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.
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.
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.