Clyfford Still Unveiled

The Still Museum wonít be open until 2010, but the DAM's preview show is not to be missed.

The work is nearly identical to one of Still's most famous paintings, which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, but this one was done first. On an unbelievably deep black field, Still laid in a thin red outline of an arcing shape. The line is violated by a white streak and a jagged yellow shape. The appeal of this painting, as with all great abstract-expressionist paintings, is that it is essentially about nothing other than pigment on a flat surface, with no sentimental underpinnings like a still life or a nude. So when Sobel first suggested that he believes, after having looked at a couple thousand Stills, that this painting is based on the figure, I was tempted to dismiss him. Then he pointed out how the profile of that red line was essentially the same as that of the stooped-over farmhands in the regionalist painting. Yikes! I think he's right, even though he's positioned himself in diametric opposition to the art-historical orthodoxy that links Still's work to the landscape.

The show proceeds after this breakthrough canvas with one breathtaking masterpiece after another. Some are enormous, such as "1957-J No. 2," an all-over abstraction from 1957 that looks sort of like camouflage and includes areas of raw canvas used as pictorial elements, while others, though large, are still within easel size, like the remarkable "PH-308," from 1948. These classic Stills reveal not only how important he was to the development of abstract expressionism, but also to many other non-objective modes, including color-field abstraction and even minimalism.

Though too small to be considered a blockbuster, Clyfford Still Unveiled is nonetheless an extremely important exhibit that should only be missed if you have absolutely no interest in art. Several of the paintings are among the most significant works to ever have been shown here. My only criticism is that Sobel chose too few pieces. Admittedly, the Martin & McCormick is the smallest of the three changing galleries at the DAM, yet it could have easily held another half-dozen pieces — and it should have.

"PH-118," by Clyfford Still, oil on canvas.
"PH-118," by Clyfford Still, oil on canvas.

Details

Through September 30, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000.

To see a slide show of the exhibit, visit www.westword.com.

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The Still bounty coming to Denver brought to mind two other artists whose work may be seen in depth locally. Also at the DAM, on the lower level of the Hamilton, are selections from the Herbert Bayer collection, and pieces by Vance Kirkland are on view at the DAM and at the nearby Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Arts.

Bayer, Kirkland and Still were all mid-twentieth-century modernists, but while Still was a New York artist with no connection to Colorado, Bayer and Kirkland lived here for decades. Bayer transplanted his modernism directly from his native Europe, while Kirkland followed a comparable path to Still's, working his way through regionalism and surrealism before arriving at abstraction. This all-American approach to modernism was also the route followed by the great Ken Goehring, a first-generation Colorado abstract expressionist who died a few weeks ago and whose career is highlighted in this week's Artbeat.

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