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Not Pretty Pictures, but Painted Ideas

Painted in the 1950s before space exploration, "Dark Frontier" is a big, brooding canvas inspired by the night sky - a deeper mystery then, before anyone knew how silent and black space really was.

Although classically abstract with swooping patches of dark and light (the stark contrast suggesting the boundaries between wilderness and knowledge), Ruth Todd's "Dark Frontier" is a landscape of the imagination - her dramatic expression of what space might be like.

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"Dark Frontier" is one of 20-plus canvases painted as part of Todd's "Universal Series" - abstract landscapes inspired by her late husband's interest in astronomy. Like the rest of humanity 40 years ago, Todd and her husband would gaze at the night sky, wondering what secrets it really held. By mixing glue and paint, Todd experimented with texture, creating these tactile pieces that became worlds unto themselves. Pock-marked and ridged, they presaged the lunar landscape as well as the black infinitude of space. Todd's "Universal Series" was her way of responding to those nighttime musings of long ago.

"People would ask me," Todd explains impishly, " 'Why do you think it is black out there?' Then when the astronauts came back and said, 'You haven't experienced blackness or silence until you experience deep space,' it turns out, I was right. I always felt space was infinite."

Todd was a student of Robert Motherwell, and her canvases reside in countless collections and have been exhibited in some 30 museums and galleries - including two one-woman shows in New York in 1958 and 1962.

A recent retrospective at the Mackey Gallery in Denver, spanning five decades, displayed a sweeping range of work - from the tiny impressionistic New Mexico landscapes she crafted in the 1940s to the towering canvases she painted in response to the Vietnam War - her tour de force "Image Series." Although stylistically fickle, Todd's work carries the unifying threads of unflinching innovation and dauntless hope. It's a body of work with dazzling points of brilliance.

One of those points is "The Finalist." Painted as part of her "Image Series" in the 1960s, "The Finalist" represents the last person on earth - a powerful warning of cold-war apocalypse. For this series, Todd again used her mossy background of sawdust and glue, but daringly added strips of linen and paint, shaping them into haunting bas relief figures. While this technique is familiar to the contemporary viewer, when Todd crafted these dramatic canvases years ago, her use of media was bold and original.

"I was very early in doing bas-relief work with mixed media," Todd says. "It didn't dawn on me back then that it was as good as it was."

"The Finalist" stands out from a swirling miasma of blues, projecting from the canvas in subtle yellows and bronzes. Arms stretched wide in an attitude of yearning, this mummified, alienated figure is as frightening and existential an image as anything in Kafka - a timeless reminder that we must be proper stewards of this good earth.

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The strength of her "Universal" and "Image" series should have made Todd's name, but she has yet to see her work purchased by a museum and she's been overlooked by critics. Whether she is a victim of her time - a female abstract expressionist trying to make her voice heard from the West - or her own stylistic caprice is a matter of speculation. As this wispy woman says, her native North Carolina accent still seeping through after years in Colorado: "Part of it was that I was a woman, and a woman wasn't supposed to paint big dark canvases. And I did get criticized for working in different directions. But when I have an idea, I work it out until I'm satisfied with it.

"I think it's a pity when an artist is recognized for a style and becomes afraid to develop in different directions. If you keep repeating ideas, your work just dies or goes by the wayside. I think to keep fresh, you need to go from one thing to another. You don't have to change technique, but you have got to grow as you go along."

To this day, Todd, now in her 80s, continues to innovate. Her most recent work, a series of tiny paint-rag collages, are as fresh and spirited as Rocky Mountain spring - chosen and embellished from her paint and rag pile for their harmony of composition.

"I have always been intuitive with my art," she says. "I never painted to sell, and I never wanted to paint pretty pictures. I always wanted to paint ideas."

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