Crystalline forms hanging in space, fragmentary diagrams juxtaposed against strange organic blobs, all meticulously rendered in soft, ashen neutrals and jewel-like primary colors: no wonder curator Gwen Chanzit writes of “deciphering” Herbert Bayer’s “anthology” paintings. These ravishing and yet cryptic works, on display at the Denver Art Museum through December 31, 2010, do not give up their secrets easily. However, before you can decipher them, you have to find them.
Pieces from the DAM’s Bayer collection – approximately 8,000 pieces, the largest public collection of this artist’s work – are displayed on a revolving basis in the lower level of DAM’s Hamilton Building, in an awkwardly shaped lobby at the foot of an unobtrusive stairway. Even on a rainy Saturday in June, I had the Bayer exhibit all to myself, except for two docents who came down to see it after they’d been unable to give me directions.
The exhibit consists of a handful of large paintings, plus a number of smaller studies, the latter clustered near the elevators and along a sloping corridor leading to basement service areas. The geometric regularity of the paintings and drawings, all square in format, provides a noticeable contrast to their sharply angled, somewhat haphazard, setting.
There’s a contrast as well between the scope of Bayer’s career and the very modest space afforded him by the museum. Student and then teacher at the legendary Bauhaus school, Bayer exercised his talents in fields as diverse as typography, architecture, and sculpture. He designed covers for Harper’s Bazaar, and applied his graphic talents to toothpaste and nose drops, moving easily from the cultural hothouse of Weimar Germany to the postwar corporate America of Don Draper. Bayer settled in Aspen, Colorado, after industrialist Walter Paepcke enlisted his help in turning the near-derelict mining town into an upscale resort. His long residence in Colorado explains the gift of his work to the DAM, though the “anthology” paintings are the product of his final decade, spent in California.
As Chanzit notes, these works from the last years of Bayer’s life possess a “handmade look, subtle tones, soft textures.” Here the clean-cut forms of atomic-age design are rendered with the loving care and intimacy of Old Master drawings. At the end of his career, Bayer seems to have embarked on a personal exploration of the colors, shapes, and techniques he had applied in so many different settings across six decades, engaging in a kind of “deep play” with the basic elements of his visual language. In “anthology graph iii” (1980), a bold red triangle bisects the picture plane, and is itself bisected by a narrow yellow line; the form reads as flat, but on closer inspection teasingly suggests a road receding into space (though upside down). A carefully balanced network of black and white lines anchors the triangle to the picture plane. The only other suggestions of depth are in the exquisite grayscale shading of three small forms composed of curves and triangles. A reversed yellow “C” balances one of these forms, and a shape boldly striped in blue and white balances another. Jagged red lines recalling an EKG add further symmetry. The red of the triangle and the ethereal blue that surrounds it are subtly dappled, softening the composition and reminding us that these machine-sharp images were created by a human hand.
The subject matter often recalls student exercises such as tonal scales or studies in perspective. In the painting “iconograph of a day” (1978), Bayer arranges these elements against a background of soft, stippled, gray intersected by thin red lines. A fan-like form recalling a nautilus shell or the Golden Spiral of classical geometry dominates the foreground, its triangular planes subtly shaded in tones of brown; a thin triangle in similar browns sits at the upper edge. This and other elements of the painting recall the informational graphics used in atlases and textbooks. (Bayer did, in fact, design a World Geographic Atlas published in 1953). At the right hand edge, a stylized bell curve shaded white, blue, and green recalls a snow-capped mountain. Delicate flame-like forms in primary red and blue flicker in the lower left corner; geometric solids suggest three-dimensional space, while blackened curves and circles evoking cut paper along the painting’s margins remind us that this is a flat surface.
Bayer’s studies for the larger works reveal just how intricately and consciously designed these works are. “study for ‘Radiation II” (1981), is actually done on graph paper. “Study for ‘Large Anthology’” (1978), a work in pencil, colored pencil, and collage on tracing paper, is covered in tiny handwritten notations, some precise (measurements such as 16.8”, 5.2”), some more vague (“larger”, “color?”, and “?” ). Yet, as the question marks indicate, Bayer wanted to leave room for imagination, intuition, and memory. Chanzit notes that one possible source for his geometric imagery were the old school notebooks of a classmate; another work from 1981, possibly utilizing these, was entitled “Geometry Homework II”.
The colors in these studies, applied as acrylic washes, are even more luminous and intense than those in the larger works on canvas. In the aptly named “Tenebrity” (1977), figures in brilliant ultramarine blue glow against a shadowy black background. “Secrets of Geometry” (1979), a highly finished work on paper, places interlocking V-like forms recalling Bayer’s experiments with typography against a hot orange background with painterly tinges of coral and ripe melon. An untitled work on paper from 1982 suggests a window into space with a subtly graded wash of sky-blue at the upper margin. A volumetric white form, suggestive of a swirl of drapery or a trompe-l’oeil scrap of paper in a painting of a much older school, hovers against this “sky.” A thin ruler-like rectangle picked out in black and yellow divides this fictive space from a collection of geometric figures in bright jewel tones arrayed on the naked paper.
Bayer’s “anthology” of colors and forms amply repay the viewer’s time and attention. One only wishes they had more room in which to unfold their secrets.