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An Irascible Revealed at Last

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An Irascible Revealed at Last

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After three decades and many suitors, the art of famed Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still has finally found a home.  The Clyfford Still Museum, designed and built according to the artist’s precise and exacting specifications, delineated before his death in 1980, opened in Denver in November 2011. We review the long odyssey of the works of this major figure in contemporary art.

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By Devon Dikeou

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[three_fourth]Clyfford Still is perhaps the most misunderstood of the “Irascibles”, a name given to a group of fifteen artists, more commonly known as the Abstract Expressionists, when they posed for a photograph in Life Magazine in 1950. Reasons for this label are more or less part of the Still myth: his difficult personality, his eventual retreat from the art world, his disdain for collectors, dealers, and curators and, some might say, even for the work itself. Now, 31 years after his death, an argument can be made that because of this myth, his work takes on a new meaning with the opening of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado. Still’s steadfast convictions, adherence to self-imposed principles, and immense quality control make the opening of this temple of art, dedicated to his work and its conservation and study, a uniquely innovative idea, an assertive re-examination, and a testament to the generosity of this, his most astounding gift.

And what a gift it was! Clyfford Still’s one page Last Will and Testament bequeathed (aside from the 300 works on paper and 100 paintings he left to his wife) “all the remaining works of art executed by [Still] in [his] collection to an American city that will agree to build or assign and maintain permanent quarters exclusively for these works of art and assure their physical survival with the explicit requirement that none of these works will be sold, given, or exchanged but are to be retained in the place described above exclusively assigned to them in perpetuity for exhibition and study.”1 So grand was this gift, so encompassing, that for years no city or institution could make reasonable bids to qualify as a recipient. Many tried: Baltimore, New York, the Massachussets Museum of Contemporary Art, even North Dakota, (Still’s birth state) among them. Eventually, Denver prevailed.

Denver’s bid began when Curt Freed, a Denver physician and a nephew of Patricia Still (Still’s wife and the executrix of his will) called the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs about his uncle’s “still-extant collection.”2 That call yielded a flurry of further communications within the Denver art world, including Lewis Sharp and Diane Vanderlip of the Denver Art Museum. But the initial plan for a Denver Still museum was ultimately rejected by Patricia Still because of the close association with D.A.M. Eventually in 2003, the recently elected Mayor, John Hickenlooper, and Freed, along with other city officials, approached Patricia with a new proposal; the idea was again afloat.

As the mayor (now governor) tells it, he was in the Washington, DC area for a mayorial conference, when he changed his itinerary, detouring around the capital to New Windsor, Maryland to see Mrs Still. Upon greeting her, Hickenlooper exclaimed, “Mrs Still, I have missed an appointment with the President of the United States in order to meet with you.” Mrs Still was won over and Denver won.

Fairly soon afterwards, an agreement was reached between the City and the Still estate, followed by a Denver City Council vote to agree to raise the money for the museum. In 2005 a non-profit entity was created to “carry out the city’s obligations.” From there, an architectural search committee and boards were formed. The Clyfford Still board raised approximately $32 million through private donations, and Brad Cloepfil and Allied Works Architecture were chosen as architects to construct a roughly 28,000 square foot building. It has no auditorium or restaurant per the amended will. Mrs Still, owner of the second biggest trove of Clifford Still art work and the artist’s archive of “the files, the diaries, notes, correspondences, the logs, and other biographical papers and records”3, decided to bequeath to the city of Denver the remainder of her estate as well. All in all, the Denver institution owns 94% of all of Still’s creative output, including 825 paintings, 1,575 works on paper, three sculptures, and a plethora of archival materials including sketchbooks, letters, and photographs.

But all has not gone as smoothly as imagined. Mrs Still died in 2005, shortly after the deal was made. While the museum did raise $32 million, total project costs came in around $29 million, leaving too little to adequately fund an endowment to support operating costs. To cover the shortfall, four Still paintings bequeathed from Patricia Still’s estate were selected to be sold. This would seem to be in breach of  Still’s will. However, a Maryland court ,where the Stills’ wills were filed,  gave approval to proceed with the sales.

The city then contacted both Sotheby’s and Christie’s about brokering either a private or public sale. Denver was facing a September 19th deadline for raising the money, which coincidentally fell around the 2011 autumn auctions. Eventually, the city decided to go with Sotheby’s and the more public route of an auction. The four works sold for $114 million.

But what of the visionary who left this sizeable and important public gift, one that is estimated to be worth more than $1 billion? Clyfford Still was born in North Dakota in 1904. Growing up in landscapes around Spokane, Washington, and in southern Alberta, Canada, he absorbed an aesthetic from his natural surroundings. Much of his interest in the plastic arts, however, came from his own explorations of masterpieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He attended the Art Students League in 1925 in New York for about 45 minutes, but deemed it regressive for his practice. “The excercises and results I observed I had already explored for myself some years before and had rejected them as a waste of time.”7 He was invited to and attended Yaddo, the famed artistic retreat during two summers. He spent his early career, teaching at Washington State College (now Washington State University). In 1941, he relocated to the Bay Area and became an influential professor at the California School of Fine Arts, now known as the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught off and on from 1946 to 1950.

In the early 1940’s he met and befriended Mark Rothko and was in the midst of making the first of the major works that would eventually make him famous. He went to New York for extended periods during the last half of the 1940s, where Rothko introduced him to the visionary ‘gallerist’ Peggy Guggenheim and her gallery, The Art of This Century. She immediately invited him to participate in her “Autumn Salon.”

But even as early as 1945 we see Still doubting the artistic mechanism that is the New York Art world. “I await the opening of the show with a strange mixture of anticipation and hope and cynicism. I have taken the precaution to prepare myself for flight back to western Canada. The atmosphere here is too seriously commercial to escape its vitiating pressure and its attendant subordination of the freedom of the creative spirit.”8 By 1946, Still had his first one-man show at The Art of this Century, and then returned to San Francisco and teaching. In 1947, he was at Betty Parsons Gallery having a one-man show. This return to New York produced a loose collaboration with Rothko in which they created an artist’s group where older artists would get together and guide younger artists. This group would later be called “The Subjects of the Artist,” and would involve many of his fellow Ab Ex compatriots, including Barnet Newman and Robert Motherwell. The group also included artists of other schools such as the Surrealist Matta.

Ultimately, however, the group was, in Still’s mind, directionless. Its mission was confused, and perhaps it was not selective enough; eventually he bowed out. Back in California, in 1947, he established a graduate painting class at CSFA, based on his ideas for the “The Subjects of the Artist.” An off-shoot of this class was a student-run-and-owned gallery, organized at Still’s suggestion, called Metart. We see in this early Still, a willingness to talk about and engage with, not only students, but with a broader audience, about the kind of painting he was making and the visual language he was building.

By 1950 and ’51, Still was back in New York, with one-man shows at Betty Parsons. Slowly though, while at the height of expressing his aesthetic publically, we find Still at least thinking about his work in decidedly non-public terms. “It is obvious that there is little of sentiment or intimacy in my attitudes. Probably I would prefer to have my work quite asocial.”9 He hated the word “sales,” and when a work was sold he referred to it as “released.” He viewed his work in terms of the 19th-century ideas of the “Sublime” as much as part the New York School. He also viewed his oeuvre very much in terms of a whole rather than individual works, and was aesthetically concerned with the dialogue between the works as an entire body. He rarely participated in group exhibitions, and only when more than one work would be shown.

He felt that words were suspect and critics worse. He mused, “The forces I generate can be used to many ends. My concern is that they be not so turned against me that I cease to be able to extend their intensity and clarity, or that I be made victim of the tensions and complexes that lash or impale so many others.”10 He even more potently stated, “Praise and criticism both are dangerous winds and leave disturbing odours in the nostrils. The value, if there is any, must be measured by the man who gives them, and not by the pleasure or pain they receive.”11

By 1951, Still finally had had enough. He withdrew from the art world and sent his letter of resignation from the gallery to his dealer, Betty Parsons. Nonetheless, at this point we find an artist quite comfortable with the direction of his practice, astutely aware of his place, contrary, and suspicious of the forces that might hinder the fullest understanding or exhibition of his work. He is conscious of the intrusions, disturbances, and distractions that divert from the work’s proper vision and exhibition. It was the work that must continue, not the sideshows.

So to Maryland he retreated – staying there, not exhibiting with any real assertiveness until 1959. Not that the invitations weren’t forthcoming. Still received at least four Venice Biennale invitations and several European and American museum invitations. But only one organisation seemed remotely able to get to the inner sanctum of the Still psyche much less studio: the Albright Knox in Buffalo, New York under the direction and leadership of Gordon Smith and Seymour Knox. In the end, the Albright bought two paintings and agreed to an exhibition of 72 paintings in 1959. It was a special relationship and as it was so special, it also established a Still continuum. By 1964, Still made an extraordinary move: he donated 31 paintings to the Albright. There were many caveats and stipulations in the agreement. In the end it proved to be a wonderfully rewarding and important gesture, as the works would always be shown under the conditions that Still laid down, and in the way he would most like them exposed to the public. The paintings would not be loaned and they would not be put in storage. Throughout the 1960’s, there were a smattering of Still one-man shows. Then finally, in 1975 another something special happened.

After all the time Still had spent in San Francisco, teaching and as part of the art community, his influence was paramount. Nonetheless, California Abstraction, in the San Francisco area, was strongly posited on and deeply entrenched in the idea of abstraction, simultaneous with the New York School. It didn’t hurt that their most famous practitioner was Still, the bi-coastal messiah. Keep in mind, Still showed in a one-man exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art as early as 1943. So when, in 1975, Still imparted a similar, Buffalo-style gift of 28 paintings to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it was not without an important precedent. Again, Still made the gift with conditions. Display in a permanent exhibition space. No loans, no storage. In 1979 Still had a one-man retrospective exhibition of 79 paintings at the Met – a career culmination at the institution where his self-education had begun, so many years before.

By 1980 Still was dead of cancer. Patricia Still, following her husband’s example, extended a similar gift to the Met in 1986. The Met’s gift included ten canvases. With the two Stills already in their collection, their total is twelve.

Fast forward to 2011: The Clyfford Still Museum (C.S.M.) opens in Denver. It is yet another gift in a trail of presentations, designed throughout an artist’s lifetime, to give any willing and supplicant viewer a glimpse, a peek, a nugget, and then finally a tidal wave of what his artistic practice meant. And what a wave! C.S.M. is organized in a two storey building. It welcomes the visitor through a pleasant grid of trees into a concrete structure that, like the ground floor of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, reveals the bones of the building. Villa Savoye’s bones were the mechanics and garage: the C.S.M.’s include its offices, archive, conservation laboratory, Still new media timeline, memorabilia and, equally interesting, a view of a number of works in storage.

The exterior is a concrete mosaic of vertical fossil castings, achieved from casting wood planks in concrete and creating curtain-like facades of these multiple castings. These facades are broken up by real wooden blinders that signal the entrance, signage, and balconies. Upon entry into the C.S.M., the visitor feels the grandness of the experience by how little of Still they actually get immediately – his work is only accessed by ascending the stairs to the second floor. There the journey begins, and the Fabergé egg is opened.

Nine galleries are organized in a somewhat loose Greek cross fashion. The inaugural exhibition is co-curated by the director of the C.S.M., Dean Sobel, and David Anfam, the foremost scholar of Still’s work. The curators have arranged the approximately 110 works in each gallery to represent different facets of Still’s production, chronologically, but also geographically, and by medium.

In the large painting galleries, light becomes an architectural as well as a painterly element that compliments the drama of Still’s power as a painter. The effect is beyond striking. It is the culmination of an artist’s vision being interpreted by a director, a curator, a board, an architect, an executrix, even offspring (Still’s two daughters) and made whole, made true, by a city, Denver.

My recommendation is : Make that pilgrimage! Go to Denver, because it is beyond compare! And if you can’t make it, go to any of the Still gift cities and get the Still fix![/three_fourth]

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