Denver It’s hard to talk about Clyfford Still without discussing his notorious exercise of control, both in life and in death. Arguably the first among his peers, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman, to hone a mature, monumentally scaled abstract style devoid of recognizable subject matter in the mid-1940s, the Abstract Expressionist painter chose to engage with the art world strictly on his own terms. He cut off commercial ties with Betty Parsons after his third successful show at her gallery in 1951 and insisted (as did Rothko) on a separate room for his work in the seminal 1952 exhibition “Fifteen Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art. Still came out of his subsequent reclusiveness periodically for major solo exhibitions at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo (1959), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1975) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1979), all of which he essentially selected and installed himself. These were followed by generous gifts of paintings to the same institutions, which came with unbending restrictions dictating how the works could be exhibited and prohibiting loans and reproductions.
Still’s ultimate act of control came after his death in 1980 from cancer. His will stipulated that his estate, amounting to 94 percent of his lifetime output—825 canvases, 1,575 works on paper and 3 sculptures—be bequeathed to an “American city that will agree to build or assign and maintain permanent quarters exclusively for these works of art . . . with the explicit requirement that none . . . will be sold, given, or exchanged.” Over the next two decades, his widow, Patricia Still, turned away 19 suitors—including the Whitney, MASS MoCA and the Denver Art Museum, and the municipalities of Baltimore and Atlanta—before then-mayor of Denver John Hickenlooper (now governor of Colorado) convinced her in 2004 that Denver would create a single-artist museum exactly as she and her husband had always envisioned.
On Nov. 18, the Clyfford Still Museum opens, and the public will decide for itself whether the artist’s stringent directives were worth the negative impact they’ve had on his legacy for the past three decades. Still’s status
was commanding enough in 1979 to persuade the Metropolitan to yield more space than it ever had to the exhibition of a living artist, but his reputation languished after his death. Following what she took to be his wishes, his widow, who died in 2005, would not allow scholars access to anything, not even reproductions, while the heirs of other Abstract Expressionists were active in lending to exhibitions and selling works in the marketplace at record-setting prices. Dean Sobel, director since 2005 of the Clyfford Still Museum and former head of the Aspen Art Museum, viewed Still’s placement after Larry Rivers in the chronological flow of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Abstract Expressionist New York” exhibition earlier this year as evidence of his dwindling status in the narrative of the New York School. Sobel points to oft-cited comments made early on by Still’s contemporaries as indication of his true stature in the movement. Robert Motherwell said, “Of all of us at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, Still was the most original, a bolt out of the blue.” Pollock said, “Clyfford Still makes the rest of us look academic.”
Still felt that every artist’s voice should ring clear and true, according to Sobel, who doesn’t favor the word “control,” perhaps in an attempt to soften his subject’s image. “That is embodied in the museum,” he says. “It wasn’t that Still necessarily felt he was better than the other artists,” he offers. “He thought they should all be writing the rules of their own careers. Pollock and Rothko didn’t disagree with that; they just didn’t play it as hard as Still.” Still’s first solo show in New York was in 1946 at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, which had artists—Pollock among them—give over their entire output for a salary drawn against future sales. Still considered this to be a form of indentured servitude and grew to resent the rising power of galleries, curators and critics, who he felt had very little to do with nurturing his creativity. As he began to withdraw from the art world in the early 1950s, Still—by all accounts a difficult personality—also broke off with his peers. Close in the 1940s to Rothko, who wrote the catalogue text for Still’s Art of This Century show, Still became most disappointed with him for what he perceived as Rothko selling out to commercial interests.
If Still’s uncompromising attitudes have long undermined his legacy, today he has ultimately prevailed. At a time when the Barnes Foundation has overridden the stipulations in Albert Barnes’s will to keep his collection, untouched, in his home in Merion, Penn., the Still Museum argues that it has made every effort to comply with the artist’s wishes. However, a controversy was sparked in August when Denver announced that four paintings from the estate of Patricia Still—containing artworks and the artist’s entire archive, bequeathed to the city—would be sold to raise funds for the museum’s endowment before ownership was transferred to the museum. Critics saw the move as an attempt to sidestep regulations set forth by the American Association of Museum Directors prohibiting deaccessions for such costs. Even though Patricia’s will states that “none of such works of art are ever to be sold, given, exchanged, loaned, circulated and/or otherwise disposed of at any time, for any length of time and/or for any use and/or purpose,” the city received court approval to sell the paintings, citing the fact that she herself set a precedent by selling some works in the years after her husband’s death. Denver’s move surely would have been decried by the artist but has not been blocked by representatives of the widow’s estate.
Denver awarded the consignment to Sotheby’s in mid-August, which led to a brief legal scuffle with Christie’s, which argued that it had made the better proposal. According to the terms of the Sotheby’s contract, the auction house would attempt to sell the works privately, to a public institution, by Sept. 19. If that failed, as it did, they would go on the block in a public sale this month. Their Nov. 9 auction will, for better or worse, certainly bring more attention to the museum in advance of its Nov. 18 opening.
Designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, the 28,500-square-foot, two-story Clyfford Still Museum, in textured cast concrete, was built at a cost of $29 million, all raised privately. Top donors include the Anschutz Foundation, the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and philanthropists Lanny and Sharon Martin. The building offers intimate galleries with filtered daylight on the upper level, where visitors can contemplate Still’s enormous canvases with brooding fields of color clashing in craggy masses or shot through with vertical bolts, which Still called his “lifelines.” On the first floor, the conservation studio and collection storage area are visible to the public instead of tucked away in the basement, as with most museums. Each morning, different racks in the central painting storage vault will be pulled out to show the collection in more depth.
Also on the first floor and open to visitors are the library and archive with rotating displays of items from Still’s personal papers—including a 1969 letter from the artist to William Rubin, then head of painting and sculpture at MoMA, rejecting his request for an installation shot of an exhibition because Still wanted even archival material to be considered only in the full context of his work. “We can already tell he had hatched the idea for some sort of single-artist presentation,” says Sobel. The museum has dealt with Still’s prohibition of hanging loans of works by other artists alongside his own—a routine practice at such one-person museums as those devoted to Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol and Isamu Noguchi—by planting itself in the shadow of the Denver Art Museum. There, complementary exhibitions—including a current show, on view through May 27, 2012, of Motherwell works drawn from its collection—are intended to provide art historical context for the works at the Still Museum over the long term. Proximity to the DAM also gives visitors ease of access to a café, bookstore and other amenities forbidden by the artist.
The inaugural installation at the museum—some 60 paintings, 45 works on paper and 3 sculptures, dating from 1925 to the late 1970s—was put together by Sobel and adjunct curator David Anfam, the British-born art historian who wrote his dissertation on Still in the 1970s and has published extensively on the Abstract Expressionists, including the catalogue raisonné of Rothko’s canvases. “You couldn’t ask for a tougher subject,” says Anfam, who as a graduate student wrote to Still asking for a meeting but received nothing in response. “It was entirely characteristic of him,” says Anfam. “He was a singular person and an outsider and he wasn’t going to cooperate.” Over the last four years, Sobel and Anfam have traveled to a state-of-the-art Maryland facility where all the work—with an estimated value of more than $1 billion—has been stored (for many years prior to 2004, they had been kept in Still’s barn studio without climate control). They’ve spent many marathon sessions plumbing a dizzying amount of work that only the artist and his family had ever laid eyes on. Only 200 of the paintings were stretched; some 600 others were rolled, up to three on a stovepipe, sometimes shortly after Still completed them. “We could smell the oil wafting up from the canvases,” says Sobel, who was relieved to find the paintings had withstood the less-than-ideal conservation conditions as well as they did. The works on paper offer even more uncharted territory. Fewer than 10 are in public or private collections. Yet given their copious number in the estate, they were clearly a significant part of Still’s practice.
“Now more than ever, I see that Still comes out of the West—far more so even than Pollock,” says Anfam. Still was born in 1904 in North Dakota and moved the following year with his parents, both Canadian immigrants, to Spokane, Wash. Although his Western upbringing “has become a kind of corny, mythic thing,” Anfam observes, it does merit mention. “He’s painting from the age of 15, at least a thousand miles away even from the heartland, already doing his own thing out there with not a lot to look at. It’s not as though he’s got the Metropolitan Museum on his doorstep.” In 1911, Still’s father, an accountant, received a grant from the Canadian government giving him land on the prairies of Alberta. Still grew up watching his father struggle to establish a wheat farm there, even in the face of periodic droughts, from 1917 to 1926. Still, who studied poetry and the old masters in art books as a teenager, was always reticent to reveal his early biography. But Henry Hopkins, director of SFMOMA when Still exhibited there in 1975, and one of the few people in the art world trusted by Still late in life, once recounted a rare personal tidbit: “Still’s father was locked in mortal combat with the forces of nature. . . . The battle was lost.”