PRINT November 2012


the Clyfford Still Museum

Brad Cloepfil with Allied Works Architecture, Clyfford Still Museum, 2011, Denver. Photo: Jeremy Bittermann.

TAKING STOCK OF CLYFFORD STILL (1904–1980) in these pages on the occasion of a Hirshhorn Museum show in 2001, I made the not exactly daring prediction that even though it had been more than twenty years since his death, and even though single-artist museums in the US were a rarity, the estate would find a home. An American city would offer Still’s work its own museum, thus satisfying the terms of his strict will and receiving the lion’s share of his oeuvre—more than eight hundred paintings and almost all his works on paper, some twenty-four hundred pieces in all.

I am happy to say that Still’s work has not just found a home, it has found a great one. (It’s a long story, told in the museum’s inaugural publication, which turns on the fact that Still has a nephew in Denver.) Designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, it sits in the shadow of Daniel Libeskind’s building for the Denver Art Museum (2006), and indeed some visitors will assume it is part of DAM until they run into a separate admission fee. But the two buildings—Libeskind’s jutting fantasy and Cloepfil’s modest box—could not be more different.

The striated surface catches your eye first—rough concrete ridges that seem to take equal aim at Libeskind’s titanium panels and the glass tiles of the original DAM building across the street, designed by Gio Ponti in 1971. The ridges have been randomly broken, revealing crushed granite and quartz in the mix. Inspired by Still’s use of the palette knife rather than the brush, they translate the dryly rippling texture of his paintings into a facade that suggests decay and drought rather than luxury (what a relief!). And they pick up on the craggy verticality of Still’s contours—the vertical was his religion, a symbol of human assertion amid despair—without undermining the modest horizontality of the building.

The concrete is relieved by a few windows and by banks of wooden slats that, like the ridges, are also vertical and irregularly spaced. These screens look warm and soft, striking a Japanese note midway between opaque concrete and clear glass. All three elements come together at the entrance area, where a glass wall, partly screened by the slats, wraps around a corner of the building, creating some shade under the concrete cliff. Cloepfil, no doubt mindful of the chthonic burden of Still’s work, declared that the entrance “presses the visitor to the earth.” I’m sorry, but all I felt was a high-modernist spring in my step.

The first floor is for orientation, not art. Done in a sort of midcentury-modern style, it includes a small shop, an introductory video, and a few hallways lined with cases of archival materials and quaintly low-tech didactics—hallways from which you can look into a study center, a conservation lab, and paintings on storage screens. While your brain is getting filled, your eyes are getting a rest from the brightness outside before you climb a hanging wooden staircase to the single floor of art. From the top of the stairs, Still’s 1940 self-portrait looms down, as self-wrapped and back-leaning as Rodin’s Balzac, daring you to enter the galleries.

And what galleries they are. Natural light fills much of the space, filtered by a cast-concrete screen of diagonally arrayed oval openings that recalls Renzo Piano’s ceiling at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. The ceiling heights are just right, neither dwarfing nor squeezing the paintings. There are two surfaces for art: standard walls painted light gray and walls of board-formed concrete, rough and knotty—a nice nod to the exterior wood. The paintings look great on both, and having both provides welcome variety. (It is as if the museum were made for these paintings! Oh, right, it was.) For more relief, there are two open-air terraces with benches and gardens just a door’s-push away from the galleries, on the east and west sides of the building. Climate control be damned: As meditation rooms in downtown Denver, they are worth the price of admission. You can breathe.

That is a good thing, because Still’s early work, which director Dean Sobel and adjunct curator David Anfam have chosen to emphasize in their inaugural installation, is airless. The first large room is filled with Still’s mid-1930s images of emaciated farmworkers with dangling genitals, masklike faces, bloody eyes, and no nostrils (maybe that accounts for my breathing trouble), reminding us of Still’s miserable youth working on a dustbowl farm in Alberta, Canada, for a violent, tyrannical father from whom he learned “only doubt and laziness.” The demands of storytelling played a part in the decision to lead with these works, but there was also a practical issue: Small and portable, the early paintings were ready to go on the walls at a moment’s notice, whereas many of the larger, later canvases, rolled up in storage for years, remain to be inspected, conserved, and stretched.

Back in 2001, I suggested that Still’s will imposed an experiment from beyond the grave: Take a major artist, lock up most of his work for decades, and see what happens to his critical and commercial fortunes. They faltered badly, but now they are back, and so we can move on to another experiment, the one proposed by the inaugural installation: Assault the visitor up front with the disturbing early work and see how the mature abstractions in the subsequent galleries end up coming across. Will they read as a successful, transformative escape? Or will formative trauma win out, coloring Still’s mature work with its dry earth and stoic pain?

No doubt each visitor will have a different answer, but for me, trauma wins hands down. What impressed me was the continuity between these “pastorals from hell,” as Anfam memorably calls the ’30s work in a new book on the museum’s collection (Clyfford Still: The Artist’s Museum [2012]), and the mature work from 1950 on.

Anfam’s essay revolves around this very question, and while he sees the late work, in the end, as a fully realized sublimation, he makes the other argument as well, pointing to “the ever-present verticals that were once living beings, the creepy tongues of jagged paint that had been clawing hands . . . and the parched or glistening pigment skins that devolved from wasted and flayed anatomies.”

For me, the primary agent of continuity is not so much imagery as technique. Sometime around 1927, Still chose to abandon his brushes for the palette knife, and he rarely looked back. What is remarkable is that the young Still, as we learn from the very early paintings and drawings on display, was an accomplished draftsman: Adept with pencil and brush, he would have made a good illustrator or portraitist. But in a classic modernist act of self-definition through de-skilling, he seized on a technique that (in my abjectly biographical reading, anyway—I blame the bloody facts!) could carry something of the visceral experience of farmwork, the torturing of land with sharp implements, into his art. Of course Still, although self-taught, was no primitive. There was art-historical mediation, notably from Cézanne, who also used the knife in his early work to convey violent fantasies. But Cézanne returned to the brush. Still never did. In his hands, the knife that had worked so well to build up the slabbed volumes of his primal people in the ’30s served equally well to pull dry paint across the surfaces of his abstractions.

While there is a surprising amount of variety in Still, his most characteristic works combine this kind of facture with jagged contours and a limited, often dark palette in an apparent effort (as Michael Fried once suggested) to slow down the very act of our perception. How you feel about those painstaking, hurting surfaces, so opposed to the various kinds of ease and flow represented by de Kooning, Newman, Pollock, and Rothko, will probably determine how you feel about Still in general. For my part, I am in love with the museum and ambivalent about the artist.

But I have been talking about only a few decades, and that leaves out much of his long career. I found myself drawn both to the much-maligned works of 1970s, when the paintings begin to admit large areas of bare canvas and the marks get pulled this way and that, like filings responding to unseen magnets, and to the mid-’40s, that crucial and awkward moment when Still, like his colleagues but slightly before them, began to shake loose a variety of European influences (primarily Surrealism) and discover his own voice. Newman found his zip in 1945, Pollock his drip in 1946, Rothko his veiled rectangles in 1949. But Still hit his stride as early as 1944, when the jagged vertical streaks he called “lifelines” tore through and lit up his dragged fields of color-matter.

Speaking of colleagues, if I have any criticism it is that the museum treats Still too much as he wanted to be treated: as an independent operator whose works deserve to be seen in splendid isolation. It doesn’t have to be that way. As Sobel explained to me, nothing in the museum’s rules prevents it from displaying non-Still works on loan (or from lending out its Stills to non-Still shows, for that matter); and the fact that the artist’s Abstract Expressionist colleagues are rarely mentioned, either in the didactic first floor or in the wall labels accompanying the art, does not reflect subservience to Still’s massive ego (which must have made Newman’s and Rothko’s look small) but rather a desire to begin with a simple focus on the artist. Indeed, Sobel hopes to mount an exhibition that would trace the fraught connections between these artists, and that is precisely the kind of project that would put the museum and its artist fully on the map.

Until then, we are left to wonder just how and why the commanding work at the very center of the installation—1951-B (PH-247), 1951, a “sixteen-foot-long tornado of inky cobalt blueness darkening to a black plateau riven by a golden razor-edge bolt,” to quote Anfam—looks so much like Newman’s Cathedra of the same year, or why the untitled 1954 painting next to it (PH-1123) comes so close to Motherwell’s “Elegies” of 1948–67. Whatever the issues of priority and influence, there is a whole terrain of intersections to be mapped. I hope the Clyfford Still Museum will do it, even as its eponymous subject raises a hand from the grave.

Harry Cooper is the curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.