A Castle for a Curmudgeon: Denver's Clyfford Still Museum to Open in November, Faithful to His Persnickety Stipulations

"The absence of [critic Clement] Greenberg and all his kind — whether artists or writers, can only increase my satisfaction," painter Clyfford Still wrote in 1959, concerning attendance at his exhibition at the Albright-Knox. "They will get no invitation from me to cock their legs like wandering mongrels against that which they can only approach with resentment." The cantankerous Abstract Expressionist, therefore, would most likely not been enthusiastic about yesterday's press-packed luncheon in New York, at which it was announced that the long-anticipated Clyfford Still Museum in Denver would open at long last on November 18, 2011.

Some 31 years after Still's death in 1980, his curmudgeonly (or at least fastidious) insistence that his life work be, in the words of museum director Dean Sobel, "given, not sold, to an American, not foreign, city, not museum," has finally been realized. And the new Denver space would, as Sobel asserted at Tuesday's event, most likely please him, as it boasts a whopping 94 percent of the his life's creative output — handed over in two massive donations from his late widow, Patricia Still — much of which has never been displayed before. Some of the works were even rolled up immediately after the reclusive painter completed them, leaving Sobel and adjunct curator, and self-proclaimed "Rothko guy," David Anfam the task of unfurling some 600 pieces, many of which smelled of fresh oil, and still had the artist's masking tape still affixed to them.


In the 1940s Still showed at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of the Century gallery and at Betty Parsons, but in the early '50s he withdrew from the New York gallery world, choosing to communicate with the art establishment almost entirely through vitriolic letters. (Such as a 1955 missive to Greenberg in which he explains that he quit the gallery scene "to get out of the orbit of their devices and leeching ambitions.") While in 1979, the year before his death, Still received the largest show ever devoted by the Met to the work of a living artist, his art remained ferreted away, sealed from public and scholarly study, as the estates of other Abstract Expressionists promoted them throughout the 1980s, earning superstardom for the likes of Pollock and de Kooning.


But then in swooped Denver mayor (now governor) John Hickenlooper, who in 2004 convinced Patricia Still to donate the collection, and got the city council on board by promising that no tax dollars would go into financing the institution. (Sobel led the effort to privately raise $30 million, in part by selling four works from the estate of Patricia Still before they officially entered the museum's collection, narrowly wiggling out of a deaccessioning kerfuffle). In a charmingly goofy pre-recorded video from the Capitol steps, Hickenlooper told members of the press at the luncheon that he sees the Still Museum as "certainly the most intriguing Abstract Expressionist collection in the world" and Still himself as "one of America's great modern artists." Meanwhile, Sobel sought at the press lunch to rile up the crowd with the (somewhat) inflammatory comment, "Abstract Expressionism was created by Clyfford Still in Virginia."


The 8,500-square-foot museum building is designed by Brad Cloepfil and Allied Works Architecture, who broke ground in December 2009. It will exclusively show Still's work, including archival materials such as letters, photographs, tools, and personal effects, and, according to Still's iron-clad strictures, will not sell or loan any of its holdings. The cantilevered two-story concrete building boasts nine galleries on its top floor, with storage facilities viewable below. According to the late painter's stipulations, it also cannot contain a restaurant or auditorium. Architect Cloepfil explained at yesterday's lunch that he sought, with his natural light-filled structure, cast-in-place perforated concrete ceilings, vertically-veined concrete façade, and surrounding grove of trees, to "create a context for this work... a context for that voice, to serve the voice of Clyfford Still." He described the structure as "grounded and intimate" in a way that "should settle into the earth, engage the surface of the prairie."

The inaugural exhibition at the new Denver institution will be a sweeping survey of 100 of Still's works from 1927 to 1977, installed chronologically, to explore the artist's shift from figuration toward abstraction, climaxing with his late practice of leaving expansive bare areas of canvas. But there will certainly be some surprising outliers in a museum devoted to an artist whose jagged abstract compositions can sometimes verge on the monotonous: Still's early works from the '20s and '30s feature quasi-figurative representations of farm laborers and machines, and there are also, surprisingly enough, three sculptures that will be on display. And, finally, when ARTINFO pressed Sobel about whether there was anything really, truly weird he'd found while preparing for the museum launch, the director admitted that recently, while sorting through drawings with the late artist's children, he came across sultry drawings of the painter's first wife — wearing only socks.