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.
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].