Clyfford Still’s will is executed with Denver museum


Clyfford Still was averse to showing his art in architectural settings that he considered either flamboyant or coldly impersonal, and he railed against anything that distracted viewers from the art itself. Brad Cloepfil, architect of the Clyfford Still Museum that was scheduled to open Friday in downtown Denver, laughs at the idea of Still as a demanding ghost, overseeing his plans.

“I just served the work, what I thought was best for that work,” a design resonant with the visceral, elemental quality of Still’s paintings, Cloepfil says. “Ideally it’s one experience — the building and the art are inseparable. Not that you notice the building the same way as the art, but the building is the atmosphere that the art breathes.”

The museum’s inaugural show presents a chronological survey of Still’s career through 60 paintings, 40 works on paper and three sculptures, many of the pieces never publicly exhibited until now. Still (1904-80) was a giant of postwar American art and a formidable character, legendary for the measures he took to protect his work from forces he deemed exploitative.


The 28,500-square-foot building stands as a quiet, self-contained counterpoint to the massive, titanium-clad shards of the Daniel Libeskind-designed wing of the Denver Art Museum next door. The Still Museum “is a very bounded, dense building, but it feels kind of ephemeral,” says Cloepfil, of Portland, Ore.- and New York-based Allied Works Architecture, selected for the job from a shortlist of top international firms. “There’s an ambiguity to it, having to do with light.”

Exterior walls of cast-in-place concrete are striated with irregular, vertical ribs that catch and absorb light, activating the surface. Inside, the concrete (both textured and smooth) is complemented by cedar panels, and most of the galleries are bathed in natural light that falls through a dynamically perforated concrete ceiling. “One of the things I was interested in was creating a context for the work that was intimate,” Cloepfil says. “The building being so condensed and introverted was meant to create that experience for the individual.”

The general outline of Still’s life has long been familiar, as are the searing words he used to describe his own work (“not paintings in the usual sense; they are life and death merging in fearful union”) and the disdainful comments he made about art writing, the public domain and museums (tomb-like edifices of “the culture state”). The new museum exists to tell, for the first time, his fully fleshed-out story, through changing exhibitions and scholarly publications (the first is expected late in 2012), to give public access to the work Still had long hidden away.

The museum’s origin story is long and deep, as full of rugged texture as the artist’s own work and marked with the same uncompromising drive that characterized his life. The tale’s defining plot point came in 1978, when the Abstract Expressionist painter drew up his will, bequeathing his extensive estate — 2,000 paintings and works on paper, most of which had never been publicly exhibited — to an American city that would build or assign permanent quarters dedicated solely to the display and study of his work. He died two years later, of colon cancer, at 75.

Over the next two decades, the artist’s widow and executor of the estate turned down some 20 municipal and institutional suitors (including San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York). In 1999, the story gained momentum when she wrote a short note to her nephew, Curt Freed, a research physician in Denver: “It just occurred to me to wonder: What would you think of having the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver? All the best, Aunt Pat.”

Dean Sobel, director of the new museum, keeps the framed letter in his office. It was the spark that led to the city’s formal agreement with Patricia Still in 2004. But clues foreshadowing the artist’s ultimate exercise of control over how his work would be accessed thread through his entire working life: In 1948, he decided to declare all of his work predating his mature style off-limits for exhibition or study; he refused (with one later exception) to show his work commercially after 1951; he imposed unusually tight restrictions (no lending, no intermingling of his works with those of other artists) on large gifts he made to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


“Still believed there was an ideal way to experience his art,” says Sobel, who came to Denver after five years as director of the Aspen Art Museum. “In most instances, he would rather it not be seen at all than to be seen inappropriately. To him, the ideal way would be to see it in groups, and not distracted by the work of other artists. I don’t think he felt this right was due only to him. There’s been a mischaracterization of Still as having a huge ego, that he felt he was better than anyone else. He felt everyone else played the game, giving in to the commercial side, to the art world as an entity, different than the world of the artist. He was going to do it differently.”

From his beginnings as an artist, Still was determined to strike an independent stance, obey no masters, retain integrity at all costs. Born in North Dakota, he grew up between Spokane, Wash., and the family’s homestead in Alberta, Canada, where harsh conditions challenged their wheat crop and hard labor was the norm. His paintings from the mid-1930s feature gaunt, depleted farmworkers, their oversized hands rimed with blood. After graduating from Spokane University, he taught at what is now Washington State University in Pullman, leaving there in 1941 to work in wartime shipbuilding industries in Oakland and San Francisco.

Over time, he abbreviated the human figures in his work until they became outlines and fragmented ciphers. Finally, overt figurative references dropped away entirely in favor of monumental fields of rough-hewn color, fissured and streaked with vertical thrusts he referred to as “lifelines.” His formative contribution to the New York School jelled, ironically, during his years teaching in Virginia (1943-45) and San Francisco (1946-51). He moved to New York briefly in 1945, and immediately became a dominant presence, showing at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery and the Betty Parsons Gallery, and developing close friendships with Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.

When he returned to New York in 1951, he continued to paint prolifically but radically limited his sales and exhibitions — turning down three invitations to be showcased at the Venice Biennale, for instance. He scorned his Ab Ex colleagues for what he considered selling out to wealth and fame. In 1961, he moved to rural Maryland, where he remained until his death, carrying on, he said, “in aloneness and with ruthless purpose.”

When Denver’s then-mayor, now Colorado governor, John Hickenlooper traveled to New Windsor, Md., in 2004 to meet Patricia Still for the first time and solicit the gift of the estate, he was taken aback by what he saw. “It was an old farmhouse, and there was hardly any furniture in it,” he recalls. “But in every room there were long rolls, like giant carpets. It was like being in a carpet warehouse, but they were all Clyfford Still paintings.”

Mrs. Still had turned down Denver’s first attempt to house the collection because, Hickenlooper says, “she got the sense that it would be an appendage to the Denver Art Museum, which was completely unsatisfactory. So we made clear that [the museum] would be a completely independent institution with complete autonomy.”


One year after finalizing the deal, Mrs. Still died, bequeathing her estate (400 works by Still, plus his archives) to the city as well. Together, the two estates comprise 94% of the artist’s total output. The paintings on canvas are hung on racks in storage vaults on the museum’s ground floor, behind huge glass doors. Staff members will pull out a new rack of paintings daily to give visitors a taste of what’s yet to be shown.

Fundraising for the museum slowed after covering the $29-million cost (all from private sources) of the land and construction, leaving only about $3 million for endowment. Museum officials made the controversial decision to sell four of the artist’s paintings, petitioning the court of Maryland to have them removed from Mrs. Still’s will. The court approved, as did representatives of both Clyfford and Patricia Still’s estates.

The paintings were first offered as a group to public institutions, to no avail, and were brought to auction by Sotheby’s this month. Smashing previous sales records for Still and far exceeding presale estimates, the four paintings brought in more than $114 million, selling to as-yet unidentified buyers. The museum is reported to receive about $85 million, a hefty endowment for a fledgling institution.

The sale sidestepped conventional museum practice and elicited some scathing criticism, but Sobel defends the move as consistent with what Mrs. Still did, selling a small number of works to ensure the survival of the rest of the collection.

“Still’s wish was a tall order,” he says. “Now we can be sure that the vision of Clyfford Still will always be sustainable and we’ll be able to fulfill that mission.”