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.
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.
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.
In the midst of these space paintings were experiences grounded on Earth:
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
The Roman Abstractions are often intricate and densely layered compositions, distinguishing them from the simpler and scattered forms of the Nebulae Abstractions.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Galleria Schneider Catalog Interior
Galleria Schneider Paintings
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.