Buongiorno! Vance Kirkland in Italy

With travel restricted due to COVID-19, kick off your summer with some armchair travel, vicariously exploring Vance Kirkland’s time in Italy.

Vance Kirkland's Travels

Vance Kirkland (1904–1981) travelled widely throughout his artistic career, often with his wife Anne. He first travelled abroad to Europe in the summer of 1930. He took many trips to New York City, where he was represented by the Knoedler & Company gallery for twelve years. He also visited other American cities for exhibitions and to enjoy opera, symphonies and other cultural activities.

Hover over any rotating image to pause it, or double click any image to enlarge it.

Two watercolor paintings of Capri by Vance Kirkland, 1930

Beginning with a 1930 trip to Capri, Kirkland made several visits to Italy, including extended stays in 1954, 1958 and 1960. By 1960 he had travelled throughout the country, visiting major cities and historical and cultural sites.

VK Italy Map
Kirkland saved travel guides and records of his time abroad, including this map now in Kirkland Museum's archive.

Kirkland served as Director of the School of Art at the University of Denver from 1929 to 1932 and again from 1946 until his retirement in 1969. Taken during leaves of absence from his job, these trips became a source of study and inspiration for his painting. 

“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 also.”
Hugh Grant
Hugh Grant
Founding Director & Curator

Transitioning to Roman Abstractions

Vance Kirkland developed five major painting periods and at least 36 series, carried out in about 1,200 paintings during his life. Abstract Expressionism is the fourth of five major periods, with Roman Abstractions as a series within it. Kirkland was primarily a watercolorist for the first half of his career. His shift to oil painting in 1953 led to experimentation and the development of his innovative oil paint and water resist technique. It also marked a shift from Realism and Surrealism into abstract work. In 1954 he turned to the skies to explore the evolution of the universe and began his Nebulae Abstraction series, done between 1954 and 1962.

Mysteries in Orange Space
Mysteries in Orange Space
1954, by Vance Kirkland
oil paint and water on panel
24 x 36 inches
(Nebulae Abstraction)
Limitless Space, 1960, by Vance Kirkland
Limitless Space
1960, by Vance Kirkland
oil paint and water on linen
47 x 47 inches
(Nebulae Abstraction)

 

In the midst of these space paintings were experiences grounded on Earth:

“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.”
Vance Kirkland-Bio-Studio
Vance Kirkland
1977

And so the 1954 trip to Italy led to the creation of his Roman Abstraction paintings, a series of 40 abstract expressionist paintings completed between 1955 and 1961. The early Roman paintings were completed after he had returned home to Denver, memories of his times overseas.

Hallmarks of the Roman paintings

Memorie dell’Alba (Memories of the Dawn)
Memorie dell’Alba
(Memories of the Dawn)
1955, by Vance Kirkland
oil paint and water on linen
24 x 30 inches
(Roman Abstraction)

Layering

The Roman Abstractions are often intricate and densely layered compositions, distinguishing them from the simpler and scattered forms of the Nebulae Abstractions.

Memory of Carcassonne, 1955, by Vance Kirkland
Memory of Carcassonne
1955, by Vance Kirkland
oil paint and water on panel
14 x 36 1/2 inches
(Roman Abstraction)

Referencing Realism

Sometimes Kirkland would incorporate images of people, parts of buildings, and authentic ancient designs into the paintings, such as the Roman Empire citadel shown in Memory of Carcassonne.

Memorie di Pompei, 1955, by Vance Kirkland
Memorie di Pompei
1955, by Vance Kirkland
oil paint and water on linen
27 x 36 inches
Private Collection
(Roman Abstraction)

Memorie di Pompei reveals a scroll decoration on a wall, partially obscured by the oil and water patterns that captures the idea of the fading and disintegrating wall that Kirkland had seen.

 

Patina del Palatino, 1960, by Vance Kirkland
Patina del Palatino
1960, by Vance Kirkland
oil paint and water on linen
47 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches
(Roman Abstraction)
"This painting, Kirkland told me, is about the patina on the Palatine Hill in Rome, or grass and mud, trampeled by tourists, on the Palatine Hill. And, of course, you can see references to strands of grass on the brown, muddy background. When I asked him what the white was in the painting, he first said, "That's a ghost of a Roman soldier." When I said--"Really?" He laughed and said, "Well yes it is!--Although it's also possible that a child dropped an iced cream cone. However I liked the idea of a ghost in my Roman abstraction and so I made an elongated, airy, white vertical area of oil paint and water. And did you notice my suggestion of a rather voluptuous Venus figure to the right of the ghost? I didn't want the ghost, or the Venus for that matter, to be alone in my painting for all eternity."
Hugh Grant
Hugh Grant
Founding Director & Curator
Frammento di Tarquinia, 1960, by Vance Kirkland
Frammento di Tarquinia
(Fragment of Tarquinia, city famous for its frescoes in ancient Etruscan tombs, prior to Roman rule)
1960, by Vance Kirkland
oil paint and water on linen
27 x 36 inches
(Roman Abstraction)

Soft Colors

Most of the Roman Abstractions have very subdued earth colors and pale stucco wall colors, which distinguish them from the bright Nebulae paintings and the gold, black and orange of the Asian Abstractions Kirkland would do later.

Pompeiian Red

However, Kirkland uses the famous Pompeiian red as an accent to several paintings. The bright red was used in many frescoes in Pompeii and was amazingly preserved when covered by the ash from Mount Vesuvius. A few Roman Abstractions use other brighter colors.

Did you know? In Italian, Pompei is spelled with only one “i”—You’ll see that reflected in Kirkland’s Italian painting titles.

Memorie di Pompei, 1955, by Vance Kirkland
Memorie di Pompei
1955, by Vance Kirkland
oil paint and water on linen
44 x 47 3/4 inches
(Roman Abstraction)
Mistero di Pompei, 1955, by Vance Kirkland
Mistero di Pompei
1955, by Vance Kirkland
oil paint and water on linen
27 x 36 inches
(Roman Abstraction)
Memorie di Villa Italia, 1961, by Vance Kirkland
Memorie di Villa Italia,
1961, by Vance Kirkland
oil paint and water on linen
75 x 105 inches
(Roman Abstraction)
“…I painted in Rome for a year, strangely enough. My environment there only changed by concept of space, colorwise, because the color is so muted...That was a big growth in my career, but they were slower colorwise. When I returned to Denver I went back into very bright cheerful colors rather than the softer muted older-looking colors that I found in Rome.”
Vance Kirkland-Bio-Studio
Vance Kirkland
1975
Villa dei Misteri, 1956, by Vance Kirkland
Villa dei Misteri
1956, by Vance Kirkland,
oil paint and water on linen
48 x 36 inches
(Roman Abstraction)

Titles

The titles, many of them in Italian, such as Memorie di Pompei, Villa dei Misteri and Memorie di Villa Adriano can be used as a sort of travel log for Kirkland’s time in Italy.

Below is a 1957 portrait of Vance Kirkland in his studio in Denver with this painting behind him.

Galleria Schneider Exhibition

Rome had always been central to Kirkland’s Italian visits; he returned there again and again. Relationships established there created the opportunity for a solo exhibition of his works at the city’s noted Galleria Schneider, near the famous Spanish Steps, in October 1960. To prepare for the show Kirkland rented an apartment in the city for an extended stay beginning in the summer. Unlike earlier paintings in the series, he now completed Roman Abstractions while painting in Rome.

This letter from the Vance Hall Kirkland Papers to Kirkland from Galleria Schneider director Robert Schneider confirms the exhibition dates of October 18–29, 1960, and explains that one-man shows in Rome are much shorter than those in the United States. Hover over the letter to pause it, or double click to enlarge.

The cover image of the exhibition catalog, Villa Imperiale, was a favorite of the artist.

"Kirkland once remarked to me that he was very proud of this painting and that he thought it was one of the greatest Roman Abstractions he had done."
Hugh Grant
Hugh Grant
Founding Director & Curator

Galleria Schneider Catalog Interior

Galleria Schneider Paintings

Kirkland’s Galleria Schneider exhibition of 12 paintings included six of the paintings he had recently completed in Rome, and a half dozen earlier works, including Nebulae Abstractions, brought from Denver for the show. Kirkland Museum owns eight of them; the Denver Art Museum owns one and the remainder are in private collections. 

These are the 11 images we have of paintings in the exhibition:

Following the Galleria Schneider exhibition, Kirkland left Rome and continued on a year-long trip which took him around the world, from Europe through the Middle East and into India and Southeast Asia. The Roman Abstractions were left behind for a new series of Asian Abstractions based on his experiences there. Kirkland returned to Italy at least one more time in 1965, but by then he had moved on to his signature Dot Paintings.

Most of the above information comes from taped conversations between Vance Kirkland and Hugh Grant in 1977, which resulted in an essay in the 1978 Genesis Galleries, New York, catalog. Further expanded essays were published in the exhibition catalogs during the European tour of Vance Kirkland’s paintings, especially the Polish catalog in 1997 and Russian catalog in 2000. Additional archival materials came from Kirkland Museum’s archive and the Vance Hall Kirkland Papers, WH1062, in the Western History Collection, The Denver Public Library.

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