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Denver's Highway Icon Celebrates 30 Years

Herbert Bayer, articulated wall, 1985.  Prefabricated concrete, painted, with vertical steel support;  85 ft. high.  Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive, Denver Art Museum; gift of Century Court   Associates, Ltd.

Herbert Bayer in his studio, Montecito, California, ca. 1981.

Herbert Bayer, 1982.

Bayer's articulated wall might just be the most-seen work of public art in Denver.

Three decades after its installation, Herbert Bayer's articulated wall in Denver continues to transform a short stretch of I-25 into an amusing, ennobling, oft-unexpected art gallery for passing motorists.
It's been humorously described as resembling dozens of packs of Juicy Fruit gum stacked-up, slightly askew, atop each other. Or cheese sticks. Or a French fry.

The yellow articulated wall rises from the grounds of the Denver Design Center, just off of South Broadway in Baker. Thousands of commuters on I-25 and light rail lines see the 85-foot-tall sculpture every day.

Due to the heavy traffic, the articulated wall is arguably the most frequently viewed work of art, on a daily basis, ever conceived by Herbert Bayer, a design genius who left Europe, eventually becoming one of Colorado's most noted artists during his nearly three decades here.

Herbert Bayer in his studio, Montecito, California, ca. 1981.As a young man, Bayer apprenticed under architects in his native Austria and in Germany, before enrolling, at age 21, at the influential German art school the Bauhaus in 1921. Bauhaus practitioners advocated art and craft working together in harmony, bringing their own unique takes on aesthetics to not only fine art, but also to everyday consumer objects and advertising. (Rapper/businessman Kanye West recently name-checked the Bauhaus as a source of inspiration.)

Bayer mingled with famous teachers such as architect Walter Gropius and painter Wassily Kandinsky and would later teach at the Bauhaus, himself. However, unlike most of his fellow instructors and students, Bayer fully embraced Bauhaus principles in an incomparable variety of media and forms. He's been described as an "artistic polymath" and the "Bauhaus exemplar" due to his accomplishments in, for instance, photography, painting, exhibition design, architecture, graphic design and typography (Bayer even created his own font that did away with upper-case lettering, and he often eschewed capitalization in his own writings).

"No other Bauhaus artist practiced the full range of art and design that Herbert Bayer did," says Gwen F. Chanzit, curator of the Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) and the author of From Bauhaus to Aspen: Herbert Bayer and Modernist Design in America. "He was really able to fulfill the Bauhaus dream of 'total design.'"

Although the Museum of Modern Art would exhibit a collection of the Bauhaus' work, assembled and artistically arranged by Bayer in 1938, not everyone saluted their output: Bauhaus artists, including Bayer, were reviled as practitioners of "degenerate art" by the Nazis -- even though Bayer, never a National Socialist and married to a Jewish woman, had worked on several propaganda projects funded by the German state. After emigrating to New York City in 1938 with his family, Bayer went on to create stylized posters to aid the American war effort of the 1940s.

Westward move

Life in the Big Apple proved, over the long haul, to be depressing for Bayer. He wrote in 1943, "I am not living. I only drag myself along, unhappy, sad and unsmiling." After being beckoned in 1945 to visit the then-relatively unknown mining town of Aspen by a major industrialist, a fan of his work, Bayer eagerly chose to resettle in Colorado the very next year.

Aspen surely must have reminded Bayer of his native Austria, and he thrived in the isolated environment in which in which he could indulge in, not only his art-making, but also, as he put it, "my attachment to nature, the outdoors, mountaineering and skiing."

While living in Aspen, Bayer designed the ski resort's early advertisements. Bayer also literally changed Aspen's landscape: He was the first contemporary artist to create molded-earth land art in 1955 with his grass mound. Additionally, Bayer designed buildings for the Aspen Institute, menus for the Hotel Jerome and aspen-leaf jewelry, and he co-established the Aspen Design Conference at which artists, designers, and corporate chieftains held powwows.

To this day, The Aspen Institute bears the multimedia imprint of his "head, heart and hand" (to borrow from the title of one of his early pieces). Chanzit describes one of his unique contributions there: "He made a 'kaleidoscreen' -- a sculpture with painted louvers that move by means of a hand crank, to redirect wind and sun, providing a better experience for someone sitting by the pool."

Olympic commission

It was also while living in Aspen that Bayer received a commission for a piece to be installed south of the border. The articulated wall in Denver is actually a taller version of a similar sculpture that Bayer designed for the highway leading into the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Bayer intended the sculpture to be viewed by motorists, rather than by observers standing next to it as if it were in a gallery. Which makes the site of Denver's wall, next to the highway, fitting.

Herbert Bayer, articulated wall, 1985.  Prefabricated concrete, painted, with vertical steel support; 85 ft. high.  Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive, Denver Art Museum; gift of Century Court Associates, Ltd.The articulated wall appears as a thin, sprightly, zigzagging strip when viewed from its side, a somewhat awkward, ribbed, upright rectangle when approached from head-on. But amazingly balanced and attractive three-quarter views present themselves -- standing-out especially when the sun illuminates the rectangular ends of the beams. Different times of the day provide commuters with different optical permutations, highlighting various angles and shadings. At nighttime, the lighting at its base provides eerie shadowing against the wall's canary-colored ridges. Don't like a momentary view of it, as you travel along? As they say about the weather in Colorado: Wait a second, it'll change.

At the Denver Art Museum, visitors can see a small sculpture of the articulated wall, in addition to other Bayer objects. Due in large part to Bayer and his family's generosity, DAM maintains a collection of around 8,000 pieces of Bayer's work, including design plans, paintings, and brilliantly-surreal photomontages (some with eyes superimposed onto hands or onto trees).

"We have the largest Bayer collection in the world, along with an extensive archive," says Chanzit, noting that scholars of Bayer and the Bauhaus from all over the globe travel to Denver to access it. A rotating exhibit of Bayer's art is always on display on the lower level of the DAM's Frederic C. Hamilton Building.

The articulated wall at the Denver Design Center, which belongs to the Denver Art Museum, was dedicated in 1985. It's the same year that the 85-year-old artist died in California, after moving to the Santa Barbara area in the '70s for health reasons. Bayer was too ill at the time to be on site in Denver for its assemblage, which incorporated an aircraft carrier's refueling mast up the center and, at least according to the Denver Design Center's website, 1,000 tons of concrete -- making, quite literally, for some heavy-duty art. But as Chanzit explains, "So much contemporary sculpture is done by fabrication teams. It was designed by him in his studio at twice the scale of the one in Mexico City, and constructed onsite under the supervision of his studio assistant."

Bayer wrote (in his typical typographic style) in 1968: "i have long considered the highway an issue worth the attention of the artist . . . up to this point we have only known how to disgrace a highway with advertising."

Herbert Bayer: 1938-1974 New York and Aspen Paintings is on display at the Denver Art Museum through April 16, 2017.

Read more articles by Gregory Daurer.

Gregory Daurer is a Denver-based freelance writer and singer-songwriter, whose credits include 5280, WestwordSalon, Draft and High Times. He's also authored the novel A Western Capitol Hill.
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