Vance Kirkland

Scholars on Vance Kirkland

On Kirkland’s Designed Realism:

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.”1

On Kirkland’s Surrealism:

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 …”2

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.”3

Here, Dr. Brettell uses Kirkland’s surrealist painting Six Million Years Ago, 1945, 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.”3

On Kirkland’s Hard Edge Abstractions:

From 1950 to 1955, Kirkland developed his identifiable Timberline Abstraction series using oil paint. 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.”4

On Kirkland’s Abstract Expressionism:

Richard Brettell said, “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.”5

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.”6

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.”7

On Kirkland’s Dot Paintings:

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.”8

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.”9


1Vance 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.

2Vance 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.

3Transcription 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.

4Vance Kirkland Painting (Kaunas, Lithuania: M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art, 1997), 37.

5Oross, Producer & Director; Dr. Richard R. Brettell speaking in Vance Kirkland’s Visual Language.

6Vance 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.


8Ibid, 41.

9Oross, Producer & Director; Dr. Richard R. Brettell speaking in Vance Kirkland’s Visual Language.