Nationally Important Decorative Arts Collection Kirkland Museum celebrates the decorative arts movements of Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Glasgow Style, Wiener Werkstätte, De Stijl, Bauhaus, Art Deco, Modern and Pop Art, with over 3,300 objects on view. This modernist collection focuses on objects from 1880 to 1975.
Colorado Modernist Collection More than 170 artists are represented by over 700 works on view, revealing the vibrant 20th-century art history of Colorado. Like the decorative arts collection, this collection is mainly concerned with modernist art from 1890 to 1975.
Long before the 1957 Sputnik Satellite, the Apollo moonwalk and the Hubble Telescope, Kirkland portrayed far away galaxies and nebulae. His space environments, from the last half of his career, are not something seen through a telescope; they are brilliant abstractions of the ideas of energy, vast distances, long durations of time, and mysteries of outer space. Kirkland commented: “The paintings may suggest ideas of time and space. I think a great deal about what could have happened and how little we know about the universe in which we live, and the fragment of time that can be called known history of this earth. … I am trying to paint something I do not know exists in a tangible way… If I am looking at space, who is going to say it never existed? It has existed in my mind.”
Just as Kirkland invented his own cosmos, the challenge of depicting these unearthly subjects drove him to invent his own painting techniques and media. He used these to dramatically portray bubbling, extra terrestrial surfaces, colliding, kinetic worlds and stars in the grip of nuclear fusion. Kirkland had been a master watercolor painter for 27 years when he discovered he could mix oil and water together to give textured, cratered, alien-looking surfaces on his paintings, unlike any other abstract expressionist painter. Likewise, he found that mixing his watercolor paint with denatured alcohol would give him strange resist patterns.
Years later Kirkland started using dots of oil paint using wooden dowels to further break up the surface and to interact with the oil and water forms underneath. To physically accomplish his large abstract paintings, Kirkland would lay across four straps hanging from the ceiling and paint downward on the painting, which was on a table.
Prior to Kirkland’s cosmic paintings, in his notable Surrealism period, he portrayed his own evolutionary theories. While climbing Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Kirkland became fascinated with living, struggling plants growing beside and out of rotting, deadwood shapes represented life and death cycles to him. He not only captured details of these eerie scenes, he often brought deadwood back to life where a rootform or tree limb has eyes, legs and claws. Leaves sprout wings and fly, or dance together in a ghostly hoedown on a Colorado prairie. Kirkland was so sad at the carnage of World War II that he did a series of paintings where he reduced humans to small, naked cave people and placed them among his large deadwood environments. Kirkland is artistically saying that when humans kill each other, they have not progressed beyond our savage, pre-historic ancestors. In another series of paintings, he outlined and pressed broken pieces of glass upon his paintings’ wet oil surfaces, to represent shattered dreams and fragmented worlds.
Kirkland's old studio has now become the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art. Kirkland has been adopted as a symbol of Denver with three of his works in Boettcher Symphony Concert Hall, two in the lobby of the Denver Center Theater, two currently in Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s office, as well as two previously in Mayor Quigg Newton’s office, after whom the Auditorium Theater is named, three in Denver City Attorney Cole Finegan’s office and now three in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. There are so many facets to Kirkland’s career, with paintings having almost endless variations, that his works are not repetitious and are beloved for their beauty and energy.