On the eve of the opening of the Clyfford Still Museum, it’s worth considering what Still himself would have thought not only of the museum that bears his name, but also of the galas and films and articles and general hubbub that are accompanying the opening. The simple answer is: It’s complicated.
From an early age, Still developed a profound dislike of museums: When he was 21, he traveled east from his home in Washington state to New York to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art—widely regarded as the most prestigious art museum in America—and left disillusioned. He thought the building was stuffy. He didn’t like that the curators grouped “schools” of artists together. He hated the bourgeois nature of it all.
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That visit was the beginning of a lifelong battle Still would wage with both museums and art galleries. He called museums “morgues” and said they were “insidious.” He once referred to the “agents” of the Museum of Modern art as “arrogant, malevolent, and deceitful in all their machinations.” He called the people that worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art “pimps” (and he once called Manhattan art galleries “brothels.”) His antipathy went beyond the institutions themselves: In the 1950s, Still sold Dorothy Miller, curator of the MoMA, a painting for her personal collection. Later, he became upset with Miller (over what is not clear), gave her back the $1,200 she’d paid for the work, and asked her to return the painting. When she did, he destroyed it.
So, in some sense, there is a supreme irony that 94 percent of Still’s art, some 825 paintings and 1,575 works on paper, will be housed in an eponymous museum. But Still did not dislike museums per se; he just didn’t like the ones that that didn’t show his art how he wanted it to be shown, which was in the context of his own body of work. “It is my desire,” he once wrote, “that they [the paintings] be kept in groups as much as possible, and remain so.” (It’s important to note: This is how he believed all artists should be seen.) He famously loved what is now the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, because in 1959 its director gave Still precisely what he wanted—a massive retrospective that included 72 paintings that spanned 21 years.
Today then, as the Clyfford Still Museum makes its final preparations for its Friday opening, it’s difficult to say how the artist would have felt about the endeavor. Would he have liked architect Brad Cloepfil’s poured-concrete building? (Maybe, although Still often equated architecture with authoritarianism, and even though there is a ton of natural light in the upper galleries of the museum, it is not a “light” building.) Would he have liked the interactive multimedia timeline on the first floor? (On a good day, he probably would have dismissed it.) Would he have liked the disposable hand towels in the restrooms that are emblazoned with his name? (Let’s not go there.)
Still, though, likely would have been pleased with the museum’s opening exhibition, which includes 110 works created over 50 years of his life. These works include early representational paintings, early abstractions, drawings and pastels, and the famous, huge, non-representational color field paintings for which Still is best known. They show growth and range, experimentation and consistency. It is a comprehensive survey of Still’s work—the first ever of its kind. “My work in its entirety is like a symphony in which each painting has its part,” he once said, and after seeing the opening exhibition, it’s clear that the Clyfford Still Museum is nothing less than a magnificent concert hall to showcase this artist’s work.
—Photo by Peter Harholdt; courtesy of the Clyfford Still Museum; copyright Clyfford Still Estate