Exhibit of the week: Clyfford Still Museum

The opening of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver should help Still, who was a contemporary of Pollock and Rothko, to become better known.


Clyfford Still should be more celebrated, said Hilarie M. Sheets in Art in America. Though such contemporaries as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko are today far better known, the North Dakota–born Still was “arguably the first” among the major abstract expressionists to develop “a monumentally scaled abstract style devoid of recognizable subject matter.” His relative obscurity is partially his own fault: Always a stickler about how his paintings were presented, Still largely withdrew from the art world beginning in 1951 and allowed only two museum retrospectives in subsequent decades. Yet he painted up to his death, in 1980, and in his will bequeathed virtually his entire artistic oeuvre, mostly works never before seen, to whichever city would erect a museum dedicated solely to his work. Denver prevailed over nearly 20 other suitors, and in mid-November, the Clyfford Still Museum opened its doors there. Whatever damage Still’s “uncompromising attitudes” did to his legacy, “he has ultimately prevailed.”

The Denver Art Museum’s new neighbor is “a marvelous model for what a single-artist museum can be,” said Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times. Thanks to Still’s obstinacy, Denver holds a remarkable 94 percent of his output, some 2,400 works in total. The new museum’s opening installation is “a knockout,” full of surprises, beginning with rarely seen figurative work from the 1920s and ’30s that draws imagery from the farmlands he knew from his Northwest upbringing. Even so, the 49 works on paper, selected from a cache of 1,575, are the show’s greatest revelation. “By 1943, practically everything Still would soon elaborate on canvas is there in nascent form on paper.” Arriving a year later, 1944-N No. 1, a mammoth, mostly black canvas, represents possibly the first work of abstract expressionism. It’s also Still’s first canvas to feature what he called his “lifelines”—jagged jolts of color, often laid in with trowels, that cut across the canvases’ color fields.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

A viewer is given no reason to doubt that Still got to abstract expressionism first—and did so without using cubism as a springboard, said Peter Plagens in Artnet​.com. His oeuvre was once described as “a living mountain,” a phrase that nicely captures his obvious ambition to use the simple elements of color, texture, and scale to lasso the “monumental sublime” to “get directly at whatever power runs the universe.” That his paintings can be viewed in perhaps “the best piece of architecture” among Denver’s museums marks a triumph for all concerned. Still was right to hold out. He would have approved.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.