Vance Kirkland was an inventive, visionary painter, based in Denver, Colorado from 1928 until his death in 1981. He invented three unique textures for his paintings over a number of years: (1) mixtures of watercolor and denatured alcohol; (2) mixtures of oil paint and water; (3) dots of oil paint made with wooden dowels and mostly placed over the oil paint and water manipulations. Details of these techniques are given below in section A. Kirkland kept the formulas secret until three years before his death, when he revealed the latter two techniques in an interview for a catalog.1 About a week before his death, he told his friend, Hugh Grant, about the denatured alcohol and watercolor technique.
1957, Vance Kirkland seated in studio, with Roman painting behind him
Kirkland’s painting career moved from what he termed Designed Realism to Surrealism to abstraction. From 1954 until his death in 1981, most of Kirkland’s paintings are concerned with the mysteries and energy of the cosmos. The Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Vienna, Lóránd Hegyi, discussed these paintings, “...in his later work, he developed a visionary art which mystically empathized with the entire universe, gave cosmic universality visual form in explosive images and used panel painting to convey the perpetually changing state of the universe.”2
A. Painting Career; Introduction
- Designed Realism (1926–1944)
- Surrealism (1939–1954)
- Hard Edge Abstraction / Abstractions from Nature (1947–1957)
- Abstract Expressionism (1950–1964)
- The Dot Paintings (1963–1981)
- Brief Summary of Kirkland’s Career
B. Kirkland and Synesthesia
D. Art Around the World (Collections)
E. Publications on Vance Kirkland
F. Frequently Asked Questions
A. Painting Career: Vance Kirkland developed five major painting periods and at least 33 series, carried out in about 1,200 paintings during his life. According to museum directors and curators, quoted below, Kirkland bequeathed to the art world something significant in each of his five painting periods. This is also apparent from the catalogs accompanying the eleven European museum and two exhibition hall shows, from 1997 to 2000 (see Publications). All thirteen exhibitions included all five of his periods, as documented in the catalogs.
More photographs of paintings from his five periods are shown by clicking on collections, where one can also get brief summaries of each period. To augment this basic information, we present below comments about Kirkland’s paintings by museum scholars.
Red Rocks, 1942, watercolor, 22” x 30”
1. Designed Realism (1926–1944; with a few isolated realist paintings through 1953): Kirkland used mostly watercolor during his first and second periods (28 years). His watercolor paintings are striking and unusual for their strong colors, stylized images and dramatic subjects. For his watercolors, he was recognized nationally with eighteen group shows at The Art Institute of Chicago (1930–1948), six group shows at the Kansas City Art Institute (1932–1942), four group shows at the Los Angeles County Museum (1940–1945), four solo shows (1930–1942) and twenty-five group shows (1929–1953) at the Denver Art Museum and many other institutions.
Lewis Sharp, Denver Art Museum Director, and former Curator, Metropolitan Museum, New York, stated, “…he handled this [watercolor] medium as well as any American artist ever has. You simply can go back and whether you want to begin with John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, or move to the 20th century with John Marin or Charles Burchfield, Vance Kirkland was a master.”3
Dragon Root, 1945, watercolor, 22” x 30¾”
2. Surrealism (1939–1954): For this period, Kirkland primarily continued to use his watercolor expertise but also other water-based paints of gouache, casein and egg tempera, as well as some oil. During this time, he was carried by the prestigious New York gallery, Knoedler & Company (1946–1957), where he received three one-person shows (1946, 1948, 1952), a co-show with Max Ernst (1950), and a co-show with Bernard Buffet (1952). While hiking in the Rocky Mountains, Kirkland began imagining gigantic deadwood worlds, where the deadwood becomes creatures and tiny humans can sometimes be seen among the vegetation.
Charles Stuckey, Curator of 20th Century Painting and Sculpture, The Art Institute of Chicago, commented, “...they show a virtuosity in his control of shape and transparency with the watercolor medium, that enables him to do in watercolor what artists like [René] Magritte and [Salvador] Dalí would be doing in oil at the same time...”4
Richard Brettell, Director, Dallas Museum of Art (and former Curator of European Painting at The Art Institute of Chicago), saw Kirkland’s surrealist paintings in context with his whole career. “He began his career in the late ‘20s after graduating from art school in the Midwest, went to Europe, came to Colorado and began to confront something which had given a lot of artists a lot of problems for almost two generations: which is the Rocky Mountains and the incredibly beautiful and strong landscape of Colorado. And what he did is—rather than to take that landscape on its own terms and to try to make little miniature reproductions of it—he used it as a source material for a view of nature as a kind of cosmic force, always changing.”
[Here, Dr. Brettell uses Kirkland’s surrealist painting Six Million Years Ago, 1945 (inventory 1945.07) to make his point.] “And also with the idea that current appearances now, when you look at driftwood, when you look at rocks, when you look at mountains: what you are looking at is the residue of great upheavals in the past. That these huge, gnarled and knotted trees were once alive and once rooted; they were in the ground; they had their past. And in them he sees—as Leonardo [da Vinci] saw in the clouds, as [Albrecht] Dürer saw in a bit of vegetation—in them he sees a whole history of human beings and of the earth, and when you look in here, you see this little procession of figures who appear, you see forms that have eyes and snouts and arms and mouths. This little area in here, in which what really are driftwood, becomes beings from the past, and there is a sense in which looking at this combination of rocks and vegetation in the mid-1940s he was looking at a kind of past time that is not at all unlike the inter-galactic past that he came to look at in the future in his later works of art.”5
Kirkland was included in the seminal exhibition Abstract and Surrealist American Art at The Art Institute of Chicago, given November 6, 1947 to January 11, 1948. He was represented by a 1945 surrealist painting in watercolor, Five Million Years Ago. The 64 page catalog lists other artists in the show as Albright, Archipenko, Avery, Bayer, Baziotes, Bisttram, Blume, Calder, Dalí, Davis, Ernst, Feininger, Gorky, Guston, Kelly, Matta, Motherwell, O’Keeffe, Pollock, Rothko, Still, Tanguy, Tchelitchew, Tobey and others.
Timberline Abstraction, 1953, oil on linen, 44” x 60”
3. Hard Edge Abstraction / Abstractions from Nature (1947–1957): Kirkland still continued with his virtuosic watercolors for yet a third period of five of his career, although he began the conversion to oil with the landmark paintings of Near Evans Ranch (1947.16, 40” x 60”, surrealist), Red Rocks (1947.24, 28” x 35”, surrealist), Mountain and Lake in Moonlight (1947.25, 27” x 36”, designed realism) and Mountain Rhythms (1948.08, 40” x 50”, hard edge abstraction). Also, these four paintings within a year of each other are in three different styles: Designed Realism, Surrealism and Hard Edge Abstraction.
The latter painting was in the highly controversial Denver exhibition, 15 Colorado Artists, given at the Denver Art Museum (then located at Chappell House), when Kirkland and nine of his University of Denver [Art Department] faculty and five other artists broke with the conservative Denver Artists Guild and gave dueling shows in two different exhibition rooms, across from each other, in December 1948. This artistic debate was indicative of the tsunami of modern art that was rolling across America. An alarm was sounded by Rocky Mountain News columnist Lee Casey on February 11, 1948: “The influence of decadent Parisians...Picasso and Cezanne...has even been felt in the West. Santa Fe has been damaged by it and Denver has not wholly escaped the blight....In Western art, Western literature and bourbon, I’ll take mine straight.” Eleven Colorado newspaper articles in 1948 trumpeted the conflict between “conservative” and “radical” artists.6
While doing many surrealist paintings during much of the time of this third period, Kirkland did his first referential abstractions in watercolor: Red Mountain (1947.14), Clouds and Red Mountains (1947.18), Mountain Fantasy (1947.26), Rocky Mountain Abstraction (1947.27), Landscape with Root Forms (1947.29), and Untitled (1947.31).
From 1950 to 1955, Kirkland developed his identifiable Timberline Abstraction series using oil paint of which there is always one on view at Kirkland Museum [1950.04, 1950.05, 1951.09, 1952.17, 1953.05, 1953.07, 1953.08, 1953.09, 1953.12, 1955.02, 1955.03]. Charles Stuckey analyzed this series: “There is a sense of labyrinth about his line, for example, that is obvious in these timberline abstract paintings—which are ostensibly developed from his meditations on leaves that he would see on the forest floor....some of the early attempts by him to achieve texture look like that wood grain that would obsess him and appear in everything, that one would associate with a table top, then with a sort of still life arranged on it, but a still life that went away and only left these incredible tracings.”7
Nebula Near Jupiter, 1959, oil paint and water on linen, 49” x 61”
4. Abstract Expressionism (1950–1964): The first of Kirkland’s three unique textures and the first of his two resist techniques occurred as he was doing his last watercolors (1950–1953). He found that combining watercolor with denatured alcohol gave him unusual textures because the two liquids resist mixing, forming variegated, mottled patterns. Neither isopropyl alcohol nor ethyl alcohol will produce a resist effect. [Examples include 1950.02, 1950.06, 1952.03, 1952.05, 1952.13, 1953.01, 1953.02, 1953.04, 1953.05 and 1953.06. Some of these are surrealist paintings, so they apply to more than one category.] He returned to these mixtures in 1962, creating 14 works on paper using variously oil, water, ink wash, denatured alcohol, silver and bronze.
Finally, one of Kirkland’s two greatest breakthroughs (along with the dots in 1963), was achieved in 1953 when he developed his second resist technique of mixing oil paint and water together. This gave him painting surfaces unlike any abstract expressionist with textures resembling a moon’s cratered surface as the water bubbles dried. To accomplish this, Kirkland would place a painting flat on his worktable and pour mixtures of oil paint and water onto the canvas. He would guide the liquid in different directions, sometimes blotting the mixtures with paper towels and drawing water off, sensing when to do this within split seconds. As shown in the photographs of this fifteen year period, Kirkland developed four principal series: Pure Abstractions, Nebulae Abstractions, Roman Abstractions and Asian Abstractions.
Richard Brettell, Director, Dallas Museum of Art, discussed these paintings, “They were painted in the ‘50s and early ‘60s and are a part of the principal contribution of Vance Kirkland to the history of Abstract Expressionism in America....he was making use of the surface of the painting as a kind of battleground between oil and water, these two media liquids that resist each other, and creating these incredible sort of symphonies of color and battles of media that are in many ways interestingly comparable to what was going on in New York and much more powerful visually.”8
Elizabeth Broun, Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, commented, “For my own feelings, the ideas about space, about time, about nebula, about becoming, about creation were fabulously expressed in the ‘50s and early ‘60s...I suspect that the nebula will emerge as an important aspect of his career.”9
Charles Stuckey discussed Kirkland’s Roman and Asian Abstractions, “Kirkland traveled widely around the world in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and brought to the grimy and colorless, dirty, abstract expressionist school a whole variety of color experiences that went way beyond the streets of Manhattan: from the deep red colors of Pompeii and Herculaneum—the wall paintings that he saw there—to the lacquer surfaces of art that he saw in the Far East.”10
Scarlet Vibrations on Blue Mysteries in Green Space, oil paint and water on linen, 66” x 66”
5. The Dot Paintings (1963–1981): Not content with the extraordinary textures of his oil paint and water mixtures of his fourth painting period, Kirkland went on to develop his third and most pronounced texture for his fifth period. He placed dots onto a canvas with wooden dowels, one at a time. Furthermore, the dots were generally positioned over (and briefly alongside) his oil and water forms, giving a double texture to the paintings. Also, the precise placement of the dots was decided by the somewhat accidental oil paint and water manipulations. So precision was decided by accident, an idea that Kirkland loved.
There are four main series and some important sub-series: Energy of Vibrations in Space [with sub-series Valhalla, Geometric, Einstein, Open Suns]; Energy of Mysteries in Space; Energy of Explosions in Space; Energy of Forces in Space; and occasionally Pure Abstractions.
Charles Stuckey discussed Kirkland’s dot paintings, “Kirkland’s last paintings are remarkable. ...he achieved a kind of intensity that otherwise one associates in the history of art with, not only the orphism and futurism of the early 20th century, but the madness of Van Gogh. ...Kirkland obviously, from the beginning of his career in the late 1920s, very much wanted to paint like nobody else ever had—and he actually managed to do it.”11
Richard Brettell talks about the complexity of the dot paintings: “...each of those dots is a separate, human, physical act and hence a separate intellectual act: one has to decide where it goes, what color it is, how big it is, how it interacts with the myriad dots around it. And so in making this work of art there is an act of control which only a very mature artist—indeed a great artist—can summon towards the end of his life, and that control is at first not apparent and that’s the beauty of this painting....[There is an] optical sense of layering, which when you are looking at them when you’re standing where I am or standing maybe even another five feet away from the paintings, what happens is they seem as if they are about five or six inches thick, and as if certain of the dots are suspended in these planes in front of and behind each other, and there is a sense of optical illusion, of a kind of planar optical illusion which I can’t think of another artist who mastered it more than Vance Kirkland, and which is another element of control in this.”12
6. Brief Summary of Kirkland’s Career: Dianne Perry Vanderlip, Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, Denver Art Museum, knew Kirkland during the last three years of his life and was co-curator of Kirkland’s FIFTY YEARS retrospective in 1978. She noted: “...each of these periods, of course, has been tied together with a primary interest of communicating the human spirit’s adventure through time. Obviously, though he titles these paintings with space age titles—Nebula Near Saturn and that kind of thing—these are not science fiction paintings; these are paintings about the adventure of the human spirit.”13
April 1981, Vance Kirkland seated at work table, painting a dot, one month before he died
B. Kirkland and Synesthesia: A strange aspect about Kirkland’s paintings is that many of his color combinations are derived from classical music. Vance Kirkland had a rare ability called synesthesia—whereby he could sense colors when listening to music. While he could sense color when he listened to most music, he particularly enjoyed and wanted the complexities of classical music, then putting those colors into some of his paintings. He did not know the word synesthesia, and he forbid his friend, Hugh Grant, now Director & Curator of Kirkland Museum, to tell others about his sense, fearing he would be considered a freak, or worse, accused of making up something sensational. However, in 1978, at age 73 and terminally ill with hepatitis (from a bad blood transfusion in the hospital), he was interviewed by two curators from the Denver Art Museum for his Vance Kirkland FIFTY YEARS retrospective, resulting in a 47 page catalog. On page 33 they asked, “Does your knowledge of and great appreciation for music have any discernible effect on your painting? For instance, do you feel a relationship between the tonalities of sound and color?” Kirkland answered, “I have always interpreted sound as color. Mahler, Schoenberg, Bartók, Berg, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Ives all explored new tonalities that aided me in transposing sounds into colors.”14
Hence Kirkland could “hear color” and would seek out unusual sonorities and mild to medium dissonance in orchestral and vocal classical music for the colors of some of his surrealist and abstract paintings. But if a musical composition was heavily dissonant, Kirkland said he would “see” black or nothing that he could use in his paintings. Some completely harmonic compositions that he loved gave him non-contrasting colors that were not appropriate for his dynamic paintings—such as those by Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Verdi and many others. Chamber music, with a smaller amount of instruments, particularly set off Kirkland’s synesthesia. Chamber works by modern composers produced unusual and vibrating color combinations he wanted for his paintings. His favorite classical works were the Six String Quartets of Béla Bartók.
Vocal classical music of opera, specific singers and ensemble singing also supplied him color combinations for his paintings. Particularly the voices of coloratura sopranos and tenors gave him bright colors that he preferred (hence operas by Bellini, Donizetti and others, as well as Cavalli and Handel with countertenor parts). He certainly loved other lower register voice categories, however lower notes gave him more muted, mellow colors that are lovely but not what Kirkland wanted for his paintings. Kirkland’s synesthesia was additionally set off by ensemble singing such as duets, trios, quartets, etc. (particularly Richard Strauss, Mozart and Rossini; then Donizetti [sextet from Lucia], Bellini and Verdi). Ensemble singing paralleled Kirkland’s interest in chamber music.
Lists of Kirkland’s favorite classical composers and favorite operas have been documented by Hugh Grant for Kirkland Museum visitors and scholars. Kirkland’s top 25 favorite composers, in order, were Béla Bartók, Gustav Mahler, Sergei Prokofiev, Charles Ives, Dmitri Shostakovich, Vincenzo Bellini, Richard Strauss, Ludwig van Beethoven, Claude Debussy, Richard Wagner, Alban Berg, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Maurice Ravel, Gaetano Donizetti, Igor Stravinsky, Johannes Brahms, Lord Benjamin Britten, Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Franz Schubert, Alexander Scriabin, Carl Nielsen, Darius Milhaud and Elliott Carter.
1Hugh A. Grant, “Mysteries in Space: Discussions with Vance Kirkland,” in Vance Kirkland MYSTERIES IN SPACE (New York: Genesis Galleries Ltd., 1978), pages 65 and 67 [quoting from a private 1977 interview of Kirkland by Hugh Grant, published in this 1978 catalog for the first time).
2Dr. Lóránd Hegyi, Vance Kirkland Paintings (Valencia, Spain: Sala Parpalló, Centre Cultural La Beneficència, 1999), page 65. Dr. Lóránd Hegyi was Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Vienna from 1990 to 2001, at the time of the quote.
3Vance Kirkland Painting (Kaunas, Lithuania: M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art, 1997) 34. Dr. Lewis Sharp was director of the Denver Art Museum, 1989–2009, at the time of this quote.
4Vance Kirkland Painting, ed. Aurelija Rukšaitė (Kaunas, Lithuania: M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art, 1997) 37. Dr. Stuckey has held senior curatorial positions at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts; The Art Institute of Chicago; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. He was Curator of 20th Century Painting and Sculpture at The Art Institute of Chicago at the time of the quote.
5Transcription of taping for Vance Kirkland’s Visual Language, an hour television documentary for PBS stations with seven museum curators and directors (created at KRMA-TV [now Rocky Mountain PBS], Denver CO], 1994, Emmerich Oross, Producer & Director. Dr. Richard R. Brettell was Director of the Dallas Museum of Art at the time of the quote. In 1980, Dr. Brettell was appointed Searle Curator of European Painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1988, he became the McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). As of 2014, he is Margaret M. McDermott Distinguished Chair of Art and Aesthetic Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas.
6Kirkland Museum gave the exhibition 15 Colorado Artists—Breaking with Tradition, May 5–July31, 2011, with examples of all 15 artists, curated by Hugh Grant and Deb Wadsworth. See the article in American Art Review magazine, May–June 2011, pages 104–111 with 16 color plates.
7Vance Kirkland Painting (Kaunas, Lithuania: M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art, 1997) 37. Dr. Charles Stuckey was Curator of 20th Century Painting and Sculpture at The Art Institute of Chicago at the time of the quote.
8Emmerich Oross, Producer & Director; Dr. Richard R. Brettell speaking in Vance Kirkland’s Visual Language, an hour television documentary for PBS stations (Denver, CO: KRMA-TV, Denver [now Rocky Mountain PBS], 1994), DVD. Dr. Richard R. Brettell was Director of the Dallas Museum of Art at the time of the quote. In 1980, Dr. Brettell was appointed Searle Curator of European Painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1988, he became the McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). As of 2014, he is Margaret M. McDermott Distinguished Chair of Art and Aesthetic Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas.
9Vance Kirkland Painting (Kaunas, Lithuania: M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art, 1997) 40. Dr. Elizabeth Broun is the Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and was at the time of the quote.
10Vance Kirkland Painting (Kaunas, Lithuania: M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art, 1997) 40. Dr. Charles Stuckey was Curator of 20th Century Painting and Sculpture at The Art Institute of Chicago at the time of the quote.
11Vance Kirkland Painting (Kaunas, Lithuania: M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art, 1997) 41. Dr. Charles Stuckey was Curator of 20th Century Painting and Sculpture at The Art Institute of Chicago at the time of the quote.
12Emmerich Oross, Producer & Director; Dr. Richard R. Brettell speaking in Vance Kirkland’s Visual Language, an hour television documentary for PBS stations (Denver, CO: KRMA-TV, Denver [now Rocky Mountain PBS], 1994), DVD.
13Emmerich Oross, Producer & Director; Dianne Perry Vanderlip speaking in Vance Kirkland’s Visual Language, an hour television documentary for PBS stations (Denver, CO: KRMA-TV, Denver [now Rocky Mountain PBS], 1994), DVD. Dianne Perry Vanderlip served as Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Denver Art Museum from 1978 to 2007.
14Lewis Story and Dianne Perry Vanderlip, “An Interview with Vance Kirkland,” in Vance Kirkland FIFTY YEARS (Denver, CO: The Denver Art Museum, 1978), 33.