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Still and All

"1951," by Clyfford Still, oil on canvas.

On the morning of August 9, Mayor John Hickenlooper stood on the front steps of the City and County Building and made a stunning announcement: The City of Denver had formally committed to building a museum to house the work of abstract-expressionist giant Clyfford Still in exchange for a promise from his widow, Patricia, that the Mile High City would receive the artist's entire estate. True, there are lots and lots of ramifications and qualifications to the deal, which, to be honest, could still fall through, but nonetheless, it is very big news.

Looking at Still's work today, it may be hard to see how radical and cutting-edge it was, because expressively painted color fields have become almost ubiquitous in the work of many other abstract artists. But Still was at the forefront of a generation of American painters, most of them working in New York, who, in the decade after the Second World War, rewrote the history of art by coming up with the abstract-expressionist style.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, artists from Europe, especially Paris, came to New York after fleeing the Nazis. This upped the ante for contemporary art in America, which, with certain notable exceptions such as the work of Stuart Davis, was pretty conservative and derivative of the art of Paris -- only the U.S. was ten years behind the French.

In response to the new awareness of European art -- the inevitable product of all those Europeans being here -- American artists, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell and Still, began to experiment. First, they all explored surrealism, and then they each came up with individual approaches to non-objective all-over abstractions. It was these paintings, later called abstract-expressionist, that made them famous.

Abstract-expressionist paintings are essentially about putting paint to canvas, and nothing more. This phenomenological and reductivist approach was a spectacular discovery that put the United States in the big leagues, art-wise. It's an inexhaustible method with tons of possibilities for unique expression. I guess that's why abstract expressionism is a stylistic mother lode that's been successfully mined by artists up to the present day.

Given the watershed quality of abstract expressionism, it's no surprise that paintings by the great ones, like Still, cost a fortune. In the announcement about the promised Still gift to Denver, city officials cited a Still painting that recently sold for more than $3 million at auction. Presumably, the paintings Still kept for himself represent his best efforts and are worth even more. When you consider that there are more than 700 canvases in the collection and over 1,000 works on paper, we're talking about a value of between $500 million and a billion dollars -- the latter being the number the mayor has been tossing around. But any estimate of worth is as abstract as Still's paintings: According to his will, in order to receive the gift, the City of Denver must promise never to sell one. That makes Still's paintings priceless in more ways than one.

Still was born in the farming town of Grandin, North Dakota, in 1904. He later moved to the Pacific Northwest. In 1924, Still made his first trip to New York to check out the art scene. After that, he took up residence in Washington state and attended Spokane University off and on until he earned his bachelor's degree almost ten years later, in 1933. After graduation, he taught at what was then Washington State College in Pullman, a job he held until 1941. With the coming of World War II, Still quit teaching and went to San Francisco to work in the defense industry. He found ready success in the Bay Area, and in 1943 he was the subject of a solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Art. That was quite a big deal -- especially then -- for an artist who was not yet forty.

Still's work of the early 1940s was really out there. He used a crude technique to create heavily impastoed surfaces, with paint applied so thick it's almost vulgar. The paintings depicted severely abstracted forms that suggested the sun, the moon, the earth and the human figure. Stylistically, these paintings are part and parcel of surrealism, which had been popular with vanguard artists since the 1920s. But when critics remarked about his surrealism, Still took issue with them; he soon eliminated any reference to recognizable subjects and began doing the color-field abstraction he is best known for.

At about the same time as his solo at the museum, Still met kindred spirit Rothko, who was teaching in the Bay Area. Rothko got Still a show at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of the Century Gallery -- one of the most important New York galleries of its day, as its regular stock in trade was the work of the great modern masters of Europe. This 1946 exhibit marked Still's entry to the New York art scene, but he remained on the West Coast, where he was teaching at the California School of the Arts -- now the San Francisco Art Institute -- until finally moving to New York in 1950.

His time in New York was the most important period of Still's creative life, dominated as it was by his ever-larger color fields, in which jagged shapes of heavily impastoed color weave in and out of each other. Early on, his palette was dominated by dark earth tones, but over the years it became increasingly lighter and brighter. The shift to more lyrical color schemes did not indicate a mood change for Still; in fact, it was contrary to his character. Long regarded as irascible and difficult, as he got older, this reputation grew.

Just as he had denied the influence of surrealism earlier, Still also denied that his work had any aesthetic relationship with that of the other abstract expressionists -- or to any other kind of art, ever. He felt that his work transcended time and culture and was a direct and free vision unlike anyone else's. (He must have been an insufferable pill, but unlike so many of his fellow travelers in the art world, Still was a genius and could get away with it.)

Though he rejected nearly all other artists as irrelevant, he did admire the work of nineteenth-century romantic painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, who is best known for his expressive and murky seascapes in oil paint and tar on canvas. Ryder applied the pigments and tar so thickly that there are almost geological contours to it, much as Still did with his impastoed color fields. In Still's later work, he paired passages of thick paint with areas of the canvas left absolutely bare. Still wasn't the first to do this, but he was among the first to push it to the extremes that he did. (Think of how often you've seen artists juxtapose a heavily painted area with a naked one. See what I mean about his influence being ubiquitous?)

In 1952, Still decided that the art world in New York was corrupt and immoral, and he refused to exhibit there for the next fifteen years. This hatred of New York dealers is what led Still to host the first important show of his New York works in Buffalo -- and not in Manhattan -- in 1959. The exhibit was at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which owns almost three dozen Still works, most of which were donated by the artist himself, something he rarely did.

Still may have had a major chip on his shoulder, but it didn't get in the way of his painting. He was working on a huge scale, with canvases as large as ten feet tall, and the size, the jagged shapes and even the colors suggested to many the mountain landscapes of the American West. Still's insistence that his work be displayed in large groups away from the work of others only enhances the landscape metaphor, because in such an arrangement, there are Stills as far as the eye can see. Some have described the experience of a room full of Stills as similar to being in the Grand Canyon.

An important aesthetic notion long associated with Still's non-objective compositions is the abstract sublime, which again refers to the landscape. The concept suggests Still's aim of elevating the viewer through the grandeur and magnificence of his paintings, inspiring observers the same way a majestic landscape like the Grand Canyon does. Maybe it's because I've been a critic for so long, but the idea that beauty is edifying strikes me as quaint.

In 1961, in an increasingly reclusive mood, Still moved to a farm near Baltimore. But in a contradictory action, he broke his boycott of the New York galleries in 1969 and allowed a private dealer, the Marborough-Gerson Gallery, of all places, to offer his work for sale. I say "of all places" because just a year later, another artist represented by the Marborough galleries, Still's old friend Rothko, committed suicide. It was determined years later that representatives of Marborough had found Rothko's body on the floor of his studio, and before they called the police, they moved some paintings to the gallery. That year was the last time Still displayed his work in a commercial gallery in New York. Maybe he was right about the corruption of the New York art world in the first place.

In 1980, Still was given a solo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he died that same year. After his death, sales of his work essentially ceased because Still had left a will dictating that the remaining pieces were to be kept together and given to any American city that would build a museum to house them. Not just any museum, either. It had to be the one that Still described, and it could never exhibit the work of anyone else. Imagine what an insufferable control freak he must have been to manipulate his life's work from beyond the grave.

Still's widow, Patricia, has zealously protected the hoard and has failed to make a deal with any city for the booty. It was no secret that all those Stills were out there, but most people in the know believed that the will's stipulations would make it impossible for the works to ever be shown. Until now, that is.

It was Still's nephew, Curt Freed, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado's Heath Sciences Center, who acted as the conduit between Patricia and the Hickenlooper administration. Freed had contacted the Denver Art Museum's Dianne Vanderlip some years ago, but the museum was unable to come to an agreement with the widow, and that plan was dropped. Earlier this year, Hickenlooper picked up the ball and, figuratively speaking, brought it home last week.

My immediate reaction to the news was "Gee, that's really cool." That was followed a split second later by "Gosh, that's really bizarre." Let's first discuss the considerable "wow" factor.

What's great about the agreement is that it would definitely help put Denver on the international art map. A Still museum would be an institution of international scope, making it a very glamorous thing for Denver to have -- especially combined with the opening of the Hamilton Building at the DAM in the winter of 2006-2007 and a new Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver coming on line about the same time. Immediately after the Still museum opens, there will be a huge press of interest, since everything in the collection -- most of which almost nobody has seen -- has been in storage or hanging on the walls of the Still home in the suburbs of Baltimore for decades. This mysterious, unknown quality makes the story, and therefore the project, extremely romantic.

Now, the downside. Still had absolutely no connection to Denver other than the fact that his nephew works at the medical school, and that just isn't enough. Bringing the Stills here reminds me of when developers brought the London Bridge to Lake Havasu City, Arizona. It just seems ridiculous.

Then, too, there's the matter of money. Denver is out of money. City employees have been forced to take unpaid furloughs. The Denver Public Library has openly discussed selling some of its branches. Skyline Park, which just reopened, is only half done because there's no money to complete it. The city isn't promising any money, but mark my words, eventually there will be public funds involved.

The initial estimate of the cost of the museum is $7 million, with an additional $10 million needed as an endowment. With no pledged public money, the city will soon launch what is being called a "national" capital campaign for private donations. Despite the idea that funds will chiefly come from outside the area, representatives of the Hickenlooper administration have already informally begun soliciting money from local likely suspects, especially those who are known supporters of the DAM. Hickenlooper's crew ought to be as good as their word and go elsewhere to find the necessary cash.

If the mayor's office insists on soliciting funds locally, the Still museum may negatively affect the MCA. In a month or two, the MCA will be starting its campaign to raise funds to build its new building in the Platte Valley. Was the timing of the surprise announcement of a proposed Still museum meant to beat the MCA to the punch? That would explain why the mayor's statement was made in August -- an unlikely time for such a thing, because the art world is all but shut down at this time of year.

No matter what, the Still museum will take a big slice from the local art-funding pie. The project has all that glamour and romance surrounding it, so people will probably jump on board easily. I predict that the Still museum will be taking money away from the DAM, and, more critically, from the MCA.

There has been some preliminary talk about where the Still museum should be built. The most idiotic is the suggestion that it be built on the site of the Bonfils/Lowenstein Theater. Well, aside from the inappropriate East Colfax Avenue location, there is that pesky historic, cultural and architectural resource that's already there: the theater itself. And though Still may have nothing to do with Denver, the Bonfils/Lowenstein Theater does -- and even more to the point, the theater dates from the 1950s, exactly the same period as Still's best work.

I think the Still museum belongs next to the DAM, with the best possible spot being on West 12th Avenue between Broadway and Acoma Street, where there's currently a parking lot. That way, the entrance can face the forecourt of the under-construction Hamilton Building. Since the DAM provided the initial spark for the idea of bringing the Stills to Denver and is now having its donor list raided, it ought to at least get to have the facility situated nearby.

I don't need to say that the building that houses the Still museum must make its own bold statement while at the same time following to the letter Still's preordained stipulations. It would represent the commission of a lifetime for one of our local architects, but I'm sure that, just like Daniel Libeskind at the DAM or David Adjaye at MCA, a trendy international designer will be the one selected to do it.

Mayor Hickenlooper campaigned as a friend of the arts. With the bold stroke of announcing the coming of a Still museum a year into his term, he's finally getting around to showing it.