Denver’s Kirkland Museum: Prepare to be overwhelmed

(Last Updated On: May 14, 2019)

We are big fans of 20th century decorative arts, so the Kirkland Museum,   with its focus on his period was high on our must-see list even before I found out that I could visit for free as part of my TBEX conference registration.

Housed in a recently expanded building that includes the former studio of Vance Kirkland, the museum houses three major collections:

The collections play off each other nicely, providing visitors the opportunity to see how and where Kirkland worked and then gain a deeper understanding of the artistic milieu in which he was working.

It’s a nice interplay, but it is also a LOT of ground to cover.

Stepping into the museum caused me to gasp – literally. It is almost inconceivable that so many wonderful objects can exist in one place. I’m sure I’m not the only first-time visitor who just stopped dead in the tracks at the entrance, not quite able to make sense of what they have just stepped into. Along with a few tableau that combine objects, lighting, textiles, and furniture, there are endless display cases nearly overflowing with glass, pottery, metal, and plastic objects by the finest studios and artists from the United States and around the world. It’s like walking into a treasure chest. . . or a huge antique shop. (More on the antique shop aspect of things later.)

I didn’t think I was familiar with Kirkland – whose work became increasingly complicated, abstract, and technically demanding over his career – but his watercolor images of Colorado from the 1930s and early 40s were immensely popular and immediately familiar.

Kirkland’s “Romantic Spring” (1927) Photo courtesy of Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, Denver

His work changed dramatically over time, as he moved through surrealism and various stages of abstraction before beginning his “dot paintings” that combined oils, water, and neatly placed dots to create dramatic abstractions. I was completely unfamiliar with this work and at first glance it was not particularly appealing to me. But a closer look revealed not just technical mastery, but some really beautiful, absorbing images. It’s work that requires taking the time to really see the details.

Kirkland’s “Explosions on a Sun 70 Billion Light Years from Earth” Photo courtesy of Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, Denver

The museum is fortunate to have Kirkland’s studio, as it not only preserves a valuable piece of Denver history, but really helps bring this unique artist to life. Especially interesting (or at least unusual) is the harness that Kirkland used to hang from the ceiling in order to fully reach his large paintings while working on them.

It’s not, however, particularly clear where the studio space ends and the rest of the museum begins. Kirkland was a fan of many of the types of decorative arts featured in the museum, as is Kirkland’s friend and museum founder, Director, and chief benefactor, Hugh Grant (not to be confused with the British actor). Museum staff describe the museum as a mirror of Grant’s brain. If that is so, it is a brain brimming with wonderful things.

Most of the space in the museum is given over to the International Decorative Art collection, which includes all the things you would expect (Art Nouveau glassware, Arts and Crafts vases, Frank Lloyd Wright furnishings, Art Deco platters and clocks, and Pop Art furnishings) and a few things you wouldn’t expect (an Andy Warhol Souper Dress, kinetic sculptures, and Bakelite clocks and radios).

Photo courtesy of Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, Denver

They even have a plate to accompany their Viktor Schreckengost Jazz bowl, something we’ve not seen before.

Photo courtesy of Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, Denver

Most of the objects include little curatorial information aside from the basic facts of who created it, where, and when, so it is a treat when something actually has more in-depth information with it. Luckily, one of the few objects with some history provided is a stunningly simple woven ribbon dress from a ballet inspired by the Kirkland painting exhibited with it.

I love the simple beauty and graceful line of this dress. It’s perfect. And it is a wonderful contrast to the boxy (ugly) Souper Dress.

The Colorado collection, like everything in the museum, is wonderful but needs more space. It also needs more information on the pieces and artists featured to fully understand their work and its context.

Hand-Built Slab Piece James McKinnell and Pine Needle Vase by Nan Bangs McKinnell Photo courtesy of Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, Denver

Buck Rogers Spaceship Lidded Jar by Maynard Tischler Photo courtesy of Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, Denver

Farewell to Summer by Edward Marecak Photo courtesy of Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, Denver

The museum brags about its “salon style” presentation which results in a more intimate experience (no children allowed because there is nothing between you and the art).

Photo courtesy of Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, Denver

However, much of the collection is actually crammed into lighted display cases.

I realize there would never be enough space to properly display these items even in a traditional museum setting, let alone in a salon setting, but it feels a bit like being in an over-stuffed antique shop – the only thing missing is the price tag!

No matter how it is displayed, the sheer quantity would become overwhelming pretty quickly. There is simply too much here to be able to focus. Further contributing to that fully-overwhelmed feeling is the fact that very little on display includes an in-depth explanation of the work, its context, or its importance. From this standpoint the work is displayed more like a research collection, where the viewer is expected to understand what they are seeing. As a more casual fan of this work, I don’t bring enough of my own knowledge to understand much of what I am seeing beyond a piece’s intrinsic beauty.

Don’t get me wrong. I love this museum and hope to return here again soon, but I love it for the incredible breadth and depth of its collection, not for the way most of the collection is displayed. There is simply too much for the space it is in. “But,” my husband asks, “what would you leave in storage?” Ah yes, there’s the rub. I do want to see every single thing on display. I just want it displayed with a bit or room to breathe and a bit of context. . . and maybe with a few spots where I can sit down and soak it all in.

But what a magnificent collection!

The Kirkland Museum is located at 1311 Pearl Street in Denver. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday: 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Closed major holidays) No children under 13. Admission charged. See the museum’s website for more information.

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2 thoughts on “Denver’s Kirkland Museum: Prepare to be overwhelmed”

    A New Home for Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art
    Kirkland Museum is temporarily closed because we are building a new facility and relocating to 12th Avenue & Bannock Street, near the Denver Art Museum and the Clyfford Still Museum, in Denver’s Golden Triangle Creative District. The new 38,500-square-foot museum, designed by Seattle-based Olson Kundig, is projected to open in early 2018.

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