The smell of fresh-cut hay fills the air and a sprinkler softly taps in the background. Mount Sopris basks across the valley. It’s a quiet Monday morning, and the air is so still that the water in a nearby pool is flat, making the sky’s reflection a cobalt blue.
With only two cars in the parking lot, the serenity is unexpected when in just an hour, the Powers Art Center will open its doors to the largest exclusively Jasper Johns collection in the country for the first time.
“Everyone says, ‘Why is this here?,’” says Melissa English, director for the Powers Art Center. “Well it’s here because he just loved the land.”
Dedicated to the memory of John G. Powers, the center is a 14,502-square-foot museum that opened Monday, and it will remain open – and free – in perpetuity because of his passion for sharing pop art with people. John Powers and his wife, Kimiko Powers, were ferocious art collectors and American contemporary artist Jasper Johns topped their list. Over the years, they acquired more than 300 of his lithographs on paper, and the Powers Art Center serves as a public forum for people to explore his works, and conduct more in-depth research and learning.
Eighty-four-year-old Johns is one of the most influential and significant painters of the 20th century, according to an artist bio on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website. He was raised in the South, and served two years in the Korean War, stationed in South Carolina and Sendai, Japan. When he returned in 1952 he moved back to New York City, having spent two terms at the Parsons School prior to joining the army.
Johns soon found a place in the art world, becoming friends with Robert Rauschenberg. When gallery owner Leo Castelli walked into Rauschenberg’s studio and was immediately impressed with Johns’ work, he offered him a solo exhibition. Johns debuted “Flag,” “Target” and “Numbers,” all three of which continue to be motifs in his work today.
In 1960, he produced his first lithograph and painting and printmaking became a symbiotic relationship in which he could explore transformation within a series between the two mediums.
Around the same time, Powers left a career at publishing company Prentice-Hall. He began to collect art, focusing his energy on contemporary American and 5th- through 19th-century Japanese art. While nearly 120 of Johns’ works on paper line the walls of the new art center, pieces by 13th generation ceramicist Takashi Nakazato pepper the rest of the space, along with glass-enclosed saxophones which represent Powers’ love for the instrument and jazz.
Powers died in 1999. Plans to build an arts center in his honor followed. After five years of design, another two of construction and an official dedication in 2011, the building opened this week with little fanfare and publicity. Instead the Hiroshi Nanamori-designed structure – solar-powered and geothermally heated and cooled – quietly opened its doors last Monday with just English and Joel Samuelson, the director of operations, to greet a steady stream of Johns fans and Powers’ friends, family and curious visitors.
“We don’t really need a curator, because the Powers spent their lives as curators,” says English.
She leads the way through the two-story museum and its four upstairs galleries, showing Johns’ works in chronological order as this premiere exhibit is meant to be viewed. The last piece is dated 2012, and English says they intend to add to it. With more than 300 pieces in the permanent collection, almost two-thirds are either on loan or in storage. That will give them flexibility in changing the exhibit, which they plan to do at least annually. Where a black and white lithograph now sits, its color counterpart can eventually trade places.
“The one thing that John Powers loved about pop art was that it started conversations,” she adds.
That’s something that Powers’ granddaughter, Barbara Hapgood, can second. She also serves on the three-member board of directors for the Ryobi Foundation, the umbrella nonprofit under which the Powers Art Center is governed.
“He used to take us around the house, and ask us, ‘What do you think about this art?’ or, ‘What do you like about that one?’” says Hapgood. “For me, I discovered in art that if there’s something I don’t like today, I may really like it tomorrow.”
One of Johns’ more important series is called “The Seasons.” The four pieces hang in the second gallery on the second floor, and downstairs the library contains books written about the pieces, explains English.
That’s not surprising given Hapgood’s story about her grandfather.
“He would send us posters and prints and then send us pages and pages of handwritten lectures of what the different pieces meant,” she says. “For ‘The Seasons,’ he would write about what each concept meant. I grew to appreciate [Johns] as an artist.”
Powers’ appreciation for sharing arts is seen not only in the exhibit space, but also in the opportunity for the art center to double as a learning facility.
“The hope for the center is to not just expose the vast collection, but to really use the site as a learning opportunity,” says Hapgood.
In the library, the walls are lined with books about dozens of influential contemporary artists, from Warhol to Pollock. Next door, a media room is set up to show exclusive footage from lectures and panels given by Johns. All of it is intended for any age, including elementary school kids and researching graduate students.
“We were trying to figure out a way to honor that passion and give back to community they are so passionate about,” she adds. “It’s really a study center.”
The tranquil nature of the setting, with its shallow reflection pool and lazy pastures, lends itself to focused and inspired research. But, it also allows for the casual visitor to browse an internationally acclaimed art collection in an intimate setting.
“It’s everyone’s collection now,” says English. “It’s here so everyone can enjoy it.”
Powers Art Center
13110 Hwy 82, Carbondale, CO 81623
Open Monday through Thursday
10 a.m. to 3 p.m.