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About Modernist West

The American West has inspired generations of artists. From the first Europeans exploring the west beyond the Mississippi River in the 19th century came romantic paintings of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, and the Native Americans.  The grandeur and vastness of the scenery and the spirit of these art pioneers ignited the public’s imagination. The American West came to symbolize individuality and freedom. 

Modernist West is a collection of painting and sculpture by artists who worked in the American West during the 20th century. The collection is focused on the progression of modernism beginning with the New York Armory Show in 1913 and culminating in abstraction after World War II. The artists working in Colorado were energized by the pioneering spirit and grand vistas of the American West. They combined this remarkable inspiration with elements of French Impressionism and German Expressionism to create a uniquely American art form.  

Colorado has long been at the crossroads of rapid social, economic and cultural change in America. The discovery of gold triggered the Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1859 with prospectors seeking to make their fortunes. Railroads were built to carry pioneers westward to homestead, and return ore, livestock and produce to market. Colorado artists, many of whom studied in France, were deeply influenced by French Impressionism. They captured the natural beauty and prosperity of the American West.

The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression brought hard times. The federal government funded public works with Social Realist murals of hardworking Americans in stylized forms.  WPA-era programs supported artists with mural work during this challenging period. The rise of fascism in Europe exiled many renowned artists to America. Hans Hofmann, Max Beckmann, Herbert Bayer, Werner Drewes, Joseph Albers, and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy taught a new generation of American artists the principles of abstraction.

Troops were stationed at military bases across the West during World War II, and many decided to remain after the war. The war effort produced the Manhattan Project, Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and Rocky Flats Plant. The atomic bomb played a critical role at the end of the war, with technology becoming a driving force of the postwar economy. Technology fostered greater economic, social and geographic mobility. By the end of the war, young artists were able to study art at universities funded by the GI Bill. They adopted elements of German Expressionism to create Abstract Expressionism. They embodied the artistic freedom and creativity of postwar America. 

In the process, the focus of art shifted from Europe to America, and from the academy to the university. Modernist West includes examples of this unique body of work to foster an appreciation of modern art in Colorado.


+ Photography by Marcia Ward, The Image Maker, Denver, CO

+ Biographies by Stan Cuba, Associate Consulting Curator, Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art