Roman Memory No. 5 (Roman Abstraction Series)
75.25" x 105"
Painting, Oil on canvas
Signed and dated lower right
Vance Kirkland took a sabbatical from the University of Denver, where he was Director of the School of Art, and painted for 6 months in Italy in 1960, culminating with a one-person show at the Galleria Schneider, located just off the Spanish Steps in Rome.  I asked Vance why he had gone back to Italy over and over again.  He said that a majority of artists go to France to study and work and he had done that too, but that, for him, there was something particularly energizing and liberating and inspirational in Italy. He had learned to speak Italian proficiently.  In addition to 1960 paintings, Kirkland painted in Italy in 1955 and in 1930.  After he returned to Denver from Italy, he was able to do more paintings and sometimes larger paintings with Italian themes such as this one and another titled Memorie di Villa Italia.  This is one of the two largest Roman Abstraction paintings, with Memorie, that Kirkland accomplished.  

In looking at this Roman Abstraction painting: there are horizontal and vertical bars, which represent a Roman structure, probably in ruins, behind Kirkland's floating oil paint and water mixtures and forms.  The Romans, in addition to appropriating the Greek gods, appropriated the Grecian post and lintel architectural structure--until the Romans improved upon it with arches, which carry more weight; the Greeks in turn appropriated the post and lintel system from the Egyptians and East Indians; all dating back to the post and lintel of the Neolithic architecture of Stonehenge. 

In the foreground, Kirkland's unique oil paint and water mixtures suggest the ravages of time and hide the structure behind a veil of time.  Hints of gold in the painting allude to the luxury of the Roman Empire.  There may have been patterns and designs on the Roman walls, even ones which might have depicted figures, but these have become mostly indistinguishable.  In some of his Roman and Etruscan paintings, Kirkland made fleeting references to women and to warriors and Centurions in the Roman legions.  For instance In Frammento Etrusco (Etruscan Fragment) Kirkland depicts the head of an Etruscan soldier, as if emerging from the mists of time, or amidst the flaking stucco of an ancient wall.  Vance mentioned to me how the impressive march of a Roman legion coming down the Appian Way is extraordinarily represented musically at the end of Ottorino Respighi's Pines of Rome, and indeed it is.  Vance was synesthetic, meaning he could sense colors from music, and would use combinations of these colors in his paintings.  All these elements are incorporated into this Roman Abstraction painting.  

This is the last Roman Abstraction that Kirkland created.  The series started in 1955 with Memory of Carcasonne.  He created his Roman Abstractions at two times after traveling in Italy: 1955-1957 [based on Pompei, Villa Adriano, Altimira, etc.], 1960-1961 (based on Etruria, Villa Adriana, Venezia, Ercolano, Ostia, Tarquinia, Villa Giulia, Palatine Hill in Rome, etc.).  He was also in Italy in 1930 and did paintings and drawings over 1930–1931, and 1933–1934 of Capri, Perugia and Orvieto.  

The Roman Abstractions fall into Kirkland’s fourth of five major periods [Designed Realism; Surrealism; Abstractions from Nature; Abstract Expressionism and The Dot Paintings.  Within his fourth period, he first created some paintings mixing watercolor and denatured alcohol, giving him his first textured works [1950–53].  Finally he developed his mixtures of oil paint and water into three large series: Nebulae Abstractions [1954–1964]; Roman Abstractions [1955–57; 1960–61]; Asian Abstractions [1961–64].  During his lifetime, Kirkland created over thirty series. 

In an interview I did with Vance in 1978, he commented on these paintings:  “The 1960 paintings I did in Rome, where I stayed and worked six months.  It was exciting at the time to see walls that had just been uncovered after 2,000 years and some of the colors were very fresh.  I documented fifteen or twenty different colors from the fragmented walls, living room and dining room floors, marble pavements and surrounding pillars.  I suppose there was a certain fascination, when I did the paintings, of being able to participate in the past.  I certainly never copied anything but used my imagination to more or less get the essence out of the objects you might say.”   

Kirkland further commented about his time in Italy in 1955, which undoubtedly relates to these 1960 to 1961 paintings: “I did a lot of looking and thinking and wandering around Palatine Hill.  Besides I spent a tremendous amount of time in the museums of Rome, Pompeii and Naples, and in the many beautiful villas that had been excavated at Ostia Antica on the coast.  I made no effort to make drawings or sketches because practically nothing was left.  But fragments of murals and mosaics remained from the original walls and I had to let my mind wander and fill in the rest.  The excavated walls were very beautiful to me and I made notes of colors, textures and designs which served for many paintings when I came home in 1955 and 1957.” (And 1961 I might add.) (page 66, catalog of Mysteries in Space, pub. 1978, by Hugh Grant, for the one-person Kirkland exhibition at Genesis Galleries, New York City).    

by Hugh Grant
Founding Director and Curator, 
Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art 
Denver, Colorado 

About the Artist
(1904 - 1981)
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 Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, a significant center for mid-century modernism in painting and the decorative arts.