hundreds of numbers, words, and symbols. They flow across the walls and ceilings of the loosely L-shaped gallery like cells in the bloodstream, the resulting psychedelic patterns exerting a kind of mesmerizing effect. The allover projection, which probably could be adapted to fit a room of any configuration, successfully neutralized the odd angles and sharply sloped walls that make this one of the building’s most difficult spaces for presenting more traditional works.

Like it or not, Denver’s expansion is not going anywhere. Heinrich, who has since been elevated to the museum’s directorship, set out to assemble an exciting showcase of unique, responsive installations that would serve a second opening and offer a viable formula for putting the building to use. He succeeded on all fronts.

Kyle MacMillan