- United States
75 in. x 100 in.
Gift of Vance H. and Anne O. Kirkland, 1982.547
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
Vance Kirkland made more than 1,000 paintings during his 54-year career, although he got off to a bit of a rough start. Born and raised in Ohio, Kirkland attended the Cleveland Institute of Art where as a freshman he failed his watercolor class. His professors complained that Kirkland’s colors “fought” each other and did not exist in natural landscapes. After graduating, he moved to Denver, where at the age of 24 he was invited by the University of Denver to establish an art school. A few years later, he left the university and founded the Kirkland School of Art on Pearl Street in Denver, which is now the site of the Kirkland Museum. Kirkland was an active supporter of the arts community in Denver. He died in 1981.
Kirkland spent the early part of his career painting traditional landscapes. His paintings soon began to take on a more mystical appearance as he began incorporating imaginary forms into nature. Kirkland switched gears again in 1954 and spent the rest of his painting career imagining the visual possibilities of space. He said, “I think it is the unknown things that fascinated me all the way along—to visualize what might have happened billions of years ago as things exploded in the universe.”
What Inspired It
In 1954 Kirkland began painting what he called his “Energy in Space Abstractions.” At the time, much remained unknown about the conditions and quality of outer space, which left Kirkland free to depict space any way he could imagine: “My idea of trying to visualize all the things that have been happening in space over 25 billion years gives me the freedom of imagination without being tied down to any exact image of reporting nature. It may come from nature but it’s not the nature we are sure of. It’s a guess kind of nature. These are imaginary events that might have happened, not actual events.”
Kirkland liked to use contrasting colors. He chose vibrant colors that he felt captured the movement and energy that he imagined to be in space. He said, “I limit myself to those color combinations which seem to vibrate and can, therefore, form illusions of floating mysteries of explosions of energy in space.”
The cloud-like forms that Kirkland scattered across the canvas are irregular in color and shape. They might represent the aftermath of an explosion or clouds of gases floating in space.
Irregular shapes and varied color may suggest sudden movement or expansion. Areas of green that seem to seep in on the left and lower right edges might appear to some viewers as a scattering or joining of gases or energies.
Kirkland tried to create the effect of many layers, or fields of energy, in his depictions of space. Red, white, blue, orange, and yellow dots are layered over the cloud-like shapes. Kirkland kept a collection of unconventional tools, such as wooden dowels, twigs, and paint brushes with the hairs of the brush cut off, to create precise dots of contrasting colors. To paint these precise dots, Kirkland fashioned a sling that he suspended above the canvas he was working on. Lying in the sling, he hovered over the painting, moving the canvas (which he placed on top of a skateboard) beneath him so he could reach any section of the painting he wished to work on.
Kirkland’s paintings are like little universes within themselves, with no fixed points of reference, and they leave room for countless interpretations. In fact, some of Kirkland’s paintings, like this one, are not signed, while others have two signatures, so that the painting can be hung in multiple ways. Which way is up? Which way is down? How far away are we from the cloud-like shapes? Is direction even relevant in space?