When the Clyfford Still Museum announced that founding director Dean Sobel would be leaving the institution in September, I nearly fell over.
He has been the perfect fit for the place, with an unmatched and encyclopedic knowledge of the great abstract expressionist's life and work. In fact, he was among the first people in half a century to see Still's work at all, let alone have firsthand experience with almost everything the artist ever did.
Sobel left the Aspen Art Museum to head up the Clyfford Still Museum in 2005; then-Mayor John Hickenlooper had pushed hard to bring the artist's collection here. One of the terms was that the work had to be housed in its own museum, and Sobel oversaw the funding and construction of the Brad Cloepfil-designed building, which opened to the public in 2011. In between, he shepherded the process of transferring to Denver all of Still's works that had been stored in a barn on the artist's farm in Maryland. Sobel was also instrumental in acquiring considerable holdings retained by the artist’s widow, Patricia Still. Altogether, the Clyfford Still Museum's collection numbers more than 3,400 pieces.
Sobel also displays breathtaking intelligence and courage in uniquely interpreting the material, and has turned the official art-historical understanding of the abstract expressionist’s paintings on its head. Since the 1950s, Still’s non-objective compositions were seen as springing from the landscape tradition, and his paintings were even compared to the walls of canyons. Looking over everything, Sobel realized that it was actually the standing person that Still was abstracting and not the natural environment, and this made his work part of the figurative tradition instead.
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This kind of radical new understanding, which could be seen as discrediting some of the biggest names in art history, would be hard to pull off without being dismissed as heresy, but Sobel was able to hang the Still paintings that proved his point beyond any shadow of a doubt.
On the bright side, Sobel will be staying around town, taking on a position at the University of Denver as a professor of the practice of art history and museum studies, and I can say with complete confidence that his students will love him.
But at the Clyfford Still Museum, his shoes will be all but impossible to fill.