"Still believed there was an ideal way to experience his art," says Sobel, who came to Denver after five years as director of the Aspen Art Museum. "In most instances, he would rather it not be seen at all than to be seen inappropriately. To him, the ideal way would be to see it in groups, and not distracted by the work of other artists. I don't think he felt this right was due only to him. There's been a mischaracterization of Still as having a huge ego, that he felt he was better than anyone else. He felt everyone else played the game, giving in to the commercial side, to the art world as an entity, different than the world of the artist. He was going to do it differently."
From his beginnings as an artist, Still was determined to strike an independent stance, obey no masters, retain integrity at all costs. Born in North Dakota, he grew up between Spokane, Wash., and the family's homestead in Alberta, Canada, where harsh conditions challenged their wheat crop and hard labor was the norm. His paintings from the mid-1930s feature gaunt, depleted farmworkers, their oversized hands rimed with blood. After graduating from Spokane University, he taught at what is now Washington State University in Pullman, leaving there in 1941 to work in wartime shipbuilding industries in Oakland and San Francisco.
Over time, he abbreviated the human figures in his work until they became outlines and fragmented ciphers. Finally, overt figurative references dropped away entirely in favor of monumental fields of rough-hewn color, fissured and streaked with vertical thrusts he referred to as "lifelines." His formative contribution to the New York School jelled, ironically, during his years teaching in Virginia (1943-45) and San Francisco (1946-51). He moved to New York briefly in 1945, and immediately became a dominant presence, showing at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery and the Betty Parsons Gallery, and developing close friendships with Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.
When he returned to New York in 1951, he continued to paint prolifically but radically limited his sales and exhibitions — turning down three invitations to be showcased at the Venice Biennale, for instance. He scorned his Ab Ex colleagues for what he considered selling out to wealth and fame. In 1961, he moved to rural Maryland, where he remained until his death, carrying on, he said, "in aloneness and with ruthless purpose."
When Denver's then-mayor, now Colorado governor, John Hickenlooper traveled to New Windsor, Md., in 2004 to meet Patricia Still for the first time and solicit the gift of the estate, he was taken aback by what he saw. "It was an old farmhouse, and there was hardly any furniture in it," he recalls. "But in every room there were long rolls, like giant carpets. It was like being in a carpet warehouse, but they were all Clyfford Still paintings."
Mrs. Still had turned down Denver's first attempt to house the collection because, Hickenlooper says, "she got the sense that it would be an appendage to the Denver Art Museum, which was completely unsatisfactory. So we made clear that [the museum] would be a completely independent institution with complete autonomy."
One year after finalizing the deal, Mrs. Still died, bequeathing her estate (400 works by Still, plus his archives) to the city as well. Together, the two estates comprise 94% of the artist's total output. The paintings on canvas are hung on racks in storage vaults on the museum's ground floor, behind huge glass doors. Staff members will pull out a new rack of paintings daily to give visitors a taste of what's yet to be shown.
Fundraising for the museum slowed after covering the $29-million cost (all from private sources) of the land and construction, leaving only about $3 million for endowment. Museum officials made the controversial decision to sell four of the artist's paintings, petitioning the court of Maryland to have them removed from Mrs. Still's will. The court approved, as did representatives of both Clyfford and Patricia Still's estates.
The paintings were first offered as a group to public institutions, to no avail, and were brought to auction by Sotheby's this month. Smashing previous sales records for Still and far exceeding presale estimates, the four paintings brought in more than $114 million, selling to as-yet unidentified buyers. The museum is reported to receive about $85 million, a hefty endowment for a fledgling institution.
The sale sidestepped conventional museum practice and elicited some scathing criticism, but Sobel defends the move as consistent with what Mrs. Still did, selling a small number of works to ensure the survival of the rest of the collection.
"Still's wish was a tall order," he says. "Now we can be sure that the vision of Clyfford Still will always be sustainable and we'll be able to fulfill that mission."