Denver

Dale Chisman, The Ring, 1989, acrylic on linen, 72 x 72".

Dale Chisman, The Ring, 1989, acrylic on linen, 72 x 72".

Dale Chisman

Redline

Dale Chisman, The Ring, 1989, acrylic on linen, 72 x 72".

Abstraction is central to the art history of Colorado. In 1948, fifteen progressive painters broke from the convention-bound Denver Artists Guild and organized their own exhibition, sparking such local newspaper headlines as “Modern vs. Traditional Painting Inspires Denver Artists’ Schism.” Dale Chisman, a Denver luminary who died in 2008 at age sixty-five, was an heir of this fertile movement, and his vibrant abstractions were enthusiastically sought by the Denver Art Museum and collectors across the region. While elsewhere in the country Chisman’s name may hardly generate a flicker of recognition, his rich body of work nonetheless ties the artist’s home state to the international trajectory of old-form AbEx from the end of its first wave (in the 1940s) through its various subsequent developments.

The first in-depth look at Chisman’s accomplishments came recently, with an overdue retrospective at RedLine, a three-year-old exhibition and studio center in a renovated warehouse near downtown Denver. Organized by Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran (co-owners of the city’s Robischon Gallery, which represents Chisman’s estate), the show contained forty-four paintings and prints. The curators made the most of RedLine’s unwieldy central gallery, deploying thoughtfully placed partitions to create smaller, more intimate viewing spaces (while still maintaining several longer sight lines that the venue allows) and arranging the sections chronologically, encouraging viewers to see both the evolution and the overall continuity of the artist’s work.

Although Chisman’s paintings range from wispy choreographies of traces and smudges to bold, massed conglomerations of color, there is a constancy of vision, with the artist returning to certain motifs—knobs and cones, for example. After receiving a master of fine arts degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder, Chisman moved to New York in 1969, where he participated in shows at the Brooklyn Museum and the Martha Jackson Gallery. (Three of his works from this early period were included in the RedLine survey.) At the time, he was particularly inspired by Antoni Tàpies, and echoes of the famed Catalan abstractionist can be seen in Chisman’s muted palette, figurative allusions, and gentle air of mystery.

In 1984, seeking a change of pace and cheaper, more plentiful studio space, Chisman returned to Denver. There he developed his mature style, which, rooted in 1940s and ’50s Abstract Expressionism, paid homage to some of his early (and indeed, lifelong) heroes: for example, Zip (For Barnett), 2007, with a Newmanesque zip cutting horizontally across the canvas, or the light and airy White Words for de Kooning, 1997. Though he never fully embraced action painting, his approach to the canvas probably comes closest to that of Willem de Kooning in its physicality and in the variety of techniques applied, including indentation and scraping. But Chisman’s style is nonetheless all his own, defined by unusual choices of color and brash contrasts of mood, consistency, and texture that manage to find balance within the same piece.

While the artist never put a premium on innovation, his unexpected quirkiness, as richly evidenced in Cake, 2004, shows that he was constantly rethinking his work even as he was maintaining fidelity to his AbEx grounding. The elements of this painting are typical of Chisman’s compositional strategy—an irregular block of black hovering over an open, loosely drawn bowl shape, with a few swipes of red to the left—but overlying nearly the entire canvas is an open, crochetlike mesh of circular pink swirls. An odd and jarring element, this layer, which verges on campy Pop, invigorates the more traditional abstract base onto which it was applied. As Chisman found relevancy in AbEx into the new millennium, his practice continues to be a significant touchstone for scores of younger artists in Colorado and beyond.

Kyle MacMillan