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Proportion and Principle – Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum



There are few museums in the world devoted to the work of a single artist—think of the Picasso Museum in Paris, Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe, Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and Donald Judd’s installations in Marfa, Texas. And now, Denver has the Clyfford Still Museum. After seven years of negotiation and construction, the 28,000-square-foot exhibition and study center opened in November 2011. Without a doubt, it is another jewel in the city’s significant and sophisticated civic crown, representing a successful partnership between public and private interests. Those unfamiliar with the story of the museum’s establishment, however, might have a few questions. Why Clyfford Still? And, why Denver? The answers reveal a fascinating and baroque story that involves a singular artist with an abiding desire to control his legacy, an eccentric one-page will, a visionary mayor, and a passionate group of donors.

The saga begins with Still himself. Not as widely known as some of his contemporaries—Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning—Clyfford Still is nonetheless one of the giants of Abstract Expressionism, the uniquely American art movement that began after World War II and dominated the international art world for three decades. Abstract Expressionist canvasses tended to be large, enveloping the viewer (some say because the artists worked in such huge lofts). The critic Clement Greenberg called them “action painters” and, indeed, their bold painterly gestures abandoned all recognizable imagery. Still was one of the earliest painters to develop a mature style in this mode, and he is widely acknowledged as one of the movement’s most significant contributors. His friend Jackson Pollock said of him, “Still makes the rest of us look academic.”

Still’s work and teachings were extremely inf luential in California before he made the inevitable move to the East Coast. Between 1946 and 1951, he frequently commuted between California and New York, making the trip in his beloved Mark IV Jaguar. Though living in San Francisco, he was intimately aware of the work that was being done on the opposite coast. In 1951 he moved to New York City, the epicenter of the contemporary art world, the place where the Abstract Expressionists and their colleagues, dealers, friends, and hangers-on painted and talked, argued and painted.

Living by a self-styled set of Calvinist-like principles, Clyfford Still was one of the most exacting and cantankerous of the Abstract Expressionists. He tightly controlled who bought, showed, and collected his work. He once even gloated that he had deliberately sold New York’s MoMA an inferior copy of a piece in which they had expressed interest as revenge for not choosing the painting he actually wanted them to buy.

Painting was a serious matter for Still. “These are not paintings in the usual sense,” he wrote, “they are life and death merging in fearful union. As for me, they kindle a fire; through them I breathe again, hold a golden cord, find my own revelation.” These emotional extremes are evident in his thickly troweled, almost violent slashings of color and in his work’s immense space and sheer size. For example, PH-247 (1951), which currently hangs in the museum, is a giant blue beauty at a full 16 feet by 10 feet. It doesn’t just envelope viewers; it nearly devours them.

Still was also powerfully articulate. When he believed they were not living up to his ideals, he used this skill to eviscerate critics, potential collectors, art galleries, museum curators, dealers, and even his own contemporaries. He is the only artist to refuse an invitation to the Venice Biennale, citing the artistic and political “machinations of such exhibitions.” He ruthlessly cut ties with friends such as Rothko and Barnett Newman when he felt they were selling out to the art establishment. He once went so far as to visit a friend’s house and cut his own painting out of its frame because he objected to the way it was displayed. Then there is the famous rant to a critic whose review he detested. He mailed her a scathing letter along with a pair of rubber pants.

After a decade in New York, Still and his wife, Patricia, moved to a farm in rural Maryland. It was a retreat from the art world he had come to despise, but hardly retirement: Still continued to paint and carefully orchestrate the dissemination of his work. He would appear at intervals that, in retrospect, seem calculated to keep him in the public eye—but just enough.

Shows of his works were mounted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. He maintained his connection with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. There were solo shows at the San Francisco MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both essentially curated by Still himself. He even went so far as to dictate the color for the wall paint—Benjamin Moore White No. 14-4.

Astonishingly, during his lifetime only 150 paintings were sold to collectors or gifted to institutions. At the time of his death in 1980, over 94 percent of his life’s work was carefully preserved in his Maryland studio. Much of it had not been seen since early in his career and equally as much had never been exhibited or seen at all. Nor would they be any time soon. All of the 2400 works in the estate—roughly 825 paintings and 1575 works on paper, estimated to be worth in excess of $1 billion—were shut off from public view and scholarly study.

Clyfford Still’s one-page will was calculated to preserve his legacy in exactly the manner he chose. As emphatic in death as he was in life, Still decreed that all his artwork comprising his entire estate be given to an American city willing to construct “permanent quarters exclusively” for the complete collection and to “assure their physical survival with the explicit requirement that none of these works of art will be sold, given, or exchanged, but are to be retained . . . in perpetuity for exhibition and study.”

There were, of course, many municipal suitors for this collection, but circumstances—and a bit of luck—brought it to Denver. As she grew closer to her 80th birthday, Patricia Still, sole executor of her husband’s estate, reached out to her nephew, Curt Freed, a research physician who lives and teaches in Denver. She asked him to explore the possibility of locating the collection in that city.

Part of her interest was undoubtedly the fact that Denver ref lects many of the values that Still himself admired: It is distinctly western, but with a newness that encompasses a forward-looking civic ethos. It is also a city perched between towering mountains and the American short grass prairie, echoing Still’s own upbringing in North Dakota, Canada, and eastern Washington.

In 2004 Denver’s newly elected mayor, John Hickenlooper— along with Freed and members of Denver’s Office of Art, Culture, and Film—brokered a deal with Patricia Still to designate Denver as the home of both the Clyfford Still and Patricia Still estates. Sadly, Patricia would not live to see their dream manifest: she died the following year at the age of 85. The city acquired the land, and with the broad participation of multiple partners, city government, the Denver Art Museum, and many founding members of the museum, raised $29 million to fund the project. However, museums require an on-going source of funds to perpetuate their work of scholarship, preservation, curatorial responsibilities, and operating expenses. To enable the museum to carry out these responsibilities, four paintings from Patricia’s private collection of her husband’s work were sold at auction, raising a staggering $111.4 million and ensuring that Clyfford Still’s wishes would be honored in perpetuity.

It was good fortune that Hickenlooper, now governor of Colorado, was well versed in the ideas of the urban theorist Richard Florida. Florida’s recipe for a vital city is the deliberate cultivation of a rich cultural center—one that draws residents and visitors to live, work, visit, and use the city center. Hickenlooper had similar visions for Denver, and today the concept seems to be working. The Civic Cultural Center Complex comprising the Denver Art Museum’s two eclectic buildings, the complex forms of the Michael Graves–designed Denver Public Library, and the esplanades and outdoor spaces connecting them with the Clyfford Still Museum are crowded even mid-week. Lofts, work spaces, boutiques, galleries, and restaurants continue to replace many of the district’s parking lots and dilapidated old buildings. Brad Cloepfil of Portland’s Architectural Alliance was chosen to design the museum, although Still, ever in control, had specific stipulations concerning its function. For example, although the sale of books and postcards would be allowed, there could otherwise be no cafe, auditorium, or store. As a result, the Clyfford Still Museum may be the only one in the world where one cannot buy a tote bag.

Because the museum is home to such a large body of work, at any given time only a small number of pieces are shown in carefully curated exhibitions. The current show, mounted by the museum’s director, Dean Sobel, and adjunct curator, David Anfam, is the fourth since its opening.

It is easy to imagine that Still would admire Cloepfil’s design, for the artist’s paintings rest beautifully in the spaces. Deeply textured, poured in place, board-formed concrete walls define the grounded, boxy structure. It sits with quiet strength in the shadow of the enormous titanium-clad bird shapes of the Denver Art Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind. The two buildings complement each other and will do so even more once the grove of sycamores planted at the Clyfford Still Museum’s entrance matures.

A deeply shaded reception area greets visitors on the first f loor, which also houses conservation studios and displays of various Clyfford Still artifacts, including his palette knives. Upstairs, nine rectilinear galleries unfold in a graceful rhythm. First come three smaller rooms filled with work from the 1930s that illustrate Still’s evolution to pure abstraction. Then the galleries open to reveal perfectly proportioned larger rooms that exhibit his enormous paintings on soaring walls under beautifully controlled natural light.

The ceiling is comprised of a series of oval perforations, set on the diagonal, that are controlled by light-sensitive shades that respond to the day’s continual shifts in illumination. Enhanced by straightforward incandescent lighting, they ensure that Still’s works are seen under the most optimal of conditions. Two outdoor terraces shaded by cedar slats and planted with native grasses offer visual and physical respite from the explosive energy of the paintings.

The sight lines from gallery to gallery are spectacular, allowing viewers to experience isolated paintings from a great distance. Cloepfil had the enviable task of knowing exactly what these galleries were to display. He knew their scale and he knew their power. His is a pitch-perfect home for Clyfford Still’s monumental work. Lucky Denver. Lucky us.