Clark Richert, Colorado’s most important painter, dies at 80: “We’ll never see the likes of him again”

Clark Richert, Colorado’s most important painter, dies at 80: “We’ll never see the likes of him again”

Clark Richert, Colorado’s most important painter, a man who pioneered a first-of its-kind artist colony and used his art to model complex ideas about math and science for decades, died Friday. He was 80 years old.

“We’ll never see the likes of him again,” said Margaret Neumann, Richert’s best friend for more 60 years.

Richert — who’s survived by his partner, Barb, and three children — is revered as a groundbreaking creative force, a leading Colorado voice in abstraction, who helped inspire thousands of artists as a teacher at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.

He was still working on installations and exhibitions until the end of his life, and his art is on display in Marfa, Texas.

“Many people knew Clark as a brilliant and masterful artist, a great, wise teacher and a kind, generous man,” his partner, Barb Ittner, said in a statement. “We in his family knew him as these things too. But also as a wonderful father, husband, brother and uncle. We are heartbroken with our loss but feel so blessed to have known him and had him in our lives. He leaves a great hole in the community and in our hearts, (and) we are all better for knowing him.”

A Wichita, Kan., native, Richert grew up in a family of mathematicians and scientists and figured he would follow in their footsteps.

Intuition and analysis fuse in the paintings of Clark Richert, shown in his studio holding an enneacontahedron, a geometric form that relates to his work.

That is until his family took a trip to New York and Richert saw a Mark Rothko exhibit.

“He was overwhelmed by emotions and started to cry in the gallery,” said Rachel Beitz, co-owner of the Rule Gallery, which collaborated with Richert for 30 years. “His entire life changed in that moment.”

Richert was always thinking outside the box, his friends and students said, coming up with concepts years before they became mainstream. In 1965, he famously helped found Drop City, the legendary hippy artist colony outside Trinidad, where creative types could gather and exchange meals and ideas, unperturbed by the outside world.

“Our long-term vision was that Drop City would function as a ‘seed’ for future communities that would sprout around the world,” Richert told The Denver Post in 2009. A documentarian once called Richert’s experiment “the best example of the potential and perils of trying to build an alternative culture in America that I’ve ever come across.”

Although Richert never became a mathematician or scientist, his work was influenced heavily by their ideas and theories — in addition to local folklore and environmental science.

“He was very much a multidimensional thinker,” said Amy Harmon, a longtime friend who helped Richert put together one of his final projects, a sculpture and light installation in Denver. “Some people think there’s two, three dimensions; he said, ‘I happen to think there’s 13 dimensions.’”

He had the unique ability to transform high-brow concepts into art that even the lay person could still understand.

“The work is a mesmerizing pleasure to look at, yet the bulk of it is rooted in numerical theories most people would find confounding,” The Denver Post’s art critic, Ray Mark Rinaldi, wrote in 2013. “Richert gives shape, color and personality to the most difficult spatial concepts.”

The artist also made his mark on countless students over the years who went  through the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.

Richert subscribed to the Socratic method of teaching — talking with students, opening up ideas and helping the prospective artists arrive at their own conclusions, said Jason Hoelscher, a former student who considered Richert a mentor and close friend.

“Clark had a real ability to help you see things that were there but you hadn’t noticed were there,” he said. “He had a really rich approach to the way the world worked.”

That meant fostering a collaborative environment, something that remained a core value in his life.

“He always thought people were better together,” Beitz said.

Richert’s sculpture Quadrivium was installed in 2020 on East 20th Street near Glenarm Place. (Daniel Tseng, Special to The Denver Post)

Neumann met Richert as a 19-year-old on the University of Colorado campus and immediately knew he was the hippest person she had ever met. Over the years, they became like siblings, bickering and bantering and laughing.

“He was so different from anyone I’d ever met,” she said.

A hallmark of their friendship over the years was a Friday night movie club. Before the pandemic they would go and see foreign films — Korean, Japanese or Native Americans films that took place far away from Hollywood.

“He always wanted to see something unusual,” Neumann said.

Richert was such a unique individual, friends said, because he was original but didn’t carry any of the ego or arrogance. He wanted to lift all boats, not breed competition.

“Clark was a person who had no enemies; he had no foes,” said Valerie Santerli, director and co-owner of the Rule Gallery. She spent Christmas with the artist and his family for the past decade. This year, however, she had nowhere to be.

“There’s not a single person who didn’t love and appreciate what he had to offer,” Santerli said.

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