All-to-his-own museum for America’s greatest unknown painter, Clyfford Still


Paintings that artist Clyfford Still made in the decade before his death in 1980, at The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado on February 22, 2012. Still generally had brighter colors than his earlier work, such as these, and were often done on raw canvas. (David Brown /THE WASHINGTON POST)
April 6, 2012

Clyfford Still may not have wanted money and fame but he certainly wanted control and respect. Thirty-one years after his death, he got both.

In November, the Clyfford Still Museum, a stylish concrete box next to the Denver Art Museum, opened its doors. The event ended three decades of wandering by Still’s outsize ghost and the trove of art it dragged, looking for a home. The $25 million, privately funded museum also commences an experiment whose outcome won’t be known for a long time.

Will a one-person museum devoted to an abstract painter hardly anyone knows become a cultural destination or an expensive white elephant? Will the artist’s hoarding instinct make it impossible for scholars to ever fully evaluate his importance? Will an institution shackled with restrictions find a way to evolve when everyone associated with its creation is dead?

More than a dozen cities — Baltimore first and most persistently — thought about becoming the place where those questions might be answered. In the end, they all said no or were spurned.

A pioneer of abstract expressionism, Still died in Maryland in 1980, leaving a will that offered most of his life’s work to a city that would build a museum to show it exclusively. The museum bearing his name has about 825 works on canvas and 1,575 works on paper.


The Clyfford Still Museum displays a photo of artist Clyfford Still, in front of one of his works and buckets and jars of dry pigment from which he compounded his paints using linseed oil and turpentine. (David Brown/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Still’s most recognizable works are jagged areas of magenta, black, brown and yellow (but sometimes orange, blue, lavender and lime) on fields of black or white paint, or on raw canvas. They are neither action paintings nor color-field paintings but something in between — and radically different, too.

The collection is priceless in both a metaphorical and actual sense. In November, four Still paintings sold for a total of $114 million (one for $61.6 million). However, the artist stipulated that nothing in the museum collection could ever be sold. It’s many-billion-dollar value is of practical interest only to insurance companies.

“It’s the King Tut of our time. Nothing else comes close to it,” said Dean Sobel, the museum’s 51-year-old director, who was hired in 2005 to help bring the institution into existence.

While not questioning Still’s importance, others wonder about the wisdom of a museum that can show only one artist’s work forever.

“With all respect to Denver and everyone else who considered it, this was not handing you a gift in any sense,” Brenda Richardson said of the bequest. She was deputy director of the Baltimore Museum of Art and curator of modern painting when Baltimore sought the collection soon after Still’s death.

“It has art-historical significance, without any doubt,” she added. “But as a public museum, it’s fraught with challenge.”

At his death, Still had been in exile from the art world for 20 years.


The roof of Denver's Clyfford Still Museum lets in natural light, changing the artist's sparely hung canvases hour by hour. (David Brown/THE WASHINGTON POST)

He moved to a farm outside Westminster, in Carroll County northwest of Baltimore, in 1960 in an act that was equal parts rejection of New York and search for affordable seclusion. His closest friends from the heyday of abstract expressionism — Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman — were dead or estranged. He had contempt for the power that gallery owners, dealers and critics had over artists and their work.

For two decades more, he painted in a barn that could accommodate his giant canvases, selling only enough to support himself and his second wife, Patricia. (He and his first wife, Lillian, with whom he had two daughters, divorced in 1954. She died in 1977.) Most of his viewable work was in a few museums that agreed to show his paintings in groups. Hundreds of works on paper — many made when it was too cold to work in the barn — were unknown.

Still and his wife stayed to themselves. He made art; she helped make that happen, which included recording his thoughts each evening in a dictated diary. They occasionally went to Baltimore to see a baseball game at Memorial Stadium. A catcher in high school, Still laid out a diamond behind his barn for local children and sometimes joined them in games of catch.

“It was the hardness and disappointment of the New York art scene that made him more isolated. He wasn’t as needy, on a social level, for people who it turned out he didn’t respect,” said Sandra Still Campbell, 69, the artist’s younger daughter, who lives in Arizona.

When Maryland had a streak of barn burnings in the 1960s, the couple moved to a brick Victorian house in New Windsor but kept the farm. Two rooms were filled with hundreds of paintings, up to a dozen rolled together over sections of drainpipe and then stacked. Open flames weren’t permitted. Patricia didn’t even use the oven; she cooked on a hot plate and electric frying pan. It was a live-in fireproof vault.

Over three sojourns in Maryland and on many weekend visits, Campbell took pictures of her father’s work. Her photographs of the paintings — which she labeled PH followed by a number — have become the offical titles of the otherwise untitled canvases. Many have never been seen by anyone other than her, her father and her stepmother.

The paintings started arriving in Denver in October. Slowly, they are being unrolled, conserved and stretched. “They smell of oil and turpentine. There are little bits of straw and dirt from the barn on some of them. There’s an aura of exhumation,” Sobel said. The exact number isn’t known; Sobel said he wouldn’t be surprised if the final count is 10 or 15 more than the estimate of 825.

It will be Christmas morning at the Clyfford Still Museum for a long time.

Farmland beginning

Still was born on Nov. 30, 1904, in Grandin, N.D. Although it’s tempting to see Badlands motifs in his paintings, he spent no sentient time in North Dakota. His family moved to Spokane, Wash., when he was less than a year old.

His parents were both from Ontario. His father, Elmer, was an accountant who hankered to be a farmer. When Still was about 6, the family got a 160-acre homestead in Bow Island, Alberta; the family spent parts of the year in both places. Clyfford was effectively an only child. (An older sister had died in infancy). He worked around the farm. He rode a horse five miles to school. He was a Boy Scout. About age 15, he got a paint set from his parents.

One of his earliest works (not yet on display) is an olive, brown, black and white self-portrait of a confident 18-year-old wearing a tie and snap-front cap. He signed it “Clyfford.” (The spelling “was not an affectation,” his daughter says; it’s a Scottish variant of Clifford and the name of one of his father’s college friends). Like Vincent van Gogh and Rembrandt van Rijn, Still signed his paintings with his first name only. It’s a touch that’s either incongruously familiar or predictably egotistical, take your pick.

The museum’s inaugural show traces the artist’s career chronologically. The two earliest paintings hanging are from 1927 and 1929 and hint of things to come. Both are horizontal landscapes. One features a train moving across the prairie, the other a distant view of a settlement with a grain elevator. In each, there are large areas — sky and land — of thickly applied paint. In each, a plume of smoke rises without dispersing as real smoke would, fissuring a tonally complex and suddenly abstract sky.

Still graduated from Spokane University in 1933 and got a master’s degree in art at Washington State College, where he taught until 1941. His paintings from the 1930s have an American regionalism and social realism look — train yards, wheat-field gleaners, half-starved farm families. This was followed by a period in which he disarticulated machinery and people into a curvilinear Cubism. It’s often hard to tell what’s man and what’s machine. Is that long thing with the round end a femur or a wrench suitable for unbolting locomotive’s trucks?

Still spent part of the war years in Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., doing technical drawing for war industries. A display of personal effects at the museum — painter’s smock, baseball gloves, buckets of powdered pigment — includes the books “Shipfitting Practice”and “Standard Aircraft Worker’s Manual.”

By the mid-1940s, he had broken free. A painting in the fourth gallery, 1944-N-No. 1, is instantly recognizable as his. It’s a black field rifted by jagged canyons of color and with (you don’t notice this at first) tiny stars of raw canvas twinkling a message of nothingness behind it all. Sobel believes “this is the first Abstract Expressionist painting in the U.S.”

People noticed.

Robert Motherwell said of Still’s first one-man show in New York in 1946: “Still’s was, of all those early shows . . . the most original. A bolt out of the blue. Most of us were still working through images. . . . Still had none.” The critic Clement Greenberg wrote: “When I first saw a 1948 painting of Still’s . . . I was impressed as never before by how estranging and upsetting genuine originality in art can be.”

Like most of the abstract expressionists in their mature periods, Still had one painting that he did over and over.

The elements are often naturalistic (although Still, of course, denied this). They recall rock-fissuring seeps; scree from sedimentary rock; lightning bolts on the prairie; canyons and river beds from 30,000 feet; magnetic shards pulled by an off-canvas force; flames and hoarfrost; neurons and their dendrites; dissected arteries; foramina and sutures in dried bones; stalks of wheat with heavy seed-heads.

Many of the paintings are monumental. A spectacular blue one — a rare color for Still — is 10 by 16 feet. Many have the silence and grandeur of the landscapes of Albert Bierstadt and Frederic E. Church. All the ones in the current show are interesting. Most are beautiful. A few are breathtaking.

Searching for a city

Still’s will said a city would get the art. In some cases, an existing museum applied to build and run a Still-only wing or annex. The number of solicitations entertained by Patricia Still, who died in 2005, is unknown but may be as high as 19. They came from places as big as New York and Atlanta and as small as Fargo, N.D., and Santa Ana, Calif.

She had inherited 100 paintings from her husband and could have sold some to help get a museum built, but she chose not to. But money wasn’t the biggest sticking point in most cases.

“You’re not serving the interests of art history to start separating out individual works of art on a massive basis in their own buildings,” said Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum and the former director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Campbell says of her stepmother: “She found a way of mastering the word no.”

In 2004, Denver, which had been rejected previously, got the nod. At the time, Baltimore was negotiating with Still’s widow about a new proposal to put the museum in a waterfront development near Fells Point. “She was quite enthusiastic, which is why we were quite surprised when we heard Denver got it,” said Alex Castro, a Baltimore architect who was working on the project.

Denver raised $33 million; two gifts exceeded $5 million each. Last year, having shown good faith, it got what other cities had been refused.

A court in Carroll County, Md., allowed the sale of four paintings from Patricia Still’s collection (which she had merged with her husband’s collection for the purposes of the museum). Still’s daughters did not object. When the Sotheby’s auction was over and the commissions deducted, the Clyfford Still Museum had a $99 million endowment for its future.

The building — by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture in Portland, Ore. — is modest. As per Still’s wishes, it has no restaurant or gift shop. The galleries, all on the second floor, get natural light from a fenestrated roof. The exterior is poured concrete whose vertical ribs are vaguely reminiscent of motifs in the paintings. But there’s no getting around the fact that it’s a temple to a monumental ego.

Snippets of Still’s writings about his art are for the most part bloviation, forgivable if one remembers how radical abstract expressionism was 70 years ago. One can perhaps excuse his self-regard as a by-product of genius. One can sympathize with his desire not to be edited, which is what sale, lending and showing-with-others is all about. But it’s hard not to see something sad and a little sick in his pathological attachment to his work.

His daughters each had two abstractions, along with portraits he’d painted of them. He planned to bequeath them 10 more paintings each but changed his mind before his death. He said he believed they’d have to sell them to pay the taxes. The pictures stayed in his hoard.

Still’s older daughter, Diane Still Knox, of Walnut Grove, Calif., does not speak to reporters. Campbell, a widow with no children who worked as a secretary most of her life, has sold both of her paintings, one long before the market run-up. From part of the proceeds, she bought a studio apartment in Denver, where she plans to spend three months each summer “to get my Still fix.”

Will others come to Denver to get theirs? That’s the big question. Still’s will doesn’t explicitly prohibit lending some works, and Sobel said that may happen. But it’s going to take a while to stir up interest in America’s most famous unknown painter. On the weekday that I was there, 87 people visited the museum.

And how about the “forever” part of the no-sale, no-other-artists clause?

The legal overthrowing in 2004 of collector Albert C. Barnes’s explicit instruction that his priceless art collection never be moved from its gallery in Lower Merion, Pa., shows that, in the art world, “forever” sometimes means only 60 years.

Sixty years from now, Clyfford Still will be nearly a century dead. His reputation will be established. It’s hard to believe there won’t be a way for his museum to exhale, relax and become a normal institution.

That’s when Denver’s bet will really start paying off.

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