Denver's Coup: An Art Museum Devoted to America's Forgotten Master

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© The Clyfford Still Estate

"Self-Portrait (PH-382)" by Clyfford Still, 1940

If you conduct an unscientific poll of reasonably educated Americans, you'll probably find out that about nine in 10 have heard of the artist Jackson Pollock, a major figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement. (He's the guy with the drips.) Maybe three quarters have heard of Mark Rothko, another Abstract Expressionist. (He's the one with the rectangular blocks of color.) But mention the name Clyfford Still, and you'll likely be met with a blank stare.

Yet only 30 years ago, Clyfford Still was mentioned not just in the same breath as Pollock and Rothko, but with reverence by those two artists themselves. "Still makes the rest of us look academic," Pollock famously said. Rothko said that seeing Still's work was "a profound and moving experience."

Known for his huge canvases, free expressive brushstrokes, and use of abstract shapes, lines and forms, Still was at the forefront of a movement that was credited with shifting the focus of the modern art world from Paris to New York. In 1979, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art presented a hugely popular exhibition of Still's work that was the biggest presentation the institution had ever given to a living artist. In 1976, TIME's then art-critic, Robert Hughes, said that Still was "a singular talent whose dimension will not be fully known in his own lifetime."

Hughes had no idea how unknown the dimensions of Still's talent would become. In 1980, the painter died, and more than 90% of his life's work was immediately sealed away from public and scholarly view. According to Still's will, all unsold work would be sequestered until an American city agreed to establish "permanent quarters" devoted to his — and only his — work. Not only could there be no works of art from any other artist on display, there could be no auditorium, no restaurant.

More than a dozen art institutions made serious attempts to convince Still's widow, Patricia, that they would be the best custodians of the work. She rejected them all. And so, for almost a quarter of a century, some 825 canvases and 1,575 works on paper remained in storage. Still's name and work vanished from the public eye.

It will all finally return when the striking Clyfford Still Museum opens on Nov. 18 in downtown Denver. "I have to pinch myself to believe this is finally happening," says David Anfam, an adjunct curator at the new museum and one of the world's great authorities on Still. "I've been working on Clyfford Still since the early 1970s, and there were works I'd known only by hearsay, through bad old photos, or through references to them. Finally we've got the real McCoy. I'm thrilled to bits, absolutely. I may even have to take a tranquilizer or two."

How did Denver win? It is place where Still had spent no significant amount of time, and had no strong connections. Most people associated with the winning bid credit John Hickenlooper, then-mayor of Denver and now governor of Colorado, with the coup. An aesthete with connections to the New York art world, Hickenlooper was well aware of the immense reputation of Clyfford Still, even though his work had been quite purposely eclipsed. The politician was also a firm believer in the economic power of art: that creating a vibrant art community was not just good for the soul of a city, it was good for attracting business. When Lewis Sharp, then-head of the Denver Art Museum, told Hickenlooper about the Still estate, Hickenlooper decided to go for it, and flew to Maryland to meet with the artist's widow.

"We walked through this house in the cornfields of rural Maryland, and there's almost no furniture," Hickenlooper remembers. "In every room, there are rolled tubes, and in many cases no tubes, just canvases, eight, ten, 12 feet high, up to the ceiling of the farmhouse, stacked against each other in each corner of each room." Hickenlooper told Patricia Still that he felt that her husband was a westerner by temperament: someone who didn't accept the status quo, who was always looking forward, defining himself by his future. Denver, he argued, had a similar outlook, and was the appropriate place for Still's work. Eventually, she agreed.

Before her death in 2005, Patricia Still showed the Denver team a foam core model she had built of a museum to house her husband's work. Hickenlooper is now trying to find that model, to compare it with the final result, by Allied Works Architecture's Brad Cloepfil, which he describes as "one of the most beautiful museums I have ever seen on earth."

The structure is an island of tranquility amid the cacophony of the surrounding Denver Art Museum, which was itself designed by Daniel Libeskind (the master plan architect of the new World Trade Center site in New York City). Clyfford Still had referred to museums as "morgues" for paintings displayed in a harsh and unchanging light, and so natural light filters through a delicate cast-in-place concrete ceiling, that from a distance looks almost like fabric suspended from the ceiling.

The inaugural show will be a chronological survey of Still's 60-year career, starting with his early paintings done in Canada and Washington State, and culminating with the works done when Still rejected the New York art establishment and moved to a farm in rural Maryland. Only one of these last paintings has ever been exhibited before, says museum director Dean Sobel. "I think in many ways these later paintings could be a synthesis, or almost a culmination of what he was doing through his career. We've had art historians clamoring to come."

But they'll have to be patient if they want to see it all. Only about four percent of the collection can be shown at one time. Historian David Anfam thinks that over time, the museum will be able to restore Still to his rightful place: at the forefront of not just abstract expressionism, but 20th century American art. "Before, what we knew of Still were like islands and outcrops. Now we're looking at something that is like a whole new country, or even a continent."