This month, the Clyfford Still Museum opens downtown, a shrine to one of the greatest—and least-known—painters of the 20th century. Why Denver? The answer lies in the artist’s irascible life.
The man with the deep-set hazel eyes and an unkempt wave of white hair sat in a taxicab, bound for a sprawling estate in East Hampton, New York, called the Creeks. A heavily wooded 57 acres, the Creeks is bordered on three sides by a coastal lagoon. Just beyond the southern edge of the lagoon, the waves of the Atlantic crash on one of the most exclusive beaches in the United States. In the cab with the man, Clyfford Still, were his wife and one of their two daughters. It remains unclear whether Still’s family was aware that he was carrying a knife.
It was December 1957. Still had been to this secluded place before; he had lived on the land during two previous summers in a small cottage that he rented from the Creeks’ wealthy owner: artist, gallery owner, and patron Alfonso Ossorio. The two had become friends in the early part of the decade when abstract expressionism, and its creators—men with names like Pollock and Rothko and de Kooning and Still—were transforming the postwar American art scene. It was here, at the Creeks, at the far eastern edge of the country, that Still had isolated himself in a barn and created work that would resonate far beyond the cloistered world of Manhattan’s museums and galleries. They were massive abstract paintings, streaks of color cutting across bleak backdrops, seemingly carved into thick skins of paint. It was work that would buttress his reputation as a master of abstract expressionism—one who was highlighted in Life magazine and singled out as one of the most important figures in 20th-century art by the pre-eminent art critic of the era.
When the taxi arrived at the Mediterranean-style villa after the short drive from the Montauk Highway, Still made his way from the car to the home’s front door and was let in by a servant, who informed Still that Ossorio was busy. Really, Ossorio was of little concern to Still; he brushed by the servant into the house and searched until he found what he was looking for: a massive dark blue and Indian red painting. Still had given Ossorio the painting years earlier, but recently the two had had a disagreement. Still appears to have thought that Ossorio caved in to the unsavory political and commercial pressures of the contemporary art world, which, in Still’s mind, was unforgivable. Still had asked for the painting back. Ossorio refused.
Having found his painting, Still considered the piece for a few moments, locked the room’s door, and punctured the canvas with the blade of his knife. He then slid the knife across one side of the painting, to the next, and then the next, until finally he’d cut the center—the heart, as he would say—out of the work of art.
Whether creating art or destroying it, Still always acted with extraordinary precision: He hadn’t slashed the painting haphazardly, although there was a brutal violence in the act. Instead, when he was done, all that was left was an even border of canvas inside the frame. Still rolled up the excised portion of the painting, tucked it under his arm, and walked out of the room, out of the house, and back to the waiting cab.
As the taxi pulled away, Still’s wife and daughter could see Ossorio, Still’s onetime friend, as he looked out the window of his home, his face pale, his neck outstretched in terror. Still’s words were in Ossorio’s head: “When I give you an order about my work,” Still had said on his way out, “you obey me!”
They were called the “Irascibles.” There were 15 of them, all prominent abstract artists who had recently lodged a protest against the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the high temple of American visual arts, in Manhattan. They’d written and signed an open letter that argued the Met was “notoriously hostile to advanced art,” which in this case meant contemporary, and particularly abstract, art. The New York Times wrote about the letter on its front page. Then, in January 1951, Life magazine published a photo of the group. The imprimatur of Life, and the assemblage of these avant-garde artists in one place, demonstrated the growing acceptance (and more accurately, the gravitas) of the group, the members of which were variously referred to as the “abstract expressionists” or “the New York School.”
Still’s closest friend in the image was Rothko. They’d met in 1943 in Berkeley, California, and two years later, Rothko introduced Still to the influential contemporary art collector Peggy Guggenheim, who owned a gallery called Art of This Century on West 57th Street. In Rothko: A Biography, James E. B. Breslin quotes a friend of the two men who described Rothko as “the epitome of the New York Jewish intellectual artist/painter [who] exuded an entirely different kind of energy, urbane, deep intent,” while Still had an “austere puritan almost Calvinist manner.” There were other differences, too. Chief among them: Still was supremely confident in himself and his vision of a solitary life devoted to art. Rothko was insecure, needed constant approval, and longed for the trappings of the upper-middle-class bourgeoisie.
Despite their personalities, they became close and encouraged each other in their respective developments as artists. In the summer of 1947, Still and Rothko began discussing the founding of an art school, which eventually became known as the Subjects of the Artist. The school opened in the fall of 1948 in downtown Manhattan, but earlier that year Still had backed out of the project because of philosophical differences with the other artists involved.
Jackson Pollock was the unrivaled star of the group in the photo. He’d been featured, solo, in an earlier Life magazine feature in August 1949, titled “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” which described the Wyoming native, who was 37 at the time, as “the shining new phenomenon of American art.” Still surely took a dim view of Life’s provocative pronouncement on Pollock, given Still’s ample self-regard and his views on criticism and mass culture: He called critics “the butchers who make hamburger of us for the public gut.” (Still did cooperate with the “Irascibles” photo shoot; he may have been condescending toward the media, but he was also not above manipulating the press if it served a purpose—in this case, sticking it to the stuffy, elitist Met.)
Yet Still also maintained a friendly, if not overly close, relationship with Pollock. Once, Pollock, who often became belligerent when drinking, challenged Still. “One night somewhere along the line, Dad went drink for drink with him, and then took him home,” Still’s youngest daughter, Sandra Still Campbell, says. “Dad was not a drinker, but he was a man of intellect and control, and I think it was kind of a mind-over-matter thing. So, after drinking him under the table, he put Jackson to bed, walked it off, and that was it.” Of Pollock’s paintings, Still once wrote in a letter to the artist: “What each work said, and what its position, what each achieved you must know.… It was that here a man had been at work, at the profoundest work a man can do, facing up to what he is and aspires to.”
Still’s carefully chosen words could exalt, but more often he constructed prose to eviscerate. Dealers, galleries, collectors, academics, and museums: No individual or institution was spared his sharp, often angry, wit. Galleries were “brothels.” Museums were “gas chambers.” With a brush or trowel or palette knife in his hand, Still created transcendent works of emotional depth and artistic vision. With a pen in his hand, Still created discord, baited friends and enemies alike, and left a permanent record of vitriol that stands out even among a group of people—that is, visual artists—that are known for their dissatisfaction with the world.
He was not cynical, though. He was not intellectually lazy or dishonest. He was not mean for the sake of being mean. Still instead lived by a rigid code that was borne of his study of Romanticism and the notion that art could not only change how we perceive and make sense of life, but also could indeed change the world. And with that messianic belief came the need to defend a worldview that was inscrutable to some, off-putting to others, but which was remarkably consistent at a time—the post-World War II era—in which moral relativism had reached a new low. He was binary: You were right or you were wrong; or, more precisely, he was right and you were wrong. In the context of the postwar art world, the result of his unyielding morality and his unwillingness to kowtow to social convention meant Still became an outsider by his own doing.
He was born on November 30, 1904, in Grandin, North Dakota, but before his first birthday, the family moved to a small bungalow in Spokane, Washington. It was the first of countless moves that would mark Still’s itinerant life. His father, Elmer, had a college degree and worked as an accountant in Spokane before he moved the family again in 1910, this time to a 160-acre homestead in Alberta, about four hours southeast of Calgary.
For years, the family would work the land during the summers in Canada. Elmer would hire Swedish men to do the labor on the farm, and his son was obligated to help. Of the work, Still once said, “My arms have been bloody to the elbows shucking wheat.” One time, the family was building a well on the farm; to discern the progress of the project, a rope was fastened around their only child’s ankles, and the boy was lowered upside down into the well. Each autumn, with the harvest over, the family would go back to Spokane, where Elmer would return to his accounting business.
It was a difficult, solitary childhood: the austere landscape of the prairie; the lonely mother, Sarah, isolated on the homestead; the taciturn Scottish father. Young Still’s relationship with his father was tumultuous at best. Weeks, at times months, would pass during which Elmer would not speak to Sarah or their child, yet it was Elmer who bought Still his first set of oil paints and canvases when the boy was about 15 years old. Not long after that, when Still left the farm, it was also Elmer who destroyed more than 30 paintings made with that set of paints. Years later, Still said the only traits he’d inherited from Elmer were “doubt and laziness.”
He attended Edison Grammar School in Spokane, but Still immersed himself in library books as a child and later said that these tomes were his true education. He studied books like Masters Everyone Should Know, read the John L. Stoddard Lectures about Stoddard’s world travels, and he and his mother once found a collection of magazines that had color reproductions of classic art works. “He was so isolated that he had to fill that free time,” says Sandra Still Campbell. “He filled it with these books and good music, and that was his universe. He traveled the world through those books.”
When he was 12, he saw reproductions of several paintings that had a lasting influence on him, one of which was Rembrandt’s “Portrait of his Son, Titus.” The portrait is remarkable in its delicate depiction of the boy: soft, alabaster cheeks and dark, sleepy eyes that avert the gaze of the viewer. What did the young Still see in this painting? He saw a master technician, yes, but there was more: the thick paint, the texture, the raw emotion that comes through in the brushstrokes. In this work, did Still see something of himself? In Titus’ tender face, rendered by a clearly adoring father, did Still see a love and paternal affection that he could only imagine? Had the isolated farm boy, an only child, finally connected with someone, or something, that triggered something profound and life-altering not only in his mind, but also in his restless soul?
The young man sat in the rigid seats of a transcontinental train as it rattled its way from the endless horizon of southeast Alberta, Canada, toward New York City. It was November 1925. Still would turn 21 in just a few days, and for the first time, he was going to New York to study art and, he wrote, “to visit the Metropolitan Museum and see at first hand the paintings I had learned to love through my study of their reproductions.”
Once he’d arrived in the city, Still sat on the steps of the Met and waited for the museum to open to see the work of the Old World masters, including Rembrandt’s “Portrait of his Son, Titus.” “He left disappointed,” Sandra Still Campbell says today. “The paintings were stacked two and three above each other. It was a suffocating building, a very oppressive environment.” Still himself said he did not like how the museum organized the art (by similar artists) and objected to its canonization of works that would “glorify popes and kings or decorate the walls of rich men.”
Even at 21, the opinionated, talented, ambitious, and self-assured Still had begun to cut a path for himself that was at odds with the status quo. That same year he enrolled in classes at the Art Students League in Manhattan. Forty-five minutes later he quit. “The exercises and results I observed I had already explored for myself some years before,” he said, “and had rejected most of them as a waste of time.” He left New York and returned to the West.
By then, Still had become close with a woman from Spokane named Lillian August Battan. The Battan and Still families knew each other, and Clyfford and Lillian, who had light-blue eyes and curly red-auburn hair and high cheekbones, had been friends for years. Lillian studied piano; her mother’s ambition was for her to be a concert pianist, but Lillian wanted to be a librarian. They were a perfect pair, the painter and the aspiring archivist. When they were in their early 20s, Clyfford proposed to Lillian on a bridge that crossed the Spokane River. The couple married around 1930.
Lillian was the eldest of four children and growing up had acted as a surrogate mother for her siblings when her mother, a devout Methodist, was attending to church business. Clyfford and Lillian never planned to have children. Clyfford had painting, which was all-encompassing, and Lillian felt as if she’d already raised three kids. She was more than happy to forego having children of her own and instead looked forward to supporting Still’s artistic labors.
Between 1933 and 1941, Still painted and taught at Washington State College, where he was awarded a master’s degree (he did not do any coursework for the degree, but he did write a master’s thesis on Paul Cézanne) and achieved the position of assistant professor of fine arts, while Lillian taught piano when she could find a student. The summers of 1934 and ’35, which Still spent as a resident at Yaddo, an artists’ retreat established by the Trask Foundation in Saratoga Springs, New York, were seminal in Still’s development as an artist. “These months provided the first absolute free time of his life,” according to a biography that accompanies the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art catalog from 1976. “Even during childhood the demands of helping his father with farm work and of school were an ever-present drudgery and responsibility. Here he could dream, think, paint or converse with others at the Foundation.”
The freedom afforded him was monumental. His paintings from this time became increasingly abstract and Still honed the philosophy that served as a foundation for his work; he began to describe painting “as an instrument of inner comprehension.” In other words, instead of illustrating external life as we know it—portraits, for example, or still lifes or landscapes—he wanted to push deeper. As far as Still was concerned he was painting nothing less than the landscape of the human soul. Rembrandt painted what made him feel; Still painted feeling itself. “What makes it work is what isn’t there,” he said. “It is what we feel in Rembrandt beyond the physical. I wanted to strip everything away. Every canon of art I wanted to cut through. I am trying to do the impossible, to point out potentials, to clear the way, to break the boundaries.”
Despite their ambivalence about having children, the Stills had two daughters by 1942. Diane Still was born in 1939; Sandra was born three years later. “He never planned to have a family, so there was always a tug-of-war,” Sandra Still Campbell says. “We might go a year and a half, two years, without seeing him. And then we’d look out the window and Dad’s Jaguar was parked outside. Dad’s in town! It was always a surprise, but he had to paint.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Still was not wired to be a father. Elmer had shown Still how not to be a dad, but Still fell into similar traps. Often, he simply wasn’t there. When he was, Still was remote, imperious, superior. Children and their needs were mundane: They sapped his energy, energy that could be used in the hard work of creating art.
The few moments the girls did share with their father, then, were all the more meaningful. They look back on those times as sepia photographs in their minds’ eye: seeing the Jaguar Mark IV pull up. Taking the car to the Auto Works shop with their dad and watching the mechanics work on the engine. Lunch trips the family would make to the wharf in San Francisco for crab sandwiches and clam chowder. “I can remember the day I was still in grade school, seventh or eighth grade,” Sandra Still Campbell says. “Dad came to Spokane and he got us up before sunrise and drove us to Lake Coeur D’Alene. We watched the sun come up; we snoozed in the car until the diner opened up for pancakes. And I don’t know how he did it, because this was the man who was always on the move and contemplating, and he sat on the edge of a picnic table and watched us splash in the water for hours.”
By 1941, Still, Lillian, and the two girls had moved to San Francisco, where Still taught at the California School of Fine Arts and worked in the shipyards for the Navy as the United States ramped up its war efforts. With Still absent from home much of the time, Lillian found herself reliving her earlier years as a de facto single parent. If Still wasn’t much of a father, he was also not much of a husband. He had neither the patience nor the inclination to take care of the prosaic day-to-day responsibilities that make a functioning family life possible; Lillian handled virtually everything. After long days, Still would have students over to his family’s San Francisco apartment in the evenings, and Lillian, who had become resentful of so much burden and so little assistance, was expected to serve cookies and coffee.
Into this domestic dysfunction wandered Patricia Alice Garske, a graceful, blond-haired artist who first met Still in 1937 or 1938, when she was one of his students at Washington State. Garske, who was 16 years Still’s junior, eventually followed Still to the Bay Area, and they embarked on a romantic relationship that was a point of contention in the Garske family—and especially angered Patricia’s mother.
Still and Lillian began living even more separate lives and finally separated in the late 1940s. Throughout that decade, Still moved back and forth between San Francisco, Canada, and New York, while Lillian and the girls shuttled between San Francisco and Washington state.
Still and Garske left California for good in 1950 and settled in New York, although Clyfford and Lillian were still married. (The couple formalized their divorce in 1954.) Whereas Lillian had become bitter over the family’s domestic arrangements, Patricia turned her life over to support Still’s painting. She gave up her own ambitions as an artist and in New York took a job as an accountant for Standard Oil Company. She would take dictation from Still; she managed the couple’s finances and logistics—if the couple were on a road trip, Patricia would make the hotel arrangements—and cooked meals on a hot plate for Still at his studio on West 23rd Street. They were married in 1957.
Lillian and Still remained friendly until her death in 1977, but the marriage had taken an emotional toll on her. Even after their split, the cult of Still’s singular personality continued to influence her: He had told her he didn’t want his daughters around another male figure, and after the divorce Lillian never remarried, or even dated other men.
At first, all you see is black. The work is like a six-foot-by-five-foot black hole sucking you and everything else nearby into it. You cannot escape its pull, and so you step a bit closer, and you see the texture of the black pigment, raw lavalike hunks of paint coming off the canvas. It’s as if the paint itself is fighting the laws of physics—this piece, this painting, is not two dimensional. It’s three dimensional. Now, step even closer and you see that the painting isn’t really black after all. It’s mostly black, but there’s a narrow, red, vertical ribbon or cord or cable of paint ever so slightly off center.
Your eyes drift until they reach the lower left of the painting, and, again—red. Here, the bright paint moves from the lower left edge of the canvas to the corner, and then along the bottom until it fades to black. It’s like a little frame, like the rest of the piece somehow, almost magically, is being held up by this red, truncated border.
Why red? Why place the red in these seemingly random spots on this black monolith? (You know the placement isn’t random, but, still, you wonder....) Is the red on top of the black, or is the black on top of the red with the red pushing through the darkness, fighting to be seen? There are no clues from the creator, because, as with his other works, this one is untitled. And, yet, you want to know: What is Clyfford Still saying to us here? What are we to feel looking at this work? It’s difficult to feel joy in the presence of this dark, heavy canvas. But you know, too, that it’s at least possible that sadness was not what he was conveying either; Still didn’t buy into the stereotypical connotations associated with the color black. What you’re left with is a feeling that’s neither joyful nor melancholy, but rather pure, awe-inspiring willfulness, power, and energy.
It was works like this 1951 painting, now in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, that led the art critic Clement Greenberg to publish an essay in the Partisan Review, “American-Type Painting,” in 1955 that crowned Still as the king of the abstract expressionists. Greenberg, who’d previously championed Pollock, wrote that Still was “one of the most important and original painters of our time—perhaps the most original of all painters under 55, if not the best.”
It was a pointed reversal of Life’s histrionics six years earlier with the Pollock feature, and although the Partisan Review did not have the popular reach of Life, among those in the hothouse of the Manhattan art world, it was a much more important assessment. Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, felt betrayed. And whether it was coincidence or not, Still wasn’t invited to Pollock’s solo show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan. Pollock, finally, found himself on the receiving end of one of Still’s biting letters:
I did not receive an invitation to your show. This makes me somewhat curious. Is it that you are ashamed of it? Or are you ashamed of what you are willing to take from those who know how to use you to express their contempt for the artist as a man? It’s a hell of a price to pay, isn’t it?
Yours most sincerely, Clyff
Pollock kept the letter in a drawer in his kitchen and read it over and over. In Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, Steven Naifeh writes that “[t]o be alone with this letter, it was clear, was more than he could bear,” and Pollock’s friend, Nick Carone, said: “This touched his core…I never saw such weeping.”
Despite the scathing letter, the men remained in touch. Still had even gone to Pollock’s house on Long Island in 1956. That night, like so many during that time, Pollock was drunk. Whereas Still’s status in the art world had changed primarily because of the vicious letters he sent to museums, gallery owners, and artists, Pollock’s star was dimming because of a creative stasis and his alcoholism. About a year after he’d written Pollock the infamous letter, Still suggested Pollock join him on a road trip. The plan was to drive their own cars from New York, meet in Pennsylvania, and then, together, head to the West that had shaped both of them indelibly.
Still waited on the designated day in Pennsylvania at the designated time when the two men were to meet to begin their journey. Maybe Pollock had gotten lost. Maybe he’d been so drunk he had forgotten the plan. It didn’t matter—he wasn’t there, and Still hopped back into his Jag and continued westward. Several days later, by the time he’d made it to Wisconsin, Still opened up a newspaper and learned that Pollock had died in a car accident not far from his home in the Hamptons. He’d been drunk and drove his car into a tree. “If he’d come, he might still be alive today,” Still said 20 years after Pollock’s death. “He could have had a fresh start.”
By the time Pollock had died, Still and Rothko’s close friendship had dissolved. In Still’s view, Rothko had become aggressively commercial and Still disavowed Rothko’s body of work. “His need for sycophants and flattery, and his resentment of everyone, or every truth, that might stand in his path to bourgeois success, could no longer be ignored,” Still wrote to Sidney Janis in 1955. After their split, Rothko, in part confirming Still’s analysis, wanted to know what Still said about him privately; in one instance, a mutual friend relayed to Rothko that Still had said he believed Rothko was “living an evil, untrue life.” Years later, in February 1970, Rothko was found dead in his Manhattan apartment. He’d slashed his arms just below the elbows and bled to death.
In 1961, Clyfford Still left New York for good. Though he later said he considered New York his home, he loathed the politics, the ambition, the manipulation, and the lies. “Here [in New York] is where the showdown fight really goes on—it’s bloody and real,” he said. “No illusions about social morality high or low. The artist is his brother’s enemy like nowhere else…. San Francisco offered hope—but didn’t fool us. New York offers a slash across the belly. You know your friend has a knife and will use it on you.”
Still and Patricia bought a 22-acre farm in Carroll County, Maryland. Unlike his father, he did not do any farming on the land; however, he did renovate a studio. There, he worked in almost complete isolation. In 1966, five years after his move to Maryland, the Stills bought another home in New Windsor, roughly eight miles from the farm, which they kept. Still lived there until he died in 1980 from cancer. He donated his beloved Jaguar to his mechanic, and even after he was gone, Patricia would place his hat on the passenger seat when she drove her car.
Still’s last will and testament, which was signed on May 2, 1978, two years before his death, is a simple, one-page document. The key to the will lies in its fourth item, which reads: “I give and bequeath all the remaining works of art executed by me in my collection to an American city that will agree to build or assign and maintain permanent quarters exclusively for these works of art and assure their physical survival with the explicit requirement that none of these works of art will be sold, given, or exchanged but are to be retained in the place described above exclusively assigned to them in perpetuity for exhibition and study.”
The will names Still’s wife, Patricia, as executrix of his estate; in the case that Patricia died, his youngest daughter, Sandra, would take over. The total number of “remaining works” to which Still referred is 2,393, many of which have never been seen by more than a handful of people. Since Still’s death, the paintings were stored in his home, and more recently in rolls in a guarded Maryland warehouse. The value of the paintings is estimated to be more than $1 billion.
For years, the estate lay essentially dormant. It was easier to do nothing for Still’s widow, Patricia, who didn’t advertise the collection and didn’t do much more than entertain, and then reject, numerous suitors: Atlanta; Baltimore; Santa Ana, California; Worcester, Massachusetts.
And then Denver came calling. Why Denver? Well, civic leaders who became familiar with Still’s biography figured, Why not? The bequeathing of the estate was not about the city, really; it was all about Still’s clearly codified wishes and legacy. If a city could put together a cogent plan, no small task, it would get the collection and Still would have a temple built to house his body of work.
By coincidence, or serendipity, Clyfford Still’s nephew happened to live in Denver. Curt Freed, a doctor and professor at the University of Colorado, called the Denver Art Museum in 1999 and told the museum about the collection and Still’s will. The museum and Wellington Webb’s administration began making overtures to Patricia Still. Ever attentive to her husband’s will, Patricia terminated the discussions after deciding that a museum—in this case, the DAM—was too closely involved in the negotiations.
Freed did not give up. In 2003, John Hickenlooper was elected mayor of Denver, and the city reopened conversations with Patricia. Freed, the new mayor, and several others met in Maryland. En route, the mayor and his team practiced the sales pitch that Hickenlooper, the almost apolitical politician, would deliver: Denver, the city, was in certain ways like Clyfford Still, the man. Still was, at heart, a Westerner. The city was more about the future than the past. Denver wanted to be a new kind of city, and Still had looked at his art and his life in a completely new way. Denver was no New York, which in Still’s view was that pretentious town of butcher-critics, parasitic museum sycophants—that “bloody” town of “showdown fights.” Denver was a blank canvas.
The group arrived at Patricia’s Victorian home and was led inside where it found scores, perhaps hundreds or thousands, of paintings rolled up and propped in the corners of the rooms. Patricia had spent so long thinking about her late husband’s wishes that she’d gone as far as play-acting architect and had made a miniature foam-core model of what she thought a museum showing Still’s work should look like. The Denver team made its presentation to a skeptical Patricia, and at the end, she surprised everyone by saying, “That all makes a lot of sense.”
The next year, after months of intensive discussions, Mayor Hickenlooper and the Mayor’s Office of Art, Culture and Film announced that the deal was done. “This is a historic moment,” Hickenlooper said, “in the evolution of Denver as a cultural center for our residents and visitors from throughout the region, country, and world.”
More than money or fame or adulation or respect, Clyfford Still wanted his work to be seen and felt. His art-making was an intensely personal undertaking; he painted a visual representation of human emotion and said his paintings were life itself, his life, on canvas. On the rare occasions that he sold a painting—Still was so stubbornly anti-commercial that he wouldn’t use the word “sell”; he said he “released” paintings—he said it was like he was giving part of himself away.
He resolved, at least in his own mind, the contradiction of wanting to be seen and his disillusion with the mainstream art scene by being deliberately selective in his interactions with these institutions. Although Still may not have allowed his work into the world in the volume or manner of his contemporaries like Pollock, Rothko, or de Kooning, the carefully selected, edited, and curated (usually by himself) paintings he allowed into the public sphere demonstrate that he was willing to play the art game like his contemporaries. He just played by different rules: his rules. After his self-imposed exile from New York, he appeared at intervals that seemed calculated to keep his work in the public consciousness, including showings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, and solo shows at the San Francisco MoMA in 1976 and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979, the very museum that had so disappointed him 54 years earlier. Still selected the paintings for both latter exhibitions, and both exhibitions were accompanied by generous donations of works by Still.
What Still really wanted to control in a consistent, if at times naïve manner, was when, where, and how his work was shown. Still referred to dealing with the commercial aspects of art as “guerilla warfare.” He was selfish, and self-important, but he cared about Art with a capital “A,” Art that in his mind could change the world. “He turned his back on certain fame and fortune,” says Governor John Hickenlooper, “and in so doing, in a way, he reinvented the American Dream.”
Now, 31 years after his death, with a museum dedicated to his life’s work, a shrine to which casual viewers and disciples alike can make pilgrimages, Still finally has the opportunity to share his paintings in a way that, perhaps, even he would have approved of. Clyfford Still’s will was his last grandiose pronouncement, and the Clyfford Still Museum is its manifestation: It opens on November 18, and its inaugural exhibition will be composed of 110 paintings that span 50 years. No other artists’ work will ever be shown in this venue, which is how he always wanted it. Still’s works will never be loaned to other institutions. There will be no cafe, no museum store. His will gave a clear order about how his work should be treated. By obeying that order, Denver has gained something that will alter the course of its cultural life—just as Clyfford Still altered the history of painting—forever.
Geoff Van Dyke is 5280’s deputy editor. Email him at [email protected].