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George Carlson: Heart of the West

December 15, 2007 - April 13, 2008


The Denver Art Museum added to its exciting exhibition lineup when George Carlson: Heart of the West opened December 15, 2007 in the Hamilton Building's Dietler Western Art Galleries. The exhibition features the work of living artist and former Coloradoan George Carlson, considered one of the finest sculptors of western subject matter working today. He is widely known for his sensitive interpretation of animals, especially horses, in bronze. His figurative work features a number of subjects including the Tarahumara Indian tribe in Mexico, with whom he lived. Several pastel drawings from his journeys to Mexico will also be displayed. (right: George Carlson, Old Navajo, 1960-75. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection.)

"We think he is an artist who has stood the test of time," says Ann Daley, Associate Curator of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum. "He doesn't like to be considered a western artist, but we think he is appropriate. We've admired his work for a long time, and think he is due an exhibition."

George Carlson: Heart of the West features more than 35 objects from several lenders including the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, works owned by a private Colorado collector, and the artist's studio. The exhibition will be on view through April 13, 2008.

In addition, George Carlson's work is highlighted in the latest issue of Western Passages, published by the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum. "Heart of the West: New Painting and Sculpture of the American West" includes essays on George Carlson, collecting Western American art, the Museum's Contemporary Realism Group, artist-explorers and the Western landscape, and full color illustrations. (left: George Carlson, Of One Heart, 1981. Denver Art Museum: Funds from Contemporary Realism Group.)

The Petrie Institute presented a symposium titled Heart of the West: New Art/New Thinking on January 5, 2008, at the Denver Art Museum. This one-day symposium explored multiple perspectives on contemporary western American art. Four prominent American art scholars, curators, and museum directors discussed topics including modernism vs. realism in early 20th century western painting, museum roles in balancing popular art with elitist institutional imperatives, status of contemporary western art today, and post-modernist conceptions of the West.

Selected wall text from the exhibition

Born in a suburb of Chicago, George Carlson moved out West when he was in his mid-twenties. Today, he lives and works in Idaho.
Carlson on . . .
"It starts out to me as poetry, and I want to end up with poetry, but in between you have the craft. The craft part is the science for me. It's understanding how the system works, whether it's the human body or the animal body, from the bones all the way up to the origin and insertion of each muscle . . . Once I understand that, then I can get back to poetry."
working from life
"I prefer to work with live models because of the vitality it gives . . . it's the coursing of blood that comes through the work."
"I'm always looking at the silhouette of the piece, I hardly ever think in terms of the minute areas. Often at the end of the day I will put on a very singular small wattage light bulb (the rest of the room is black) and then turn the piece around. I'm always looking at the silhouette to find an area that isn't in harmony with the rest of the piece."
"I prefer the quiet stance or subtle movement of the horse. It carries with it more of the sense of monumentality."


Related video transcript

George Carlson on...
the lure of the West
I think what the lure of the West was and still is for me, I think sometimes you need space to be able to have ideas and to work out things. In Chicago I felt a little confined, and when I came out West I felt this exhilaration of space. When I first came out West, probably like '58 or '59, this buddy and myself in my little old Volkswagen, we started up in Montana, we spent the summer driving on all gravel roads through Wyoming down through Colorado on the western slope and ended up in New Mexico, and it was wonderful! Because it got into my spirit the possibilities, the potential of that inner freedom. And it's never left me, I mean, I just have that feeling about it.
the mark of the artist
I like to keep the energy that I got on location. That I want to preserve and put into the piece, I didn't want to overfinish these things. You could wreck all that energy, the lively stuff that was actually in the piece. What's interesting about art, if you take it too far it just becomes dead. You've gotta know when to leave the thing alone. Because to me, the criteria of any art that I look at, I like to see the mark of the artist. What's their individual mark in this piece. Can I look at just a small fragment of any corner of a painting or part of a sculpture and always feel the identity of that artist. That's when I know that artist is in that piece completely.
drawing and sculpture
The reason I got into sculpting was to learn how to draw better. When I left Chicago I didn't really think about starting out with sculpture, I did it because I thought it would draw me closer to learning how to draw better. To draw with more convincing qualities to it. Where I would have to -- in other words, if you're looking at the front plane of a person's face and you're drawing that, but in sculpting you have to know what the other side of the head looked like, the whole cranial structure. And I think to this day that's exactly how it works, it's helped the whole process, so one feeds off the other.
The thing is always editing. Like the piece Of One Heart, if you'll look at the lower head of that horse, his eyes are hardly indicated. It's just a plane, I left it at that instead of putting in too much detail. My feeling is to constantly edit. Put in what's essential in the piece but don't put any more. Put in something that gives a witness to the piece to look at it, to hold their attention, but don't bore them with a lot of pedantic detail. Somebody else may want to do that, that's fine, I'm not saying they shouldn't. But I just feel for myself, that's my criteria, is just to put the right amount of information in there just to keep the piece simple and honest and straightforward.
knowing anatomy
I'll tell you what, it starts out to me as poetry and I want to end up with poetry, but in between there you have the craft, and the craft part of it is the science for me. Its understanding how the system works, whether it's the human body or the animal body. How does that complete system actually work from the bones all the way up to the origin and insertion of each muscle, how do the muscles play as pairs, 'cause that's how all muscles work on any skeleton. See the reason I want to know anatomy is because I want to say it clearly and with absolute confidence. I don't want to approach it where I'm going oh gee, I wonder if this is right or that's right, I don't think that way. This muscle is doing this, I know it's doing this, and therefore I put it down with one concise movement. And it's not to put it down in an egotistical way, but it's to put it down in a confident way that allows the material to hold onto that liveliness.
horses as metaphors
Here you have a horse that weighs 2200 pounds, sometimes 2600 pounds. They're pulling on these flat sleds, like 10,000 pounds. I mean, I was just awestruck by the power. It was sort of the end of my marriage with my first wife -- and this is what brings in the human element -- and I was trying to make a statement of what I felt would be a perfect relationship, and that was where two people pull together in the same direction. And unfortunately we were pulling in the opposite direction, and -- well you know, you have to look at some of these things with a little humor. But this piece probably reflects the real feeling of my present situation with my wife Pamela, is that we pull together. Where one of us, in that piece, one of us is pulling harder than the other, but they're both pulling. But that's how it is, you know, you take turns and it goes back and forth, and so that's more indicative of what's really going on with that piece because it was done in '78, it was actually before I met Pam. But it's what I was looking for. And its sort of an interesting thing how that all ties into your own experience, but when I saw those horses, I felt that was the perfect metaphor to describe that feeling.
studying the silhouette
See I'm always looking at the silhouette of the piece. I hardly ever think in terms of the minute areas. At all times I'm studying, I turn the piece around. I put a very singular, small wattage light bulb -- the rest of the studio will be black -- and then I turn the piece, and I always look at what just happens with that silhouette. Do I find an area that isn't in harmony with the rest of the piece? And you can't tell that when you have good light on the piece, you just don't see that at that time. But when it's dark and you only have one singular light on, so all you're really seeing is just this little glow of an edge. In fact, I got a guy to make me a turntable that was motorized, that would take three minutes to go one revolution. And oh, I love that thing! 'Cause I turn it on, it moves so imperceptibly that at times you think it hasn't moved at all, until you look away and you look back and oh, it has moved. But I love it 'cause that way I can stand back even 20-30 feet, 'cause I have a fairly large studio, and I can watch this piece with all of these silhouettes, just to see if they all work.


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In September 2007, The Denver Art Museum announced that Denver resident Tom Petrie would endow the Museum's Institute of Western American Art. Additionally, he agreed to a long-term loan of pieces from his comprehensive collection of works by Western artist Charles M. Russell for display at the Museum. In recognition both of this gift and Mr. Petrie's long-time commitment to Western art and the Denver Art Museum, the Museum announced a new name for the Museum's Western art initiative: "The Petrie Institute of Western American Art."

The gift will be used to fund art display and conservation, Institute staffing, special exhibitions, and educational efforts including the annual Western Passages publication and an annual symposium. An impressive lineup of upcoming exhibitions that will be supported by the gift includes George Carlson: Heart of the West (December 15, 2007-April 13, 2008), In Contemporary Rhythm: The Art of Ernest L. Blumenschein (November 15, 2008-February 15, 2009), Charles Deas: Telling Tales to 1840s America (June 6, 2009-August 30, 2009) and The Russell Retrospective (November 2009-January 2010).

"As the Denver Art Museum is at the geographic center of the Rocky Mountain West, our goal is to create one of the most internationally respected centers of Western American art," said Peter Hassrick, director of the Institute. "In conjunction with other recent gifts and initiatives by ardent supporters including the Dietler, Harmsen and Wallace families, this generous gift from Mr. Petrie provides us with very exciting momentum towards achieving this goal."

"As an avid collector of Western art and a resident of Denver, my intention is that this gift will help continue to elevate the importance of Western art within the Colorado community and at the Denver Art Museum," said Tom Petrie. "With the progress that's been made in the last decade in terms of strengthening the collection, building an excellent curatorial team and increasing the priority on Western American art, I feel that the Denver Art Museum is well positioned to develop this program into one of the finest in the world."

The Institute was founded in 2001 following the very successful Painters and the American West exhibition, drawn from the esteemed Anschutz collection, and a major donation of more than 700 objects from the collection assembled by Bill and Dorothy Harmsen. Since then, Peter H. Hassrick, a leading scholar and curator in the field of Western American art and past director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, was hired as director of the Institute. Former director and curator Joan Carpenter Troccoli has been appointed senior scholar and has focused on writing and curatorial duties associated with exhibitions and publications. Hassrick, Troccoli and associate curator Ann Daley also worked to prominently display many of the major works from the collection in the Dietler Galleries of Western American Art in the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building, which opened in October of 2006.

A member of the Denver Art Museum Board of Directors since 1998 as well as the Museum's Western Advisory Committee, Tom Petrie is a Vice Chairman of Merrill Lynch and has a long career in energy investment banking. Mr. Petrie is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, holds an MSBA from Boston University and received an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines.


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