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Art review: Denver's Clyfford Still Museum

November 20, 2011 |  3:00 pm

Clyfford Still Museum 1944
Save for a quirk, the new Clyfford Still Museum that opened over the weekend in Denver's downtown cultural district is nothing less than a marvelous model for what a single-artist museum can be. Virtually every aspect of it is designed to maximize a visitor's encounter with Still's often riveting art.

What's the quirk? Still kept almost every painting and drawing he made. The museum estimates that its collection, a 2004 and 2005 gift to the city and county of Denver on behalf of the artist by his widow, accounts for nearly 94% of his output.

Most single-artist museums, such as those for Vincent van Gogh in Amsterdam, Georgia O'Keeffe in Santa Fe and Andy Warhol in Pittsburgh, have to make do with leftovers, the best material long since dispersed. Although they can (and often do) support important research, their galleries typically leave a lot to be desired. Barely mediocre collections make them shrines to artistic personalities rather than their art.

Not in Denver. Still, notoriously cantankerous, pretty much withdrew from active participation in the art world in 1951, seven years after he lit the fuse for nothing less than the Abstract Expressionist movement. His six-decade career began about 1920, when he was a teenager teaching himself to draw, and ended with infirmity around 1977, three years before his death at 75. The galleries at the Still Museum, with more than 825 paintings and 1,575 works on paper from which to choose, can present optimal reckonings of his art.

In fact, my sole complaint about the museum is its needless $10 admission fee. Ironically, it's the kind of institutional tactic that put Still off the art world.

Clyfford Still Museum northwest cornerDenver raised almost $32 million for this magnificent project but fell short on establishing a $25 million operations endowment. An unfortunate decision to sell four paintings at auction earlier this month resulted in record-breaking prices, which will yield an endowment of $85 million to $95 million -- three to four times the goal. To compensate for what the public lost in forfeiting those paintings, the museum should drop the admission charge.

The opening installation is a knockout. Museum director Dean Sobel and adjunct curator David Anfam have selected 28 early figurative paintings, 36 abstractions and 49 works on paper for the inaugural. (Three small, totemic wood sculptures -- the only ones the artist made -- are also on view.) The curatorial aim, brilliantly realized, is to secure Still's artistic reputation, which has languished somewhat among those of his peers.

Still's breakthrough came in 1943-44, when he made the first Abstract Expressionist painting. The selection shows where that monumental work, "1944-N #1," came from, then amply displays the peaks he reached in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. Just six paintings represent the 1960s and 1970s, after he moved to rural Maryland. The late work is lighter, more effervescent, with some unexpected intimations of Monet's late waterlilies. It hints at future surprises to come from the museum's shows.

Anfam once aptly described Still's work as considering a painting's surface to be "hostile terrain." No wonder he ended up painting with knives and trowels, rather than a brush. His startling "1944-N #1" doesn't describe a hard-bitten natural landscape so much as create a painterly equivalent for one.

Clyfford Still Museum gleanersA jagged trail of deep red scratches its way through a large, strangely luminous field of clotted black paint, interrupted by little bursts of white, yellow and even a patch of raw canvas. (Still's 1935 master's thesis was on Paul Cézanne, who introduced raw canvas to Modern art's formal lexicon.) Down at the lower right, a splotch of turquoise-green fuses with the field, like lichen on a rock.

A weed-choked pile of field stones is the subject of the show's first painting, made in 1925 when Still was 21. He was born in tiny Grandin, N.D., and spent his first 37 years there and in tough farming landscapes of Alberta, Canada, and eastern Washington State. From 1941 through '43 he labored in defense factories in Oakland and Berkeley.

Still's American Scene paintings, rarely exhibited, include back-breaking gleaners scavenging wheat from bleak fields -- figures more brutally simian than anything by Jean Millet or early Van Gogh. Shocking totemic images of a haggard, naked couple washing up after unknown labors portray a Depression-era Adam and Eve.

The fallen American society they depict becomes steadily more abstract, with tough, clanking mechanical forms that visually scrape your eyes. These paintings are rough and often clumsy, but the works on paper are where Still most eloquently worked out his evolving vision. Almost none of them have ever been exhibited, so they're the new museum's greatest revelation. By 1943, practically everything Still would soon elaborate on canvas is there in nascent form on paper.

Clyfford Still Museum big blueStill, who frequently visited New York but didn't move there until 1950, was teaching and working in Richmond, Va., and San Francisco in the 1940s. In 1944 Manhattan, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman were still trying to shed Cubist structures and Surrealist forms from their paintings. Their mature work was a couple years off.

Typically, Still's achievement is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Does it matter whether he got to Abstract Expressionism first, before Pollock and the rest in what came to be narrowly called the New York School? Yes, but not for parochial bragging rights.

Instead, simply acknowledging a historical fact offers an important corrective to our general understanding of Modern American art's origins. Susan Landauer's 1996 book, "The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism," definitively demonstrated how the new art was a national rather than an East Coast phenomenon. Denver's Clyfford Still Museum is now its exclamation point.

And a gorgeous punctuation mark it is. Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture has given the city its best museum building. While nodding to Louis Kahn and Tadao Ando, the $29-million, 28,500-square-foot, two-story structure uncannily seems to have grown from Still's paintings.

Clyfford Still Museum western facadeAs in Kahn's and Ando's light-filled concrete buildings, a brute material also feels exquisite. The cantilevered second floor rests lightly on a non-structural glass wall. Exterior poured-concrete striations -- echoed in wood-slat panels -- create ethereal shadow-play in the clear daylight of the Mile High City. A visually unobtrusive perforated-concrete screen, which filters overhead natural gallery illumination from skylights, is surprisingly buoyant.

As a buffer between the street and the museum, Cloepfil planted three dozen trees on the front lawn, which slopes along one side to form a classical podium. The field will grow more dramatic as the saplings mature, but already it subtly evokes the Platonic "sacred grove" in Kahn's landmark 1972 design for the Kimbell Art Museum.
 
Unlike most art museums, the Still's program is crystal clear from the moment you walk through the  grove and enter the front door. Across a modest lobby, a stair rises to the second floor, where paintings lead you through nine lovely galleries, enhancing a sense of immediate intimacy with the art. Separations between rooms allow views across and down into other spaces, facilitating awareness of where you are in the building. The art experience is the program, first and last.

Aside from some informative labels, the galleries are free of the intrusive gizmos -- headphones, touch-screens, cellphone links -- increasingly popular in art museums, but which change looking at paintings into watching static movies and video games. All of that is downstairs on the first floor, where plentiful educational texts, interactive videos, studio memorabilia, open painting-storage, a study-vault for drawings, conservation facilities and offices form a literal pedestal to elevate the art experience upstairs.

If you want a cafe or gift shop, you'll need to go elsewhere too; neither one is here. This is a graceful small museum, reserved for experiencing one great artist's art.

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-- Christopher Knight in Denver

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Clyfford Still Museum, 1250 Bannock St., Denver, (720) 354-4880. www.clyffordstillmuseum.org

Photos: Clyfford Still Museum interior (at right, "1944-N #1," oil on canvas, 8 1/2' by 7 1/2'); exterior northwest corner; Clyfford Still, "Untitled (PH-77)," 1936, oil on canvas; museum interior, 1950s paintings; museum entrance. Credit: Peter Harholdt/Clyfford Still Museum

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