I’m kind of in love with the Denver Art Museum’s recently reopened Martin Building. The DAM’s headquarters since 1971, and formerly known as “the North building” or “Ponti”, the Martin is dazzling.
The newly added Sie Welcome Center with its round, glass-walled pavilion draws you in from the street. Once inside, you find yourself in a very long, light-filled hall (Duncan Hall). Immediately to the right and left are restaurant options — the Ponti and Cafe Gio. A few steps further is the welcome desk. Once you’ve checked in, walk past the desk and look up at the newly installed ceiling. Is that sunlight filtering through those openings? Is it a stylized view of a nighttime skyline? It also evokes the exterior of Gio Ponti’s building design.
Walk a little further and meet the new grand staircase — sinuous, sublime white terrazzo. You’ll want to put your hand on the railing and climb those stairs, but not just yet. Walk past the staircase and look up again. The filtered light ceiling opens up and a huge skylight offers a view of the original glass-tile exterior of the seven-story Ponti building. It is Italian architect Gio Ponti’s only completed project in North America. See how the tiles reflect the light, depending on the time of day.
Continue to the end of Duncan Hall to the Special Exhibitions Gallery to visit ReVisión: Art in the Americas. One of the Martin’s first exhibitions brings together ancient and contemporary objects from the DAM’s Ancient American and Latin American Art collections. It’s a treat to see different artists working in all different media telling the story of how the Americas and ancient cultures influence the present. Among my favorite objects are Encontro das Aguas (Meeting of Waters) by Clarissa Tossin. The installation is woven vinyl pieces showing the meeting of the brown waters of the upper Amazon River and the black waters of the Rio Negro, near one of Brazil’s largest manufacturing towns, and home to many global companies. Not only is it visually engaging, it just makes you think! Another set of works that really stoked my curiosity is found near the end of the exhibit. It is the Set of Casta Paintings by Francisco Clapera. The paintings were done in Mexico in the late 1700’s and shows the race mixing between Europeans, Africans and Natives.
After viewing ReVisión: Art in the Americas, take the elevators up to the seventh floor. Step into the Western American Art Galleries. The expanded space allows for better viewing of many large works. Along with old favorites, especially from the Taos school, I was drawn to the colors of an abstract painting from 1961 called Springtime in the Mountains by Ethel Magafan. It’s the first time I’ve seen this displayed at the DAM, and I couldn’t stop looking at it for quite some time.
Also on this level, tucked into a quiet corner, is a gallery of studio portraits taken in Trinidad from the late 1890’s to the early 1900’s that shows the ethnic diversity of southern Colorado at the time. It didn’t occur to me that the area would have the diversity that it did at that time.
The placement of these photographs, paintings by Taos school artists, and mid-century abstraction from a woman painter all within easy viewing of one another is also a very large part of the Martin’s appeal. I love seeing all the different art work together in one space, creating dialog and allowing the visitor to make connections, and either gain more understanding of the stories of the American West, or have more questions about it. This is true for the different collection areas divided among the different floors of the Martin building. Before heading down to the 6th floor, step onto the newly opened 7th floor outdoor terraces and take in the views of Denver and the mountains. From the seventh floor, make your way down. Each floor is a different collection area. It is possible to do a quick stop on each floor if you’re focused, but I recommend coming back to visit again and taking time to look and appreciate the new galleries and the treasures displayed inside. You might want to come and just spend time on one floor, or with one artwork, or a few objects.
To make your way down from the seventh floor, I recommend taking the stairs. The door to the stairwell is next to the elevators. The large windows on each landing offer views of Denver that can only seen from that spot. You’ll also be able to see and touch the original glass tile chosen by Gio Ponti to cover the building. Each level has a different color tile. On the sixth floor, find the European Art Before 1900 Galleries, the Textile Art and Fashion Galleries and the Photography Galleries. Check out some of the abstract photos on view in the Photography Galleries. It’s fun to try and figure out what the subjects from nature are. The fifth floor houses the Asian Art Galleries. The oldest pieces in the DAM are in the Asian Art Collection. It would be easy to spend a few hours only on this floor. The collection is so rich and diverse with objects from all of Asia. For this visit, I spent time in the Japan section with the Shinto Deity. He is carved from a single tree trunk and is over a thousand years old, and remains intact! His serene expression and graceful shape make him so pleasing to look at. Also in the Japan section, look in the case of lacquerware and check out the contemporary pieces. They look shiny and new, and probably not what you’d expect when you think of a lacquer box or vessel, yet equally pleasing to behold.
I’d like to share more highlights from the other floors but after a day at the DAM I only got to spend time on the top three floors, and in ReVisión: Art in the Americas. A security guard had to tell me and my friend, as we continued to be engrossed in the galleries, that it was past 5pm and the museum was closed. We did take a break from the galleries and were able to get a table at the Ponti Restaurant. We started with the apple and parsnip soup, and share a mezze plate and a blended burger, as well as the almond cake and the coconut sticky rice for dessert. It was all good.
As a volunteer docent at the DAM, I love sharing stories about the artwork when giving tours to the public. The reinstallation of the collections is also why I’m dazzled by the Martin. I want to keep coming back to see what’s emerged from the museum’s store rooms, hear the “conversations” between the art, learn the stories — and share them with visitors.
Judith Weaver / November 9, 2021
Great article. Can’t wait to spend some time in this space. Thank you!