The Clyfford Still Museum's Inaugural Exhibition tells the artist's story

The long-awaited opening of the Clyfford Still Museum takes place next week, and I was able to get an advance look inside. Before I report on that, however, here's a quick rundown of its history.

Clyfford Still attained master status by being among the pioneers of abstract expressionism, the style that established the United States as a world-class player in the art world. In the late 1940s, Still began to gain substantial recognition for his work — and the sometime grudging respect of his fellow vanguard artists. But in a fit of pique and at the height of his powers, he withdrew from the art world, informing his dealer, Betty Parsons, in 1951 that he would no longer exhibit at her gallery. This was one of the moves that gave Still such an eccentric reputation; another was that he preserved and refused to sell an unbelievably large percentage of his life's work, keeping most of it in his studio in Maryland. The last large-scale exhibition of his work took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1979, the year before he died.

Here's where Denver comes in. In his one-page will, Still stated that if any American city would provide a repository for his life's work, it could have it. About twenty cities vied for the honor, but it was Denver that was ultimately selected in 2004 by the artist's widow, Patricia ("Still and All," August 19, 2004).

Dean Sobel became the director of the fledgling museum, and a board was convened to raise money. All told, they collected $35 million in private donations — about twice what the MCA Denver cost — and you can tell: The Still looks expensive, with all its careful detailing and its sumptuous materials. Although the city provided in-kind support, like office space, no taxpayer funds were used to build the museum itself.

There are some controversial elements to the museum's story — among them the fact that Still had no connection to Denver, so there was never a good reason to build his museum here. More troubling was the museum's decision to sell four Still pieces that Patricia had bequeathed to the institution; that money will provide an endowment. That wasn't the right thing to do, but there are so many works — thousands in the original group left by Still and hundreds from Patricia — that Sobel will be able to rotate them for decades. So let's dismiss all the naysaying about the project and focus on what it will bring to Denver's art scene.

The elegant building, by Brad Cloepfil's Allied Works Architecture, is set back from West 13th Avenue with a park-like lawn set with trees and a Joel Shapiro sculpture that belongs to the Denver Art Museum next door. The museum structure, made of elaborately figured cast-in-place concrete, has a form that's basically cubic, with various set-backs and cut-outs to add visual interest. The concrete walls, both outside and in, feature vertical ridges that are the result of the concrete being purposefully broken off when the wooden forms were removed. The interior wall treatments feature a whole vocabulary of variations based on the same idea. The lobby ceiling sports a diagonal pattern produced by the grains of the boards of the forms being impressed in the cement. These diagonals artfully engage the vertical lines in the walls where they intersect.

The floors are done in a light-brown terrazzo made up of natural stone in browns and grays. The centerpiece of the lobby is the grand staircase that runs along the south wall. It's exquisitely detailed, like a piece of jewelry. The underside is covered with a honey-toned wood veneer with inscribed lines and inset circles. The treads of the stairs are raised slightly above the underlying structure, creating an elegant effect. A similar idea is expressed by the freestanding wooden banisters that run alongside the plate-glass panels lining the lobby side of the stairs. The design is all about the differentiation of forms and functions, and it's really smart.

The rest of the first floor is given over to other utilitarian functions including offices, a small library, the archives, a timeline and, most interesting of all, storage areas that have glass walls so that the contents can be seen by viewers. These stored paintings are mounted on sliding metal screens, the positions of which will change regularly so that different pieces can be seen at different times.

All of the selections from the permanent collection are on view in the Inaugural Exhibition, displayed on the second floor in a series of nine galleries that have been subdivided into ten discrete spaces. Sobel has used these spaces to tell Still's story in chronological order, revealing the origins of his sensibility in the 1920s, leading up to his abstract-expressionist breakthrough in the '40s, and following him right up to his last paintings from the 1970s. The tale unfolds in sequential increments, revealing many things about Still and the development of abstract expressionism in general.

Though Sobel worked with models of the spaces and miniature versions of the pieces, he's a hands-on exhibition designer and hung some of it instinctually, making a few major changes in his selections after the works arrived. The results are so magical, and so informative that it's impossible to quibble with any of his calls.

Begin your tour in the gallery at the top of the stairs. It starts with the artist's realist self-portrait, which, though out of date order, couldn't be anywhere else. Among the paintings in this initial space are two remarkable long-distance views of trains and grain elevators, done when Still lived in Canada in the 1920s. They are post-impressionist and prove that this style is the starting point for abstract expressionism.

Turn to the gallery on the left to follow Still's career in order. These paintings from the 1930s include some odd takes on regionalism in which the figures — farm hands and rural couples — are rendered as grotesque creatures rather than noble workers, which was the typical approach of the other regionalists. These are some of the most difficult paintings in Still's oeuvre, as are the figurative surrealist paintings displayed in the same space. As hideous and disturbing as these works are, Sobel saw another seed for Still's abstract expressionism in the line that follows the shoulders of the figures in them. This line would appear again and again almost throughout Still's entire career. 

Next comes Still's first great leap forward, as the representational surrealist works give way to abstract surrealist creations; some have a Picassoid quality and a sense for monumentality. These initial spaces have low ceilings, but when we reach the point where Still makes his big break in the early 1940s — Sobel says Still was the first artist to arrive at abstract expressionism — the room height soars. This is not just symbolic; it's necessary to accommodate the large works. Notable are the pierced cheese-grater grills in concrete floating just below the sky-lit ceiling in this and other double-height galleries.

Seeing so many classic Stills at once is an indescribable experience. Looking at this work dating from the '40s and '50s, it's very easy to see why Still is regarded as one of the great masters of American art. His surfaces are lively, with lots of evidence of his brushwork preserved in the paint. At the same time, they're unexpectedly thin — or flat — in appearance. The work done after Still withdrew from the art world and retreated to a farm in Maryland is stylistically an extension of the classic work, but it's increasingly lighter and more thinly painted, with lots of raw canvas left over.

Sobel has also done a survey of Still's career in miniature using the artist's works on paper, including drawings, watercolors and prints. Having just seen the rest of the show, taking in the paper pieces last is almost like doing a Still refresher course.

The CSM, which opens on November 17 for members and on November 18 to the general public, marks the realization of a dream for Sobel, who has worked tirelessly over the past six years to bring it to fruition. But it's also the culmination of a process that Clyfford Still began nearly a century ago, when he first put paint to canvas.