Maverick painter Clyfford Still left a will donating the bulk of his life's work -- 750 oil paintings and 1,300 works on paper estimated by dealers to be worth $100 million -- to any American city agreeing to exhibit them in one location.
"He wanted people to see the works as he conceived them," Patricia Alice Still, his widow, said yesterday when the will was made public. "He didn't want people to be confused [by] the work of other artists."
Still, regarded as one of the pivotal Abstract Expressionist painters, lived in Westminister, Md., until his death on June 23, 1980, at the age of 75. The works provided for in the will date from 1920 to 1979. Most have never been exhibited or photographed for publication, according to his widow. They cover the full range of his art, from early figurative pieces to the mature flame-like licks of color on wall-size canvases that became his signature. Dealers estimate the value of the oils at about $100,000 each -- a total of $75 million -- and another $25 million for the works on paper.
While small European museums have often been devoted to the work of one artist, such as the Rodin Museum in Paris, the idea is unusual in this country. And yesterday, museum officials in Washington and around the country reacted with mixed enthusiasm to Still's posthumous offer.
Harry Rand, curator of 20th-century art at the National Museum of American Art, said, "It sounds like something he would do, but I didn't know it would be so monolithic. I don't know how big an endowment it would take to maintain something like this."
Rand yesterday recalled a Still story from one of the artist's early and obscure essays. "He wrote about having once hitchhiked 1,500 miles across the country to hear Rachmaninoff play the piano. Fifteen hundred miles. He said that if someone wants to see something they'll go to it. . . That's the way he thought of his own work. It would be a pilgrimage to Clyfford Still."
Yesterday, Chri Hartman, press secretary to Baltimore's Mayor William Donald Schaefer, said the City of Baltimore was already recruiting sponsors for a possible Still museum. "We would like to be able to house this collection," Hartman said.
The will stipulates that the paintings not be "sold, given or exchanged" and must be kept "in the place exclusively assigned to them in perpetuity for exhibition and study."
During his lifetime Still refused to participate in group exhibitions, and often refused to sell works in order to keep them together, his widow said. "He didn't feel that each man's work was seen at all" in group exhibitions, Patricia Still said. "He called it minestrone. It was all jumbled and no particular thing was seen or felt."
He did make donations of his works to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (28 paintings in 1975) and the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. (31 paintings in 1963-64). The strictures he placed on his work after his death are similar to those he requested during his lifetime. Neither museum is allowed to sell or loan any of the works he donated, and the San Francisco museum is required to have some on view at all times. In both cases, Still asked that the works be exhibited independent of the work of other artists. But that view isn't universally shared.
"Art is like a chemical reaction," said Rand."Art grows by being next to other art. . . I don't think some ends are served by having it all together and alone in one place."
"I'd have to really think about it," said James Pilgrim deputy director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where a major Still retrospective was held from late 1979 to early 1980. "We wouldn't have done the exhibition if we didn't have high regard for him as a living artist. . . [Still's request in his will] is an enormous undertaking."
Abram Lerner, director of the Hirshhorn Museum, said, "He was a very private person. Everybody knew that he was not on easy terms with the art world. He had strong opinions about the development of modern art . . . and he was not easy to reach -- emotionally or intellectually. . . [the will] doesn't surprise me at all.
"We have a number of Stills, and I wish we had more, but I don't see how we could handle this," said Lerner.
Henry Hopkins, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, said, "I hadn't heard about this, but many of us speculated he would want something like it. . . It would be such a massive and costly process to build and care for it."
"It's an indication of his own regard for himself," said E. A. Carmean, curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery. "It's part of his persona.I think it's probably impossible for us to handle something like this, but that's a board question. That's a legal question." Carmen said the gallery talked with Still about including his work in one of its opening exhibitions, along with that of seven other Abstract Expressionists. Each one's work was exhibited independently, but "he decided not to do it," said Carmean. "I don't really know why it didn't work out."
Corcoran director Peter Marzio said, "We don't take gifts that have too many restrictions. It always seems good in the present but it ties up the future. The donor should trust the institution . . There are marvelous museum buildings, with not much in them, that I think would jump at the chance to have something like this."
Robert Buck, director of the Albright-Knox, said that "In principle, certainly," the museum would be interested in the collection. "But to come up with enough money to run such a museum would be a long shot. The principle is one thing, but the rationality is something else."