White walls suffice for masters exhibition

Sunday, December 14, 2003

— The technique for showing the exhibition "El Greco to Picasso From the Phillips Collection" is the equivalent of putting speed bumps in a parking lot. And it works.

The gallery walls of the Denver Art Museum are a simple white and the paintings are off-center. Some walls hold no more than two paintings.

"We want to prevent people from running through the hallways to the impressionists," curator Timothy Standring said. "At the same time, we have these little teasers of what is to come. It's anticipatory."

Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" is hidden behind a wall. No painting is hung opposite it so crowds have more room to back up and take a look. It is only the second time the work has left the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., in the past 15 years, where it has hung in the former home of steel heir Duncan Phillips since 1923.

While a new center for modern art studies is being built at the Phillips museum, the Renoir and 52 other European works are being shown around the country. The works have appeared at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Phoenix Art Museum and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y.

"If it wasn't for the construction, I wouldn't be able to justify sending 'The Boating Party' and comparable works on the road because they are so well-loved and frequently visited," said Jay Gates, director of the Phillips.

The Denver museum gives the paintings plenty of space.

"Our team thought very hard about negative spaces," Standring said.

There are large areas with nothing shown; two van Goghs -- "Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles" and "House at Auvers" -- occupy an entire wall.

"I think the white makes you more involved," said Ann Trask, an artist and retired art teacher who had seen the works at the Phillips. "I've seen a lot of art shows that try to create an atmosphere. When you have more than one great artist, a single theme is difficult."

Although the works are largely shown in chronological order, portraits of St. Peter by El Greco and Goya are shown side-by-side.

The Denver Museum has an international reputation for trying to keep visitors guessing while making art accessible to all. "Educational zones" are sometimes set up for children.

Visitors are also asked if they, like Phillips, were drawn later in life to artists they had ignored. Phillips, who had called Cezanne "an unbalanced fanatic," Matisse "poisonous" and Picasso "ridiculous," ultimately bought paintings by all three.

"Hopefully, visitors will see what Duncan Phillips wanted them to see: that there were elements of the past in 19th- and 20th-century works of art. This man was so focused he traded a Tahitian Gauguin for a Goya to prove his point," Standring said.

Only 100 people are allowed into the nearly 10,000-square-foot exhibition area every 20 minutes to enhance the experience. Hours have been expanded in the morning and evening, and the museum, which is usually closed on Mondays, will be open for members.

Once the exhibition completes its Denver run on Jan. 4, it goes to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn., the Pierre Giannada Foundation in Switzerland and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2005.