The Clyfford Still Museum

I was only moderately interested in visiting the museum bearing the name of this Abstract Expressionist of which I had not thought much about. With a modest amount of knowledge you can easily identify his work, but people do not speak of him in the same candor nor does he have the same influence as say, Pollock, Rothko, Newman, or Kline.

Nonetheless, with the Denver Art Museum (DAM) under significant renovation, my local friend suggested that we see this artist-dedicated museum as an alternative (I found out after that he, a painter, is not really a fan of Still).

Forever in the shadows of the AbEx household names and, for that matter, the DAM, Still established an identity all his own - just like the building in which his art is housed. The concrete box by Allied Works Architecture, with vertical, corrugated striations and wooden slats over the windows, is anything but severe. The rough, organic exterior texture plays well in front of the stack of metallic triangles that compose the DAM addition created by Daniel Libeskind.

“Why’s the museum in Denver?” is everyone’s real question. According to the website:

Still’s will stipulated that his estate be given in its entirety to an American city willing to establish a permanent museum dedicated solely to his work, ensuring its survival for exhibition and study. In August 2004, the City of Denver, under the leadership of then Mayor John W. Hickenlooper, was selected by Still’s wife, Patricia Still, to receive the substantial Still collection. In 2005, Patricia Still also bequeathed to the city her own estate, which included select paintings by her husband as well as his complete archives. The Still Museum collection, which represents 95 percent of the artist’s lifetime output, includes approximately 3,125 works created between 1920 and 1980.

Basically, they held a contest and Denver won.

This small museum takes you chronologically through Still’s work from his semi-figurative origins through the development of his abstractions. A video about the artist and a chronology of his life greet you upon entrance from the ground floor. There you also can view his own archives and inventory, some of his tools, open storage, and the conservation studio (the latter two visible through giant glass doors).

On the day we visited, my friend and I were talking about the many un-stretched stretchers visible in the conservation studio when, by chance, one of the conservators happened to enter and comment to us that they are all new and made locally. We got into detail about how he, the conservator, preferred keys in his stretchers as opposed to ball joints because Still’s canvases were rarely square. With keys, you can more easily adjust to meet the fold marks visible in the canvas.

PHOTOGRAPH BY John Thomas Robinette III

In addition, Still typically rolled his works once dry and reused the stretchers which is why so many of the works require new stretchers and why many roughly measure the same size. We got lucky getting the insider information. I reckon in the future, one could camp out in front of the conservators’ door until one comes or goes in order to pepper them with questions.

In the galleries upstairs, the combination of natural and artificial light bathes the works in an even glow that truly highlights the works in a less-dramatic way - in comparison to a dark room punctuated by spotlights. Like the lighting, the building does not distract from the works, but if you decide to notice it, the building itself will not disappoint. The perforated ceiling not only allows natural light to enter but also amazes with its angled, circular texture. The scale of the galleries is almost considered large — allowing enough space for the largest of his works, yet in no way does it diminish their size.

Just as space and silence are featured in the paintings, so too do they exist in this environment. Rarely do you notice physical barriers or wall labels. The barriers, as I found out on a couple of occasions, cannot be seen, but when you get too close a guard appears to remind you to step back (I can’t help it, I am a collections manager — I handle works for a living).

Likewise, wall labels in small, vinyl text and in low contrast to the wall color identify the works by the inventory numbers that Still assigned to them. For example, PP notes “pastel on paper” followed by a number (possibly the number in a sequence). A final inventory number looks like PP-879. On the wall, the year he created the object follows it by a comma, PP-879, 1976.

When I think of Still and his work, I think of his large color fields and his visible, un-gessoed canvases often topped by large swaths of dark colors. I realized in this visit that he painted that way for over 30 years. Meaning, I cannot tell a late colorfield work from an early one. He barely changes his style. Some express a minimal appearance with almost no paint while some display near full-coverage. That does not mean to suggest that he painted one earlier than the other, however. My own ambitious instincts want to always change and to praise even the attempt at evolution. In this case, however, I want to embrace/give a pass to the artist seeking such subtle change and valuing nuance. At least that is how I will Buddhistically choose to see it. Perhaps, too, he is just a one-trick pony.

PHOTOGRAPH BY John Thomas Robinette III
PHOTOGRAPH BY John Thomas Robinette III

In addition, you can clearly see moments of Franz Kline in his gestures or Motherwell’s shapes in the paintings — I don’t know who influenced who, to be honest. One could have predicted the influence of one’s colleagues, but I did not expect to see some of the muted pastel moments of Monet at times. I do not remember the often-complicated textures made of the interwoven brushstrokes and color that Still applies to his pieces as being a prominent characteristic of his work, but it made me happy to discover it.

In general, it made me happy to discover the museum. I do not like all of the works there, but, as an overall experience, I enjoyed everything. From the building itself to learning about an artist who — it turns out — I knew little about. I even liked the subtle nuances in his paint, and I look forward to visiting again. Perhaps, next time, however, I will actually try to arrange a meeting with the conservation team ahead of time.

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John Thomas Robinette III