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Vance Kirkland

 (1904 - 1981)
Vance Hall Kirkland was active/lived in Colorado, Kansas, Ohio.  Vance Kirkland is known for abstraction, modernist-leaning landscape, mural painting.

Vance Kirkland

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Vance Kirkland
Born in Convoy, Ohio, November 1904 and died in Denver, Colorado, May 1981, (age 76); Vance Hall Kirkland painted the last 52 years of his 54-year career in Denver. Museums and the press have variously referred to him as the "Father of Modern Colorado Painting", "Dean of Colorado Artists" and "Colorado's pre-eminent artist."  He graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1928. He was the founding Director of the School of Art at the University of Denver (1929-32, 1946-69), and ran the Kirkland School of Art in Denver (1932-46).  Because of his academic pursuits, he was able to paint exactly as he wanted, without financial pressure.  This was particularly helpful when he discontinued his realist and surrealist watercolors halfway through his career, after major successes, and decided to change to oil abstraction in 1953.

Kirkland exhibited extensively at Knoedler & Company, New York (1946-57), where he had three solo exhibitions, a co-show with Max Ernst and a co-show with Bernard Buffet.  He also participated in 18 group shows at The Art Institute of Chicago (including the culminating exhibition of surrealism in 1947-48) and many others including the Museum of Modern Art - N.Y., Metropolitan Museum - N.Y., Kansas City Art Institute and Los Angeles County Museum.

After he stopped doing watercolor, his new work was never again shown in these places during his lifetime. What the art world did not know (or care about) was that he had begun to mix oil and water together for a flamboyant period of Abstract Expressionism (1951-64), and then for his final period of vibrant dot paintings (1963-81).  There is no Abstract Expressionist known to us, or to museum curators, who used oil and water mixtures as the basis of the technique and images.

Kirkland's isolation in Denver kept his techniques from being discovered and no one, other than a master watercolorist, could have controlled the oil and water mixtures as he did.

The television documentary, Vance Kirkland's Visual Language, was aired on over 100 PBS stations from 1994-6.  Directed by international film director Emmerich Oross, the production features 7 curators and directors from 5 American museums analyzing Kirkland's works and life.  Colorado Ballet performed a biographical ballet in 6 scenes about Vance Kirkland in 1999.  The story portrayed the conflict artists have between their everyday life and their artistic life.

Kirkland paintings were used as backdrops, choreography was done by Martin Fredmann with scenario by Hugh Grant, who also constructed the music from 6 composers Kirkland admired.

Of his approximately 1,100 paintings, during a 54 year career (1927-81), about half are watercolors created in the first half of his career (1927-53; aquarelle, gouache, casein, egg tempera with a few oils as well).  In the latter half of his career (1953-81) oil, and his oil & water mixtures are used.  In spite of failing his 1st year watercolor (aquarelle) class in 1924 at the Cleveland Institute of Art, he became a master watercolor painter.  His professor's criticism -- that his colors were fighting, and that he was putting colors in landscapes that were not there was prophetic because he eventually produced the illusion of colors that are not there in his later dot paintings. He built upon his virtuoso watercolor techniques when he first developed a resist technique by mixing watercolor and denatured alcohol together (1952-3), and then by mixing water and oil together. In 1963 he started adding dots of color on top of his previous layers.  He also did about 500 drawings, 12 print editions, and some mural commissions.

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for Vance Kirkland
Born Convoy, OH, Nov. 3, 1904; died Denver, CO, May 1981. Painter, specialized in watercolor. Teacher. Studied at Colorado Fine Arts Center; Cleveland School of Arts; Kansas City Art Institute; Art Students League, New York. Pupil of Henry G. Keller; Frank N. Wilcox. Director of School of Art at the University of Denver from1929-32 and 1946-69. Founded the Kirkland School of Art in Denver, CO in 1932 and ran it until 1946. Painted a mural, " Cattle Round-Up" for the Eureka Post Office in 1938. A television documentary, "Vance Kirkland's Visual Language" was aired by over 100 PBS stations between 1994-96.

Susan Craig, "Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945)"
Wiebe, Joanna K. “Kansans Cared About their New Deal Art”, in Wichita Eagle Beacon, May 21, 1972. p.1E & 7E-----. “Local Legends Live in Art”, in Wichita Eagle Beacon, May 22, 1972. p.1A & 3A-----. “Age Enhances Fort Scott Mural”, in Wichita Eagle Beacon, May 23, 1972. p.1A & 8A-----. “Halstead Legend Perpetuated”, in Wichita Eagle Beacon, May 24, 1972. p.1A & 16A -----. “Scenics, Murals and Lithographs Included in Kansas New Deal Art”, in Wichita Eagle Beacon, May 25, 1972. p.15A.; Kansas Murals and Commemorative Sculpture, compiled by the Woman’s Kansas Day Club. 1974. Typed Manuscript.; AA26; Who’s Who in American Art. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1936- v.1=1936-37 v.3= 1941-42 v.2=1938-39 v.4=1940-47. 1, 7; Bruner, Ronald Irwin. New Deal Art Workers in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. Thesis. University of Denver, 1979.; Sandzén files; AskArt,, accessed Dec. 16, 2005; Wiermair, Peter, and Dianne Perry Vanderlip. Vance Kirkland 1904-1981. Zurich; New York: Edition Stemmle, 1998)

This and over 1,750 other biographies can be found in Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945) compiled by Susan V. Craig, Art & Architecture Librarian at University of Kansas.

Biography from David Cook Galleries
Biography photo for Vance Kirkland
As an artist and educator, Vance Kirkland almost single-handedly brought modern art to Denver. At a time when conservative tastes ruled, he came to Colorado and worked in a manner that emphasized process more than subject matter. Rather than pleasing landscapes, he created paintings that expressed the dynamic forces of the universe, often with results that were strange and otherworldly. Standing on principle, he never wavered from his conviction that the arts were respected disciplines, and he constantly pushed for the inclusion of modern art in Denver's public institutions. Deliberately working away from the major art centers, Kirkland's varied art styles were determined by his own compass yet were nationally recognized.

Growing up in Ohio, Kirkland began his art studies at the Cleveland School of Art, where he received a diploma in painting and a bachelor's degree in art education. The former curator of the Denver Art Museum, Diane Vanderlip points to a failed watercolor class as an indicator of both his future stylistic development and his early self-confidence. When the teacher criticized Kirkland for colors that fought with each other, the young man listened to his own muse rather than pass the course.

Upon graduation, he was offered a job at Princeton, but when the university discovered just how young he was, they withdrew their offer. He then accepted an offer at the University of Denver to establish their art department in 1929. While most schools shunted art off to the side, Kirkland developed the program as a combination of academics and art. He also got officials to accept nude figure drawing. However, a parting of the ways came when he and the Provost clashed over degree recognition. The subsequent establishment of his Kirkland School of Art became a cultural beacon in this Rocky Mountain capitol.

Fom 1927 to 1944, he worked in a style he referred to as "Designed Realism," in which natural forms were highly stylized in rhythmic shapes. Working totally in watercolor, he developed an individualized method of applying dots to a saturated color surface. By the end of the thirties, Kirkland's paintings became larger and more energetic. Hiking in the mountains, the artist was inspired by the unusual shapes of high-altitude plants and trees stunted and bent by the fierce winds. Taking his painting gear, he had to add antifreeze to his paints in order to work in these demanding conditions.

Departing from his ordinary perspective, Kirkland created compositions of open spaces and wild linear elements, which he increasingly liberated from any specific representation. In his fantastic imaginings, he had an affinity with Surrealism, although he had no interest in their Freudian pursuits. Kirkland received national attention with inclusion in exhibitions, such as "Abstract and Surrealist American Art" at the Art Institute of Chicago and "Reality and Fantasy" at the Walker Art Center. In 1946, Knoedler and Company in New York invited him to be one of their artists, which brought solo shows and group exhibitions with artists like Max Ernst.

Beginning in the 1940s, he also became more active with the Denver Art Museum, serving in various honorary and formal positions. Both in his capacity as board member and curator, he relentlessly pressed for the recognition of contemporary art and artists. At the same time, his prestige grew when the University of Denver invited him back: this time as Director of the School of Art, Professor of Painting, and Chairman of the Department of Arts and Humanities. In 1941, he married Anne Fox Oliphant Olson, a librarian, and their home was a center for Denver's cultural life with evening salons and musical performances.

Hs first non-objective painting, "Red Abstraction" (1951) initiated his break with his past art. Looking back, Kirkland said, "There had to be a way of creating something and I became interested in abstraction." Deciding to forego watercolor, he experimented with paint and materials, particularly with inventive ways of mixing them. He had always been intrigued by the quality of resistance, and now he used the combination of oil and water to cause unexpected effects. The surface of his canvases became almost like breathing skins. Committed to his new direction, Kirkland didn't flinch when Knoedler's dropped him for abandoning his commercially successful style.

Moving to greater heights, Kirkland began painting large canvases that suggested cosmic phenomena, some of which he called "nebula." Although the fifties saw the birth of space exploration, the artist deliberately avoided any astronomical study, preferring instead to paint the mystery beyond his knowledge. When he saw pre-Hubble photographs that looked startlingly similar, he decided to stop.

Towards the end of his career, he returned to his earlier practice of layering the surface with dots. The works that first appeared in 1963 were geometric abstractions that share some of the qualities of contemporary Op Art. These later paintings were painstakingly done. Always a tireless worker, he pursued his art even after hepatitis made painting more difficult and physically excruciating, devising a system that suspended him over his canvases.

His studio on Pearl Street in Denver is now the Vance Kirkland Foundation and Museum, a significant center for mid-century modernism in painting and the decorative arts.

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Portrait of the Artist (1978)

About  Vance Kirkland

Born:  1904 - Convoy, Ohio
Died:   1981 - Denver, Colorado
Known for:  abstraction, modernist-leaning landscape, mural painting