Editor’s Letter | Endless Experiments

A major exhibit examines artistic passion

By Kristin Hoerth

Focused by Karen Offutt.

Focused by Karen Offutt.

This story was featured in the April 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art May 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Even if you don’t know him by his full name—Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas—you probably have a good handle on the famous 19th-century French artist: one of the founders of Impressionism; known for his pastels; painted countless ballerinas. All of which is mostly, but not entirely, true. In fact, while Degas exhibited with the Impressionists, he rejected the term and refused to be labeled as one.

That’s one of many new things I learned about the artist when I recently had the pleasure of seeing
Degas: A Passion for Perfection, the Denver Art Museum’s sprawling exhibition, which is on view through May 20. It’s the result of a collaboration with the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, England, where it debuted last fall to mark the centennial of Degas’ death in 1917, at the age of 83.

The show includes some 100 works. A few of them are the familiar, showstopping masterworks depicting the ballet, and they are exquisite. But even more memorable are the many drawings, sketches, and studies assembled here as evidence of Degas’ relentless experimentation—with processes and media and mark-making. “Do it again, ten times, a hundred times,” reads one of the quotes on the exhibit walls.

The artist endlessly, perhaps obsessively, pursued the same subjects (horses, nudes, and dancers in particular) and even the same poses. He would sometimes make a drawing, then lay it down on a clean sheet of paper and apply pressure to create what’s called a counterproof, then apply more color and shading to the counterproof. Even his sculptures were experiments, ways of working out anatomy and form, modeled quickly with whatever material he could find in his cluttered Paris studio; they weren’t cast in bronze until many years after his death. As exhibition curator Timothy Standring has written, “Degas was a restless artist—never satisfied and never finished.”

When I think of this approach in the context of today’s art world, it’s hard to imagine many artists who embrace experimentation to the same degree. Yet I see similarities in the artistic habits of some of this month’s featured artists: in Karen Offutt’s tendency to paint the same models again and again in her figurative works, for example, or in Patty Voje’s explorations of the many faces and moods of cows. It’s always fascinating to dig deeper into the methods and motivations of artists, whether they’re living in this century or not.

This story was featured in the April 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art May 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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