Big money, bold art, a new building, and the Aspen Art Museum
Open minds and open checkbooks have forever been two essentials for contemporary art, alongside creativity. Aspen’s uncommon mix of progressive thinking and generous patronage has made the remote ski town an unlikely hub of envelope-pushing visual art, which for the last 33 years has had a home at the Aspen Art Museum.
As construction begins on the museum’s new downtown home, the Aspen community is preparing to make modern art — often controversial, sometimes confounding, but never boring — a centerpiece of the resort. A look back at the history of contemporary art in Aspen shows that pushing boundaries (and courting controversy) are as much a part of the town’s heritage as downhill skiing.
By the time construction began for the soaring and ultra-modern Hyman Avenue museum last month, it had already nearly met its $50 million fundraising goal in pledged donations. The three-level building, with a rooftop sculpture garden and café, is set to open in 2014. While its Shigeru Ban design has drawn ample support from donors, some locals have blanched at its aggressively futuristic verve.
“Why does the new Aspen Art Museum have to be so butt-ugly?” one Aspenite asked bluntly in a letter published in the Aspen Daily News after the design was released.
The story of modern Aspen is riddled with such public debates about the aesthetic value of avant-garde art, and its place in the upper valley, as moneyed patrons have brought the bleeding edge to Aspen.
If Aspen was once considered an outpost of avant-garde art, today it’s a center of it, mentioned in the same breath as Chelsea in Manhattan or Art Basel in Miami.
“I would say contemporary art surfaces in a couple different areas, but largely through people that are open-minded and philanthropically supportive,” says Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, director of the Aspen Art Museum.
D.J. Watkins, founder of the new Gonzo Museum and author of “Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist” adds that a bevy of world-class private art collections and galleries has long made the ski town a contemporary art hub.
“There’s a jet set, high-brow art culture and Aspen is a big part of that,” Watkins says.
Eight private collections in the Aspen homes of art museum board members were listed in 2011’s Art News “Top 200 Art Collectors” list, which ranks the best private art collections on Earth. The money to support such world-class private collections, and the museum’s pricey new building and exhibitions, continues a history of patronage dating back to the Renaissance, Zuckerman Jacobson notes.
A short list of early art highlights here would include city father Walter Paepcke’s late 1940s exhibitions of experimental photographs by Ferenc Berko and work by Herbert Bayer, along with commissions of his Bauhaus architectural designs at the Aspen Institute. Forward-thinking art and architecture quickly found a home in Aspen, through the International Design Conference and photography confabs that brought the likes of Ansel Adams to town — and led to his iconic portraits of the Maroon Bells.
The early rumblings of pop art took root in 1967’s “Culture-In” at the Brand Building, including work by legends-in-the-making Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana and Claes Oldenburg.
Lichtenstein painted the walls of the Brand in his signature comic book-inspired style, and it housed new work by Indiana — who would go on to craft the iconic 70’s “LOVE” block prints — Oldenburg, and others.
The pop art happening is an example of how forward-thinking art can shock and confuse at the moment of its creation, but come to be viewed as important — and even beautiful — in retrospect, Zuckerman Jacobson says.
Lichtenstein’s work at the Brand was painted over and never preserved, now viewed by fans and art historians as a lost treasure.
“People were just aghast back then,” Zuckerman Jacobson laughs. “And now we’re like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe no one saved that.’”
The passionate (and often nude) ceramicist Paul Soldner stayed in Aspen and spun off from the late ’60s scene, helping to found Anderson Ranch in Snowmass Village. Harley Baldwin would later emerge from it as an entrepreneur and developer, refining the “Glitter Gulch” mix of social cachet and provocative contemporary art in downtown shows — kicking off the proliferation of high-end, high-art galleries that now draw worldwide collectors to Aspen’s shops. Meanwhile, homegrown artists like Benton and Earl Biss operated on the fringe of the international scene that took root here. Watkins refers to the lack of integration as a “stratified art society.”
From 1965 to 1971, Aspen, the Magazine in a Box, published multimedia art and essays from the rising avant-garde generation. Andy Warhol edited its third issue, and became a frequent face on the Aspen art and social scene (in his journals, he writes about partying at Andre’s disco here on New Year’s Eve 1981, writing, “It was like trying to get into Studio 54”).
The art museum was founded, in its current riverside building — the former city power plant — in 1979. For its first four years, it was known as the Aspen Center for Contemporary Art. The first year included shows by Bayer, Berko and abstract expressionist Robert Rauschenberg. Shows followed by the legendary likes of pop artists Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha and Warhol. The museum had also, by then, begun its annual fall locals’ exhibitions.
While many of the names circulating around the Aspen scene in those early days are now etched in the canon, their work often rankled the locals.
Probably the most notorious exhibition came in summer 1988, when conceptual artist Donald Lipski rolled scrolls of Mylar down the face of Aspen Mountain, funded by the museum.
“I think he got death threats for that show,” Zuckerman Jacobson says.
The installation was put up in June, and was scheduled to stay up for the whole summer. But, as retold in Dean Sobel’s book, “One Hour Ahead: The Avant-Garde in Aspen,” museum officials agreed to take it down in July. Amid a continuing clamor from locals, they bumped the removal date up into June — only to have Aspenites take matters into their own hands and tear the scrolls down themselves in the night.
A letter to the Aspen Daily News from that summer tartly sums up the strain of local resentment toward the well-monied, high-browed output of the museum: “I wish to express my deep gratitude to the artist who messed up Aspen Mountain for bringing everyone’s attention so blatantly to the prostitution of our little town.”
Echoes of the debate over that show can be heard in the ongoing rumblings over the museum’s new downtown site.
After the ceremonial ground breaking last year, the museum hung a provocative piece of public art by New York’s Jay Heikes: a fiberglass mummy attached to a piece of driftwood between two shipping crates. The un-pretty installation quickly raised the hackles of locals.
In separate incidents this winter, locals wrote “Ugly” on a museum sign on the lot, and hung “For Sale” signs nearby, continuing the pull-no-punches public dialogue between the museum and its detractors.
Even the mountain west’s best-known and most controversial public art initiative — Christo and Jean-Claude’s long-planned “Over the River” piece, draping fabric over 40-plus miles of the Arkansas River — has roots in Aspen.
The pair first came here, under the auspices of the burgeoning Aspen Center for Contemporary Art, in 1970. They scouted locations for a massive fabric hanging in the Maroon and Castle Creek valleys, before installing it that year in Rifle (high winds forced the artists to take it down after a day, following a month of grueling installation work).
The Aspen Art Museum has no permanent collection of its own, instead focusing on bringing in new and international contemporary art — an often-challenging rotation of oddities. On Thursday, the museum hosted a public conversation with curator Jacob Proctor about an ongoing exhibition there, by multi-media artist Simon Denny.
The forum was titled, perhaps aptly, “I Don’t Get It.”
Though the art will continue to be challenging in the new building, Zuckerman Jacobson says she wants the space to become a local hangout. The rooftop patio, including a coffee shop, she hopes, will become an outdoor gathering place for Aspenites much like the fountains on the Hyman Avenue mall and the benches outside of Paradise Bakery.
“Our philosophy is really about bringing art to the people,” she says.
Free admission for all to the museum has been endowed in perpetuity. In that respect, it literally couldn’t be more accessible. Whether people like what they see once they’re inside is another story.
“It’s really a way of saying to the community, ‘Come check it out,’” Zuckerman Jacobson says of the free admission policy. “And if you don’t like what you see, that’s OK. Come back again.”