Clyfford Still Unveiled

Clyfford Still, master and pioneer of mid-twentieth-century abstract expressionism, was something of an eccentric in the artist-as-egomaniac stripe. This characteristic is best illustrated by the fact that at the height of his acceptance, he pulled out of the New York art world and isolated himself in a rural part of Maryland. He hated dealers specifically, the art market in general, and even some admirers who sought him out to buy pieces directly. At times he would refuse to sell to them.

This personality quirk of Still's has expressed itself in multifarious ways. Because he was difficult and went off to do his own thing in a huff, his accomplishments at the front of the movement are not as well known as those of his fellow travelers, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. But there was a plus side to his anti-social behavior: Ninety-four percent of his artworks remained together in his estate after he died — a staggeringly complete chronicle of his oeuvre.

And that's where Denver comes into the story. Still stipulated in his will that his lifetime's achievements be given en masse to any American city that would commit to build a museum to specifically — and exclusively — house them. In 2004, Mayor John Hickenlooper announced that Denver would build a Clyfford Still Museum to display this spectacular treasure, and the Still estate began to be transferred over.

People in Denver had been working on getting the Stills here for many years, and for a time, Dianne Vanderlip attempted to secure them for the Denver Art Museum, but Still's estate was insistent that his pieces be displayed in a stand-alone museum. Still had no genuine connections to Colorado, however, so the whole thing has something of a London-Bridge-in-Lake-Havasu-City character to it. But Still's nephew Curt Freed lives here, and he played a pivotal role in getting the museum to Denver; without him, it's unlikely it would have happened.

Since the initial announcement, things have been rolling along. Dean Sobel, late of the Aspen Art Museum, was hired as director, and a Brad Cloepfil-designed building (I'm biting my tongue) is to be erected immediately west of the Frederic C. Hamilton Building and attached to it by a corridor. This physical connection will make the Still Museum seem like a part of the DAM even if it is actually autonomous. The Still building won't open until 2010, so Sobel put together a teaser show, Clyfford Still Unveiled: Selections From the Estate, that recently opened in the Martin & McCormick Gallery on level two of the DAM's Hamilton. It's the first time that Denver exhibition-goers will have the opportunity to see the Stills — and the last chance before the new building comes on line three years from now.

Sobel uses the very small show — only a baker's dozen of examples — to lay out, in bare-bones fashion, most of Still's career and stylistic development. The installation reminds me of a book, with the "cover" — "PH-118," a signature Still from 1947 — being visible through the gallery's glass doors. I swear, when I first spotted it from the atrium, I let out an involuntary "Wow." On a buff ground is an all-over abstraction made up of those Still-ian jagged shapes in black, white, yellow and red. The painting is a masterpiece, a definitive example of abstract expressionism, as are so many of the others in this show.

Next is the "frontispiece," in the form of a self-portrait Still did in 1940. It is conventionally realistic and has the flavor of an illustration. Sobel points out that Still did these traditional realist portraits throughout his career but they were essentially unknown until now. Still has captured his own likeness from slightly below so that the viewer always has to look up to him.

The show proper gets under way beyond this, and though it's tempting to bolt ahead to the groundbreaking abstract-expressionist canvases, to follow the story you really need to start at the beginning — which is easy, since Sobel installed the exhibit chronologically (bravo!).

In the mid-'30s, Still was something of a regionalist (as were most of his fellow abstract expressionists at the time), though his work also shows the influence of French painting. These two aesthetic connections are shown off in "PH-77," an oil on canvas from 1936. Across the horizontal canvas, Still arranged two figures, one slightly in front of the other, that represent farmhands stooped over in a field. As in a Thomas Hart Benton composition, the figures are attenuated, but Still's handling of the paint seems more like the way a post-impressionist would work it, with the details only crudely painted in via heavy and emphatic brushwork.

Another thing Still did that many abstract expressionists were doing in the 1930s was to switch gears and abandon regionalism in favor of the European-derived surrealism. There are a couple of paintings of this type, plus a striking drawing, and in all of them, Still evoked or suggested the human figure. American surrealism turned out to be the spark for abstract expressionism, and though Miró and Masson got there first, in the '30s, it was Still who invented it for American art in 1944, with "1944-N No. 1," an enormous billboard-sized painting of tremendous beauty and remarkable visual power.

The work is nearly identical to one of Still's most famous paintings, which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, but this one was done first. On an unbelievably deep black field, Still laid in a thin red outline of an arcing shape. The line is violated by a white streak and a jagged yellow shape. The appeal of this painting, as with all great abstract-expressionist paintings, is that it is essentially about nothing other than pigment on a flat surface, with no sentimental underpinnings like a still life or a nude. So when Sobel first suggested that he believes, after having looked at a couple thousand Stills, that this painting is based on the figure, I was tempted to dismiss him. Then he pointed out how the profile of that red line was essentially the same as that of the stooped-over farmhands in the regionalist painting. Yikes! I think he's right, even though he's positioned himself in diametric opposition to the art-historical orthodoxy that links Still's work to the landscape.

The show proceeds after this breakthrough canvas with one breathtaking masterpiece after another. Some are enormous, such as "1957-J No. 2," an all-over abstraction from 1957 that looks sort of like camouflage and includes areas of raw canvas used as pictorial elements, while others, though large, are still within easel size, like the remarkable "PH-308," from 1948. These classic Stills reveal not only how important he was to the development of abstract expressionism, but also to many other non-objective modes, including color-field abstraction and even minimalism.

Though too small to be considered a blockbuster, Clyfford Still Unveiled is nonetheless an extremely important exhibit that should only be missed if you have absolutely no interest in art. Several of the paintings are among the most significant works to ever have been shown here. My only criticism is that Sobel chose too few pieces. Admittedly, the Martin & McCormick is the smallest of the three changing galleries at the DAM, yet it could have easily held another half-dozen pieces — and it should have.

The Still bounty coming to Denver brought to mind two other artists whose work may be seen in depth locally. Also at the DAM, on the lower level of the Hamilton, are selections from the Herbert Bayer collection, and pieces by Vance Kirkland are on view at the DAM and at the nearby Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Arts.

Bayer, Kirkland and Still were all mid-twentieth-century modernists, but while Still was a New York artist with no connection to Colorado, Bayer and Kirkland lived here for decades. Bayer transplanted his modernism directly from his native Europe, while Kirkland followed a comparable path to Still's, working his way through regionalism and surrealism before arriving at abstraction. This all-American approach to modernism was also the route followed by the great Ken Goehring, a first-generation Colorado abstract expressionist who died a few weeks ago and whose career is highlighted in this week's Artbeat.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia