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Clyfford Still's will is executed with Denver museum

The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver fulfills the artist's instruction that his works go to a city that would devote a space solely to his art and its study.

November 20, 2011|By Leah Ollman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • ONE-MAN SHOW: Clyfford Still paintings hang amid natural light in the Denver museum devoted to the late artist. Still?s will bequeathed his works to a U.S. city that would build or set aside a space solely for their display and study. It took decades to fulfill.
ONE-MAN SHOW: Clyfford Still paintings hang amid natural light in the Denver… (Raul J. Garcia )

Reporting from Denver — — Clyfford Still was averse to showing his art in architectural settings that he considered either flamboyant or coldly impersonal, and he railed against anything that distracted viewers from the art itself. Brad Cloepfil, architect of the Clyfford Still Museum that was scheduled to open Friday in downtown Denver, laughs at the idea of Still as a demanding ghost, overseeing his plans.

"I just served the work, what I thought was best for that work," a design resonant with the visceral, elemental quality of Still's paintings, Cloepfil says. "Ideally it's one experience — the building and the art are inseparable. Not that you notice the building the same way as the art, but the building is the atmosphere that the art breathes."

The museum's inaugural show presents a chronological survey of Still's career through 60 paintings, 40 works on paper and three sculptures, many of the pieces never publicly exhibited until now. Still (1904-80) was a giant of postwar American art and a formidable character, legendary for the measures he took to protect his work from forces he deemed exploitative.

The 28,500-square-foot building stands as a quiet, self-contained counterpoint to the massive, titanium-clad shards of the Daniel Libeskind-designed wing of the Denver Art Museum next door. The Still Museum "is a very bounded, dense building, but it feels kind of ephemeral," says Cloepfil, of Portland, Ore.- and New York-based Allied Works Architecture, selected for the job from a shortlist of top international firms. "There's an ambiguity to it, having to do with light."

Exterior walls of cast-in-place concrete are striated with irregular, vertical ribs that catch and absorb light, activating the surface. Inside, the concrete (both textured and smooth) is complemented by cedar panels, and most of the galleries are bathed in natural light that falls through a dynamically perforated concrete ceiling. "One of the things I was interested in was creating a context for the work that was intimate," Cloepfil says. "The building being so condensed and introverted was meant to create that experience for the individual."

The general outline of Still's life has long been familiar, as are the searing words he used to describe his own work ("not paintings in the usual sense; they are life and death merging in fearful union") and the disdainful comments he made about art writing, the public domain and museums (tomb-like edifices of "the culture state"). The new museum exists to tell, for the first time, his fully fleshed-out story, through changing exhibitions and scholarly publications (the first is expected late in 2012), to give public access to the work Still had long hidden away.

The museum's origin story is long and deep, as full of rugged texture as the artist's own work and marked with the same uncompromising drive that characterized his life. The tale's defining plot point came in 1978, when the Abstract Expressionist painter drew up his will, bequeathing his extensive estate — 2,000 paintings and works on paper, most of which had never been publicly exhibited — to an American city that would build or assign permanent quarters dedicated solely to the display and study of his work. He died two years later, of colon cancer, at 75.

Over the next two decades, the artist's widow and executor of the estate turned down some 20 municipal and institutional suitors (including San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York). In 1999, the story gained momentum when she wrote a short note to her nephew, Curt Freed, a research physician in Denver: "It just occurred to me to wonder: What would you think of having the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver? All the best, Aunt Pat."

Dean Sobel, director of the new museum, keeps the framed letter in his office. It was the spark that led to the city's formal agreement with Patricia Still in 2004. But clues foreshadowing the artist's ultimate exercise of control over how his work would be accessed thread through his entire working life: In 1948, he decided to declare all of his work predating his mature style off-limits for exhibition or study; he refused (with one later exception) to show his work commercially after 1951; he imposed unusually tight restrictions (no lending, no intermingling of his works with those of other artists) on large gifts he made to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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