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Denver Opens a New Home to Clyfford Still

Click photo to enlarge. The Clyfford Still Museum opens on Friday. Photos by Raul J. Garcia

He may be the biggest name in American art history that you’ve never heard of, but a new museum in Denver is hoping to change that.

Clyfford Still was one of the country’s leading abstract expressionists of the 20th century, along with Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning and Mark Rothko. His work spanned five decades from the 1930s until the late-1970s. Born in North Dakota, Still spent much of his life in western Canada, Washington state and California, and his paintings often reflect those wide open spaces and dramatic landscapes.

Most often, Still worked on huge canvases, sometimes applying thick, jagged layers of bright paint with a palette knife over the entire surface, sometimes leaving large portions of the canvas void of any paint at all. Always, he was re-inventing the very nature of painting, said Dean Sobel, director of the new Clyfford Still Museum.

“Paintings would never look the same again,” Sobel said. “Space, Renaissance perspective, scale, so many things were reinvented.”

Despite being a leader in abstract expressionism, Still never achieved the widespread recognition that others did. That’s mostly due to the temperament of the man himself. “He did a lot of things in his lifetime to not have you know who he was, because he didn’t chase those things that brought fame and fortune,” Sobel said.

Slide show by Rebecca Jacobson.

Still was notoriously surly in his relations with dealers, museums and potential buyers. In one famous incident, Still barged into the home of a patron who owned one of his pieces and ripped up the canvas with a knife. He didn’t like the way it was displayed. Sobel said that Still grew to mistrust the politics and people of the art world and didn’t want to others to speak for him or his work.

In 1951, Still withdrew almost completely from the art world. As a result, only 6 percent of his work was ever seen in public or private collections. The rest remained in a storage facility in Maryland that only a handful of people could access. When Still died of colon cancer in 1980, his will stipulated that all of the work in his estate be given to a city that agreed to build a permanent museum exclusively for his work.

Nearly 20 cities competed to win that right. In 2004, newly-elected Mayor John Hickenlooper met with Still’s widow Patricia to begin the process of courting the estate, even though Denver had no direct tie to the artist. Hickenlooper, a strong believer in Richard Florida’s concept of “creative cities,” thought such a museum would make Denver a destination for fans of art.

After several months of negotiations, a 30-page agreement was signed, with some explicit instructions about how the museum was to be constructed and managed. There was to be no auditorium and no restaurant in the facility. Ceiling heights were detailed, along with a specific paint color for the walls (Benjamin Moore #14-4).

still2.jpgThe architect chosen by Denver to showcase the work and juggle those mandates was Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, which is based in Portland, Ore., and New York City. Cloepfil said he and his colleagues joked that they were sure lightning would strike if they didn’t do everything the fastidious Still intended. The result is a 28,000 square foot concrete bunker with storage space, offices, a conservation studio on the first floor and intimate exhibit space on the second. The ceiling is a concrete honeycomb that gently filters the bright Colorado sunshine. Many of the interior walls are also made of a rough, textured concrete. Cloepfil said he wanted the building to reflect the grounding that is evident in Still’s work and the inter-connectedness or “oneness” that Abstract Expressionists sought.

Earlier this week Hickenlooper, now governor, praised Cloepfil’s use of natural light, saying he was sure it was just what Still would have wanted. Hickenlooper, also now clearly a fan, said one of the reasons Still had sold so few of his works in his lifetime to museums was that he thought they were like morgues for the paintings. “He didn’t like that artificial light never changed. He felt that just as people change throughout a day, a painting should change and have different nuances with the changing light.”

The $29 million museum was paid for with private donations. In addition, $114.1 million was raised earlier this month from the sale of four paintings from Patricia Still’s estate. That money will fund the endowment for future operations of the museum.

Stipulations in Still’s will also dictated that all of the paintings in his estate remain together as a body of work and could not be sold, and that the work of other artists may never appear in the Still museum. Sobel says that while Still may not have pursued a widespread audience during his lifetime, he was very concerned about preserving his legacy for the future.

“He really felt there were specific ways he wanted his work to be seen. He wanted it to be seen in groups. That seeing a single picture tells you nothing practically,” said Sobel. “He was very interested in the individual voice coming through. He knew that historians and curators, people like me, always want to explain one artist by comparing him to others and he definitely did not want that.”

And with Friday’s opening of the museum, Sobel said that after 60 years of almost complete obscurity, one of America’s greatest abstract expressionists will finally get the attention long overdue.

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