Review: Clyfford Still: The Works on Paper Is Drawing Raves

Installation view of Clyfford Still: The Works on Paper.
Installation view of Clyfford Still: The Works on Paper.
Justin Wambold courtesy Clyfford Still Museum

Works on paper — watercolors, drawings and prints — are the neglected stepchildren of paintings and typically considered their inferior. So it’s interesting to see that Clyfford Still, an artist known exclusively for his paintings, also used ink, watercolor, pastels and paint, all of them applied to paper, as an important component of his artistic development. We just didn’t know about these works because for the most part, he didn’t exhibit them during his lifetime.

Living in Denver gives us special insights into Still’s oeuvre because the Clyfford Still Museum, which owns approximately 95 percent of the artist’s output from his sixty-year career, is right in the Golden Triangle, next to the Denver Art Museum. The CSM’s holdings number over 3,000 works, all bequeathed to Denver by Still’s estate in exchange for the city agreeing to build a museum to house the pieces. That decision was made in 2004, and early the following year, Dean Sobel was named the museum’s founding director, and soon after, the artist’s widow, Patricia Still, promised to donate her collection. Five years ago, in the fall of 2011, the museum itself — a chic building by Brad Cloepfil’s Allied Works Architecture — finally opened to the public at the corner of West 13th Avenue and Bannock Street. (Despite the key role the city played in its founding, the CSM is almost completely funded through private donations.)

Soon after he was hired, Sobel became interested in doing a show that focused on Still’s works on paper. This was after he’d begun looking at the not-yet-donated hoard and realized how important these kinds of pieces were to Still’s creative process. More than ten years later, he’s finally achieved that goal with the very compelling Clyfford Still: The Works on Paper.

Sobel was one of three curators who organized the exhibition; the others were David Anfam, the CSM’s consulting curator, and Bailey H. Placzek, the museum’s assistant curator and collections manager. The trio sifted through the 2,300 works on paper at the museum to select the 256 that were ultimately included; they also chose a couple of works that were on loan from other sources.

The show, which occupies the entire set of exhibition spaces on the second floor, has been laid out in a loose chronology, starting with drawings that Still did while still in his twenties and finishing at the end of his career, though not all the works are ordered by date. The first pieces are a group of small, smeary, impressionistic views of New York in 1925, done in pastels, and they are absolutely gorgeous. On the opposite wall is a striking lineup of realist depictions of people, plus a rendering of a skull resting on gathered drapery; these date from the ’20s and ’30s. Carried out in various techniques including charcoal, graphite and ink, the early drawings demonstrate that Still could have built a career as a skilled realist if he’d wanted to. When I walked through the show with Sobel, he made the point that Still regarded his works on paper as being fully fleshed out, and for the most part, he did not use them as preparatory sketches for paintings, as many artists do. His talent for being able to accurately and credibly render recognizable subjects separates Still from most of the rest of the first-generation abstract expressionists,  he noted, since they could not pull off this particular trick.

Installation view of Clyfford Still: The Works on Paper.EXPAND
Installation view of Clyfford Still: The Works on Paper.
Justin Wambold courtesy Clyfford Still Museum

The examination of Still’s representational work extends through the next two galleries. Chief among the pieces here are the abstracted views of Bow Island in Alberta. Done in pastels in the early ’20s and clearly landscapes, they nonetheless anticipate his pure abstractions — if you turn them 90 degrees, anyway. There are also some freakish takes on regionalism; Anfam believes these disturbing figures were partly inspired by the poster for the 1931 film Frankenstein.

It’s in the fourth gallery that we see the first of the pure abstractions that would earn Still eternal fame. He was tentative in these pieces from the late ’30s, when he seemed to be coming off his regionalist work in an abstracted, surrealist way. Still also appears to have had some really Picasso-like surrealist moments at the start of the 1940s, with his depictions at times being evocative of imaginary plants and animals.

The next three galleries are devoted to the career-making period of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. By the early ’40s, Still had hit his stride, and his works on paper were becoming increasingly aligned with what he was doing on canvas, a trend that would continue for the rest of his life. (An unusual suite of representational drawings is the most obvious exception; these depictions of country life were done soon after Still’s father died, in 1968, and were based on tiny sketches that he had made in the ’20s.) Still was fascinated by modest gestures and minimal markings, and was able to return to them over and over, finding a seemingly endless variety of ways to express them. It’s almost as though he did just a handful of arrangements, assembled in hundreds of different ways.

The drawings have many similarities to Still’s paintings, including his use of jagged shapes and lines — a signature of his paintings. His taste for building a coherent palette, then adding just a dash of some unexpected shade, is also in evidence. Like his paintings, the drawings and watercolors show the artist’s hand in brushstrokes or pencil lines. While looking at the pastels, it’s easy to imagine Still laying down bold, confident strokes of color on a sheet of paper in a bound sketchbook — even as a very old man. Several of the abstract-expressionist works on paper have been carried out in oils; as seen with his paintings, Still was an expert at manipulating paint, even enlisting the stains spontaneously produced by oil leaching off the pigments onto the paper as intentional parts of the abstraction.

Installation view of Clyfford Still: The Works on Paper.EXPAND
Installation view of Clyfford Still: The Works on Paper.
Justin Wambold courtesy Clyfford Still Museum

The show ends with drawings and other paper pieces done in the ’70s up until the artist’s death, in 1980. Still often used cheap papers throughout his career, but they became more dominant in these later works. Living modestly, he would go to the dime store and purchase stacks of multi-colored poster board or construction paper to use as art supplies (conservation considerations be damned). He then applied marks in oil or pastel or charcoal directly onto these commercially produced craft papers, in the process appropriating the pre-existing colors of the tinted sheets to serve as the grounds for his compositions.
This has its corollary in some of Still’s paintings, where he would leave expansive areas of canvas raw to stand in for light-colored backgrounds. In another interesting connection to his paintings, many of these drawings have similar compositions and pictorial relationships. Taking an image from small to large, or from large to small, is not as easy as it sounds, and the process confounds many artists. It obviously was no problem for Still, though.

Still did drawings through his entire career, up until his death. A couple of years before that, in 1978, prominent art dealer Sidney Janis proposed a show of his pastels. Still wrote back, politely refusing the offer. “They constitute a visual diary of a personal world,” he said, adding, “It would be most appropriate to keep them together until the record is finished.” That’s exactly what happened — which is why we have the opportunity to finally see them now.

Clyfford Still: The Works on Paper, through January 15, Clyfford Still Museum, 1250 Bannock Street, 720-354-4880, clyffordstillmuseum.org.

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