Seeing Still for the First Time

The new museum dedicated to Clyfford Still in Denver presents an unprecedented sweep of his work—even as its staff continues to make more discoveries

Installation view of the inaugural exhibition. Natural light enters the galleries through a series of skylights over a cast-in-place perforated convex ceiling.


Climbing the stairs leading to the first gallery in the Clyfford Still Museum, visitors immediately confront the artist’s imperious gaze. The staging is obvious and powerful. Still’s 1940 self-portrait, hung at the top of the staircase, issues a silent command to each visitor: “When I expose a painting,” Still proclaimed, “I would have it say ‘here I am: this is my presence, my feeling, myself.’ . . . If one does not like it, he should turn away, because I am looking at him.”

Still is fully present as an artist for the first time in this Denver museum, which opened its doors in November. The artist conceived of his paintings as diary entries that, taken together, would form a unity and perhaps a synthesis. Although he vigorously rejected what he called the “sinister museum-gallery game,” he did sell or donate approximately 150 paintings during his lifetime. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo own substantial collections of Still’s work. When he died at age 75 in 1980, however, 94 percent of his production remained in his home, including 825 paintings, 1,575 works on paper, and three sculptures.

Still’s will decreed that his legacy be donated to an American city that would “establish permanent headquarters exclusively for these works of art and assure their physical survival with the explicit requirement that none be sold, given or exchanged.” The artworks, furthermore, must be retained at this site “in perpetuity for exhibition and study.”

Still’s wife, Patricia, was named his executor; after years of indecision, in 2004, she accepted an offer from the city of Denver to build the Still museum. In the years between the artist’s death and the Denver accord, Still’s ranking among the canonical Abstract Expressionists remained secure, but few exhibitions of his work were held. He became a legendary ghost, whose unknown achievement haunted two generations of art historians.

The Denver deal was sealed with a complex agreement, requiring the city to complete the project within ten years. The then Denver mayor John Hickenlooper (now Colorado governor) sold the agreement to the Denver city council with a promise that the museum would be built and maintained exclusively with private funding. In 2006, property was acquired next to the Denver Art Museum, and Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture was selected to design the museum.

The agreement with the estate was signed without detailed information about the condition of the paintings. Still rolled as many as 13 unstretched canvases at a time on cardboard tubes or metal pipes, which were stored in his home in New Windsor, Maryland. They remained in the house until 2003, when Patricia shipped them to a nearby warehouse. Conservators prepared an initial review but did not unroll most of the canvases. Happily for the museum, most of the paintings turned out to be in good condition.

“The biggest problem is planar deformation,” says Still Museum director Dean Sobel. “Basically, this means the canvases need to rest for a time on a flat surface, after being rolled up for so many years. Rolling was actually a plus in many ways. Not much oxygen or light reached the surfaces of the paintings, and they weren’t disturbed after they were stored.”

The museum’s opening exhibition, curated by British scholar David Anfam, includes more than 100 paintings and works on paper, a small percentage of what may be the largest intact collection of work by a modern artist in the world. Although Anfam and Sobel have studied photographs of all the work, they have yet to see every painting in the bequest. “It would take the floor space of a small airplane hangar to lay out all the 14-foot or 15-foot paintings remaining on the rolls,” Sobel says. “And once they are unrolled, we don’t want to risk any damage by rolling them up again. It’s frustrating, but it will be some time before we really know what we have.”

Also on view are documents and souvenirs from Still’s archives, which were still being unpacked days before the opening. “There are unknowns here too,” Sobel adds. “We’ve opened books from his library, for example, and found small drawings inside.”

The exhibition is installed chronologically in nine galleries occupying 10,000 square feet on the museum’s second floor. Ceiling heights vary from 12 feet in the gallery for early works to 16 feet in the room for the huge canvases (up to 15 feet long) of the ’70s. The space was designed to preserve specific relationships between viewer and artwork. In the first gallery, where Still’s early, easel-size paintings are hung, ceilings are lower, replicating the environments in which the paintings would have first been shown. When Still exhibited his large-scale compositions in the late ’40s and early ’50s, he typically positioned them on a wall to capture the viewer’s entire field of vision. The museum’s largest gallery, therefore, is a modestly scaled 1,200-square-foot room, where viewers can experience the engulfing effect of Still’s panoramic later abstractions.

This nuanced rapport between paintings and architecture plays out in the entire $29 million, 28,500-square-foot museum. Cloepfil envisioned the building as “something of the earth . . . a nearly geologic experience.” The exterior is a low, two-story rectangle with a strongly textured cast-concrete facade. Its unique surface was created by pressing long wooden boards at three- or four-inch intervals into wet concrete and allowing the viscous cement to ooze between the timbers, forming fractured vertical lines. The effect resembles stone ruffles that flicker with shadows and turn silver in sunlight.

Thirty–two sycamore trees were planted in the building’s forecourt to create a shaded canopy in front of the entry hall, where “something of the earth” is expressed with cement walls and small pebbles pressed into the terrazzo flooring. The walls are variously textured throughout the building to diffuse the natural light filtered though an elaborate cast-concrete ceiling, which evens out the lighting in the galleries. Designing a museum for just one man had “an excruciatingly specific quality to it,” Cloepfil observes. “Inside and out, it’s almost one construct. . . . You enter one body that holds Clyfford Still’s work.”

The primary goal of the opening exhibition is to illustrate how the pictorial logic in Still’s early figurative work evolved into the Abstract Expressionist canvases he described as “not paintings in the usual sense. They are life and death merged into a fearful union.”

The curatorial argument is by no means obvious at the beginning of the show. After a period of study at the Art Students League in New York in 1925, Still moved to Spokane, Washington, and began creating regionalist-style American Scene paintings. From 1933 to 1941, he taught painting at what was then Washington State College in Pullman, where he also completed an M.A. thesis on Cézanne.

His canvases of the early and mid-’30s represent figures with emaciated (male) or swollen (female) anatomy, huge hands, and masklike faces. Some compositions make oblique references to Christian pietàs and Nativity scenes or to Adam and Eve with the apple, although the characters are usually costumed as contemporary farmers or rural workers. Farm machinery or pitchforks function as anatomical surrogates linking hands and arm bones with the earth. The forces of gravity, in turn, pull the human forms into organic abstractions with elongated and drooping flesh.

These mid-’30s paintings may represent Still’s initial and literal ideas about integrating “figure” and “ground.” As the decade progresses, anatomical, tool, and landscape forms begin to separate and recombine like jigsaw puzzles. Still’s drawings, never on view before, suggest the dawning of new strategies by 1941. At this point he begins to reverse positive and negative spaces and define figural shapes with the ground. He also leaves behind discrete
contours in favor of more fluid compositions in which figures and environments interpenetrate.

“By 1941, space and the figure in my canvases had been resolved into a total psychic entity,” Still recalled, “freeing me from the limitations of each, yet fusing into an instrument bounded only by the limits of my energy and intuition. My feeling of freedom was now absolute and infinitely exhilarating.”

Still’s writings suggest that this exhilaration was prompted by initial success in his fierce campaign to escape from art history. While his figures from the ’30s owe a debt to José Clemente Orozco, and his early abstractions to Miró and other Surrealists, these references are subtle and inconclusive. “Still was essentially an autodidact,” Anfam says, “so it’s an enormous challenge to retrace his influences and his development. What his early work shows us, I think, is an evolving conception of a living presence in concrete things, and vice versa: what is human tends to get petrified, while rocks and sky become living entities. Eventually they fuse into a unique idea, something in the mind’s eye, a kind of Platonic thought that Still began to materialize with pigment on canvas.”

By 1943–44, Still’s interpenetrating grounds and figures had escaped gravity and evolved into soaring vertical abstractions realized with a palette knife. Although he favored ensembles of dark earth tones in the ’40s, the post-’30s galleries display examples in which his black, brown, and tan flames of color blow through expansive white fields like whiffs of smoke driven by the wind. Still proclaimed his ambition to “disembarrass color from all conventional associations, that is, from the pleasant, luminous, or symbolic,” yet he indulged his viewers with a gorgeous field of gold on gold, opening up to patches of soft lavender and green.

All paintings on view from the later ’40s and ’50s are the work of an exuberant virtuoso who found innovative means to integrate contrasting colors into a cohesive spatial plane and created deep and subtle chromatic effects with texture and by painting over and scraping away areas of pigment. The latest paintings in the galleries, from the ’70s, are somewhat less satisfying. Even Anfam says, “A few are a bit operatic, a development that didn’t serve him very well.” The current display represents only an introduction to Still’s private inventory, however, so definitive conclusions about stylistic development and relative accomplishment will need to be suspended until the museum has mounted several exhibitions.

The museum will be able to fund its future exhibitions with proceeds from a “regrettable,” if not unethical, sale. Contrary to the letter and spirit of Still’s bequest, four paintings destined for the museum were sold for a total of $101.55 million at Sotheby’s just before the museum opened; one of the four paintings fetched $61.6 million, almost three times the former record price for a Still canvas. The sale was sanctioned by a Maryland court, which ruled that Still’s ban on sales, at least on a one-time basis, was “impracticable.”

The museum also ducked the American Association of Museums’ ethical guidelines prohibiting the use of funds from deaccessioning for purposes other than acquisitions. Since the city of Denver was the legal recipient of Still’s collection and the museum had not formally accessioned the paintings, museum officials argued that the association’s policies did not apply.

There was no argument about the museum’s need for the money. Although $30 million was raised for Cloepfil’s building, with over 90 percent of the funds contributed by Colorado donors, resources to support the museum’s projected $2.5 million annual operating budget were negligible.

The plan devised for the sale was somewhat more nuanced than many of the museum’s critics acknowledge. Still left his wife 100 paintings and 300 works on paper for her own collection. In 1991 she put up three of her paintings at auction. One of them, 1949-A-No.1, was unsold. This was the painting that sold for $61.6 million last November. Patricia died in 2005, leaving her own collection to Denver, along with her husband’s archives. Last year, Sobel and the museum’s board (Anfam would not confirm his involvement) decided to create a small, four-canvas survey of Still’s oeuvre pegged to the unsold painting, hoping that another museum might be enticed to acquire the entire lot. But a dispute between Sotheby’s and Christie’s over which house would sell the paintings left little time for museums to consider the matter, and Sotheby’s offered a $25 million baseline guarantee, enough to ensure support for future operations.

Even if the sale can be rationalized as the necessary means to a desirable end, Still’s admirers can be rightly concerned about the prospect of future losses. Fund-raising for a one-artist museum, especially a museum focused almost exclusively on demanding abstract paintings, will obviously pose an ongoing challenge. The Maryland court, furthermore, has granted the city “other and further relief as the nature of its cause might require.” Local art lovers and viewers with civic pride may be initially attracted to the new facility by media buzz, but will they come more than once?

Facing such headwinds, Sobel and Anfam offer different platforms for ensuring the museum’s success. Still’s uncompromising dedication to his work, in Sobel’s view, is a compelling marketing tool. “Our focus groups were captivated by this man who believed so much in what he did and made so many sacrifices because he was convinced that art was too important for compromise. He’s a much more attractive figure for local audiences than, say, Jackson Pollock,” Sobel says.

The museum also envisions collaborations with the Denver Art Museum that will attract viewers by relating Still’s work to that of his Abstract Expressionist peers. Anfam sees a much grander future for the museum. “What this collection demonstrates is that Still’s astonishing creative achievements overturn the history of Abstract Expressionism as centered in New York—the map simply must be redrawn,” he says.

“This place,” he adds, “will make real for so many people all the dry superlatives Still has inspired over the years, including my own.”

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