By Show and Tell
By Bree Davies
By Bree Davies
By Cory Casciato
By Emilie Johnson
By Robin Edwards
By Bree Davis
By Josiah M. Hesse
The Clyfford Still Museum is one of Denver's great cultural assets, but it's also the kind of place that most people feel they only need to see once. Museum director Dean Sobel told me that 80 percent of visitors are new to the institution, coming for their first time, with the remaining 20 percent representing repeat traffic. I understand that point of view — that the CSM doesn't really need to be revisited — because I felt that way at first, too.
But the place — or, more specifically, the paintings — changed my mind. Since the museum opened in late 2011, I've gone there several times to see or review new shows, and as I've looked at the work over and over again, I've come to realize that the more you scrutinize the Still paintings, the better they get. This is particularly true right now, while the Modern Masters show — on loan from the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo — is on view next door at the Denver Art Museum. The exhibit offers ready comparisons of what Still was doing in relation to the other top talents of his time, such as Pollock and Rothko.
Tickets to Modern Masters include entry to the CSM, where a related exhibit, 1959: The Albright-Knox Gallery Exhibition Recreated, is based on a pivotal event in Still's life: a major exhibition that marked the first time he was able to fully envision what it would be like to have an environment based solely on his own work, the kind of thing that was realized only after he died and the CSM was founded. Still was obsessed with the idea that his work could only be understood when seen in depth.
Here's the backstory to that 1959 Albright-Knox solo. By all accounts, Still was a difficult guy to deal with. His writing reveals that he had a major chip on his shoulder about art, about the state of abstract painting, and about the rest of the art world. In 1951, just as interest in his work was climbing, he withdrew from the scene, cutting his ties to the commercial-gallery sector. Though he remained in New York through the '50s, in 1960 he retreated to a farm in Maryland, completing his self-imposed isolation.
The year before, however, he had a major exhibit at the Albright-Knox. The gallery was a center for interest in abstract expressionism at the time, as evidenced by the treasures currently on view at the DAM, including a choice Still.
The friendly relationship that Still developed with the Albright-Knox began in 1954. The museum's director, Gordon Smith, and mega-donor Seymour Knox had already been assembling a collection of New York School abstract-expressionist work when they decided they needed a Still. It was Smith who finally persuaded the artist to allow the museum to select a piece for the collection.
Still hated anyone formally involved in art, particularly museum officials like Smith. The story goes that when Smith arrived, only a few paintings were face out, with most turned toward the walls — and Still refused to turn any of them around so that Smith could see them. Despite these limitations, Smith chose "1954," one of Still's magnificent veil paintings. Smith wanted to send it back to Buffalo so the board of the Albright-Knox could approve it. This would have really irked Still, though, who hated the idea of boards making these kinds of decisions: He would decide who was worthy enough to own his work, not the other way around. So Smith phoned Knox and said it was now or never. Although he complained to Smith that the piece probably had a lot of black in it, which he didn't care for, Knox coughed up the money, and the deal was done.
Still was impressed by Smith's vision and decisiveness, so in 1957 he allowed the Albright-Knox to acquire another painting, "1957-D No.1," which is even better. With Still having a newfound regard for the powers-that-be at the Albright-Knox, he agreed to do a solo there in 1959. For that show, one of the most significant Still exhibits ever presented, the artist not only served as curator, selecting all of the works included, but also designed the exhibit, creating relationships between various paintings. CSM director Sobel has based his current 1959 exhibit on the display, because most of the work that was featured in that show is now owned by the CSM. Truth be told, the Albright-Knox show was bigger than the one at the CSM, but Sobel has made an effort to convey that through a grid of photos that record the complete installation of the original.
All of the galleries at the CSM are on the second floor, and the first space (at the top of the stairs) and the sequence of spaces around the corner are dedicated to Still's early work from the permanent collection. It is only when we come to the larger galleries with the tall ceilings that 1959 begins. Coincidentally, this picks up the chronology of his career where the permanent-collection galleries leave off.
Considering that Still himself selected everything, and that we know he was very aware of the importance of this show to his place in the firmament of abstract expressionism, it's interesting to note that he included some paintings from the late 1930s and early '40s that are clearly abstract-surrealist, including those done after his first abstract-expressionist compositions were completed.