Abstract Painter Gets Concrete Bunker in Still Museum: Review

Clyfford Still Museum
The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. The building rises from behind a grove of trees next to the flamboyant Denver Art Museum. Photographer: Jeremy Bittermann/Allied Works via Bloomberg

I couldn’t stop looking at a 1944 painting labeled PH-235. A fissure of red appeared to crack open a heavily textured black field. I felt I could fall into that yawning, monumental canvas.

It is a landmark painting by the enigmatic Clyfford Still (1904-1980), whose work is celebrated in a new museum in Denver. Single-artist museums can embalm. This one astonishes.

Rising to fame in the 1950s with such lions of abstract expressionism as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell, Still withdrew from the New York art world at the peak of his fame, taking almost all of his work with him.

The diminutive 29,000-square-foot Clyfford Still Museum, which opened Nov. 18, houses about 2,400 of the artist’s works. Until now, his enormous stature has rested on less than 10 percent of his output during six decades.

The best of Still’s abstractions look as inevitable as the heedless, randomly beautiful patterns of geology or flowing water. The boxy bunker designed by architect Brad Cloepfil bristles with ragged concrete fins, evoking Still’s intricate compositions.

That roughened exterior radiates an elegant gravitas. It forms a carapace that guards Still’s cerebral work from our jangled, attention-deficit lives.

Cloepfil, of the Portland, Oregon, firm Allied Works Architecture Inc., brings a Zen calm by framing the nine, squarish second-floor galleries in planes of concrete and painted drywall that alternately obscure and reveal, like Shoji screens. He mixes salon-style rooms with high galleries topped by a rippling scrim of concrete in which teardrop perforations delicately shower the space with shimmering daylight.

Galleries Breathe

Each room feels contained, so that you stop and look rather than glance and move on. The galleries still breathe because Cloepfil opened corners to diagonal vistas that gently tease you along.

I’ve never seen another museum that paces the art-viewing experience so well.

Dean Sobel, the Still Museum’s director, working with abstract expressionism expert David Anfam, presents a chronological survey of about 100 of the museum’s holdings.

His early work depicts beaten-down Depression-era farm workers he knew from his youth on the endless frozen plains of the American and Canadian West, where he worked odd jobs, studied art, and taught. In photos, Still’s own expression is inevitably stern, with a sweep of gray hair topping rimless engineer-style glasses.

Sobel sketches a transition toward abstraction, with detours to surrealism and cubism weirdly inflected by art deco, before Still finds his true voice in the 1940s.

Breakout Work

PH-235 (Still didn’t title works) hangs in an 18-foot-high gallery with other breakout abstract expressionist paintings. These would make him famous and influence contemporaries.

Here Cloepfil mixes the daylight showering from above with sidelight that’s filtered to a limpid wash by the louvers of an outside porch.

This is lighting so gorgeous you feel you could touch it. Cloepfil worked with Brian Stacy, a lighting designer at the New York City office of the engineering firm Arup.

Sobel and Anfam have hung many drawings and paintings never displayed before. Tiny explosions of bright colors erupt out of huge swaths of dark brown and blue. I saw a psychic battlefield in swirling, colliding vortices of paint.

Still sold little after he left New York City in 1961, disgusted by what he saw as the art world’s soul-killing machinations. He worked out of a small barn on a farm in rural Maryland and developed a weakness for Jaguar cars. He died in 1980.

Will and Sale

His will offered his art to the American city that would build a museum completely devoted to his work. Under then-Mayor John Hickenlooper (who is now Colorado’s governor), Denver took up the challenge. The museum raised $32 million privately and built the $15 million structure.

Earlier this month Sotheby’s sold four paintings that had been promised to the museum by Clyfford’s wife, Patricia, when she died in 2005. They were auctioned to boost the endowment and sold for $114.1 million.

While the museum did very well by the art market Still disdained, the lush proceeds can only encourage cash-strapped institutions to proffer their own crown jewels, museum ethics be damned.

Thanks to Cloepfil, Still’s work now has a home that suits his stormy majesty.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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