Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still effectively ended his commercial relationship with the art world in 1951, when he broke ties with dealer Betty Parsons. In 1959, he referred to esteemed critic Clement Greenberg and others as “wandering mongrels” only able to “cock a leg” against work they could not understand. Not an accommodating attitude, but it’s hard not to feel a stab of empathy for the painter on hearing the news that a patron has attacked one of the canvases in Denver’s new Clyfford Still Museum, very nearly literalizing Still’s image. The fact that this seems to be a motiveless act of drunken insanity rather than an act of highly motivated religious insanity doesn’t make the damage to one of Still’s massive canvases any less sad, and it’s deeply unfortunate that this seems to have become the wider world’s introduction to this museum. Still certainly would not have endorsed the view that any publicity is good publicity.
The new museum contains 94 percent of Still’s output, the gift of Still’s widow Patricia, who was won over by then-mayor John Hickenlooper in 2005 (Hickenlooper is now governor of Colorado), in accordance with Still’s desire that his life’s work be given to an American city (as opposed to an existing museum). Now, more than thirty years after Still’s death, much of that work is on view for the first time.
The museum itself, though in no way backward-looking in its design or approach, successfully embodies the high-modernist seriousness that characterized Still and his midcentury milieu. A serene and remarkably self-enclosed structure, the new building by Brad Cloepfil and Allied Works Architecture provides a rigorously modernistic setting for Still’s work. The concrete of the structure has been imprinted with subtle patterns reminiscent of wood grain, softening its potentially hard edges. Varnished wood also plays a role in the interior, again providing an organic note, while the artfully placed windows and translucent latticed roof provide light without distraction. This is appropriate, given that Still’s work is more organic than hard-edged. The museum manages to be a shrine to painting as painting in a way that Clement Greenberg himself might have approved, without being cold or forbidding.
This extends to the museum’s layout. The ground floor is largely given over to informational displays introducing Still and his work to museum goers. The interactive computer monitors that seem to have become an inevitable part of museum displays are restricted to that floor and to the lobby-like area adjacent to the second-floor galleries.
And there’s a lot of introducing to be done, given Still’s withdrawal of his work from public view, and the somewhat inaccessible nature of Abstract Expressionism. This is very much the kind of art the public has sometimes disliked, not because of what it does depict, but because of what it doesn’t depict. What are these sweeps of color, these powerful brushstrokes that, instead of delineating forms, simply announce their own physicality. The Ab Exer’s own passionate and sometimes acrimonious debates about what they were doing can seem to the uninitiated as incomprehensible and hermetic as the arguments of Puritan theologians.
The ground floor displays do a lot to provide context for those debates without overwhelming the viewer with information or theory (I doubt I could follow all the nuances of the latter). Here are books from Still’s own library – classical literature in well-worn turn-of-the-century editions such as Everyman’s Library, the kind of thing that formed the core of my own grandfather’s library, plus manuals on shipbuilding from the World War II years, when Still worked in the defense plants of the Bay Area – briefly taking his place in an artistic and intellectual milieu whose importance in twentieth-century American culture rivals that of New York (it was in Berkeley that he first met Mark Rothko).
And there are plenty of artifacts from the heady intellectual world of postwar New York – copies of the Partisan Review studded with articles by the likes of Mary McCarthy, Lionel Trilling, and, of course, Clement Greenberg (praising Still, in a 1955 article on “American-type” painting), correspondence between Still and Greenberg. Here is the famous letter, signed by numerous avant-garde painters of the day, announcing their intention to boycott the first exhibition of contemporary painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The letter led to a famous group photograph in Life magazine entitled “Irascible Group of Advanced Artists Led Fight Against Show.” Still, lanky, bespectacled and silver-haired, looking somewhat professorial in a very old-school American way, took his place among the “Irascibles,” standing between Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock, just behind Mark Rothko and just in front of the sole woman, Hedda Sterne. (Weldon Kees, who once worked just across the street at the Denver Public Library, signed the letter but, typically, missed the photo session; I was delighted to find the signature of this elusive and enigmatic figure of midcentury culture. Stills may not have had any ties to Denver, but Kees did.)
The artists of this time and place saw themselves as engaged with the questions about human nature and human society raised by two world wars and a depression, by the rise of totalitarianism, the Holocaust, and the dawning of the atomic age. Critic Harold Rosenberg, defending the turn towards abstraction: “Naturally, under the circumstances, there is no use looking for [grain] silos or madonnas. They have all melted into the void. But as I said, the void itself, you have that, just as surely as your grandfather had a sun-speckled lawn.” Painter Barnett Newman put it even more pithily, “Modern man is his own terror” (Newman’s italics). And artists had an important role to play in articulating this modern dilemma. Newman argued elsewhere that “art is an expression of thought, of important truths, not of a sentimental and artificial ‘beauty’.” The battle for the new painting was in part a battle for meaning in the face of meaninglessness; this accounts for much of the embittered passion that spills out of the documents of this era.
But the medium central to Still’s life was, of course, paint, and there’s plenty of it on display here, too – tubes of paint, but also jars of powdered pigment from which Still mixed his own paints; here are the palette knives and trowels which served better than brushes in creating his vast and densely textured canvases.
The second floor of the museum belongs to those canvases, and to the drawings and lithographs that Still also produced. The same forms, angular yet somehow organic, curiously reminiscent of Still’s own lanky frame, seem to appear again and again in his work, now lyrical, now jagged and flame-like. The colors, especially of the huge later canvases have a prismatic purity. The interaction of yellow and black, the placement of a streak of red against a white ground, take on a strange iconic power.
Even the early figurative work on display in the inaugural exhibition shows the same tendencies. Still was born in North Dakota and spent part of his boyhood in Alberta before graduating from Spokane University and earning an MFA at Washington State College in Pullman. The museum’s fact sheet mistakenly places these in western Washington, an easy mistake to make as eastern Washington is in fact more typically “western” – semi-arid wheat-and-cattle country, very different from the rainy, cosmopolitan Pacific rim. Even more than Wyoming-born Jackson Pollock, Still was the product of big sky country. Many of his early canvases intermingle abstraction and social realism, but it is as if pure form and pure color were always struggling to escape from their semi-abstract regionalist imagery.
The overwhelming impression walking through the galleries is one of unity and continuity, of the relentless pursuit of a kind of visual truth within rigorously defined parameters, year after year. No wonder Still resented the distraction of public display. It must have seemed as disruptive and unnecessary as bringing an audience into the cave of a Tibetan monk seeking enlightenment.