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Dean Sobel re-creates 1959 at the Clyfford Still Museum

“PH-295, 1938,” by Clyfford Still, oil on canvas.
“PH-295, 1938,” by Clyfford Still, oil on canvas.

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.

Among the standouts is "PH-295, 1938," an abstract coming out of one of his horror show/regionalist paintings, like those on view in the permanent-collection galleries. And also, particularly in that undersized "head" with its "mouth" open, there's a tip of the hat to Picasso. In the '30s and '40s, Still embraced a wide range of styles, from straight representation to pure abstraction, employing the different styles simultaneously and not in an orderly progression, as might be expected. But in retrospect, it's obvious what's relevant to his development in his oeuvre, and the original Albright-Knox show reveals that he knew it as well, since he didn't include any of that representational material in laying out his narrative.

The next gallery displays work from the mid- to late 1940s, when Still developed his first signature style; here, jagged areas of color seem to flow down through painterly fields. Beyond, there's a gallery given over to his work of the late '40s and early '50s. In the earlier pieces, Still was inventing his style, but in these, he's perfecting it. In a painting such as "PH-227, 1954," everything is just right somehow, with the large orange field on one side exquisitely balanced by the dark jagged forms on the other. It's so fresh that if you didn't know better, you'd think it was brand-new.

The final two galleries, featuring more work from the 1950s, are also filled with paintings that seem contemporary, like "PH-223, 1956," near the end, in which a light-colored wavy line descends vertically from top to bottom. This painting and others are reminiscent of the contemporaneous work of Barnett Newman, and it turns out that Newman was one of the handful of fellow artists whom Still respected; another was Mark Rothko.

I know that a lot of people — even those who've seen the related Modern Masters at the DAM and thus have a free pass to the CSM — have not seen 1959. Familiarity can breed contempt, and maybe many people take having all those Stills in town for granted, but familiarity can also breed appreciation. At least that's what it's done for me.

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