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Clyfford Still’s wishes are strictly honoured

Museum fulfils abstract expressionist’s desire that his work, and his alone, be shown in perpetuity

The Clyfford Still Museum's center exhibition gallery on the second floor (Rendering courtesy of Allied Works Architecture)

“My work in its entirety is like a symphony in which each painting has its part,” said the late artist Clyfford Still. Thirty-one years after his death, the $29m, 30,000 sq. ft Clyfford Still Museum is due to open its doors to the city of Denver on 18 November. Built to house approximately 2,400 works created by the abstract expressionist painter, the collection includes nearly 95% of the artist’s work. Drawn from the estates of Clyfford Still and his wife Patricia, the works have been in store since the artist’s death in 1980, and for the most part have never been exhibited before.

In his brief, but demanding, one-page will, Still stipulated that his estate should remain in storage until a US city agreed to build a museum “exclusively” for his art. There were explicit requirements that none of the works “be sold, given or exchanged” and that they should be preserved “in perpetuity for exhibition and study”. His widow chose Denver after declining more than 20 enquiries from cities including New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington, DC, and Fargo, the artist’s birthplace. After rejecting Denver’s offer in 1999, she changed her mind in 2004, having been persuaded to do so by the then mayor, John Hickenlooper.

West Coast influence

Dean Sobel, the director of the Clyfford Still Museum, says Denver is an appropriate setting for Still’s work as “the doorway to the west, at the edge of the Rocky Mountains”. His abstract expressionist peer group was based in New York and was heavily influenced by the city, but Still spent the first half of his life on the West Coast, painting landscapes and occasional portraits in the 1920s and later abstracting the region’s “vast landscape” into jagged configurations of intense colours on a monumental scale. “Turner painted the sea, but the prairie to me was just as grand,” said Still, whose allegiance to the American west endured despite his subsequent move east.

Still was known for his distrust of the art world. He had a brief and stormy stint with commercial galleries while living in New York in the 1950s. He moved to Maryland in 1961 to exercise greater control over how others interpreted his work and ultimately his legacy. He carefully chose who could buy his work, and placed restrictions on donations to museums, insisting, for example, that his group of 28 paintings given to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1975 should never travel or be displayed among other artists’ works. He also limited the number of exhibitions of his work, allowing only three major surveys in his lifetime, the last of which he organised in 1979 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Sobel stresses that Still did not entirely turn his back on the art market: “We have archival evidence that he sold a major painting in the last year of his life.” The museum sold four of the artist’s paintings through Sotheby’s to create an endowment for the privately funded institution. (Christie’s, which competed for this lot, set an auction record for a Still in 2006 with its sale of 1947-R-No. 1 for $21.3m.) These works were bequeathed to the city by Patricia Still’s estate, and therefore did not contradict the artist’s will, which refers only to his estate. The contract between the city and county of Denver and Sotheby’s honoured the museum’s request that the auction house first attempt a private sale of the quartet as a group to another public institution, as if seeking Still’s approval of the sale by following his belief that works should remain together. Sotheby’s failed to find a buyer by its 19 September deadline and the paintings were auctioned in New York on 9 November, raising a total of $114m.

Denver’s new museum, which is next door to the Denver Art Museum, cannot rely on recent acquisitions, works on loan or juxtapositions with paintings by other artists to attract repeat visitors. Nevertheless, Sobel is confident of its pulling power: “Denver will act as a destination.” The building, which has been designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, is free of restaurants and auditoria and has a modest shop. It is expected to provide viewers with an unmediated art experience “so rewarding that they want to come back”, says Sobel. The understated two-storey concrete building includes filtered natural light that is designed to emphasise the surface texture and subtle colour hues of Still’s paintings.

“[The Still estate] is the last great estate of abstract expressionism,” David Anfam, an expert in the field who has written a book about Still and his work, told the New York Times in 2007. “We know all the others—Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell, Rothko, Newman, Gottlieb, Kline. And of course in sheer size it is almost unprecedented. Perhaps only Picasso’s estate compares.” Anfam has co-curated a chronological survey of Still’s work, with Sobel, for the opening temporary exhibition.

Where there is a will...

The Judd Foundation: like Clyfford Still, Donald Judd (above) distrusted the art market and museums, dictating in his will how many of his works should be preserved and displayed. The Judd Foundation, created two years after his death in 1994, maintains and preserves Judd’s permanently installed living and working spaces, libraries and archives in New York and Marfa, Texas. Although these spaces remain much as the artist left them, the foundation, represented by David Zwirner, can sell work from his estate when funds are needed. This happened in 2006, when it controversially sold 26 works.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: unimpressed by the vault-like museums of her day, Isabella Stewart Gardner built a “palazzo” in Boston in 1903, based on a 15th-century Venetian palace, to house her 2,500-strong collection. In her will, she stipulated that the permanent collection could not be significantly altered. Her idiosyncratic integration of paintings, tapestries, furniture, manuscripts and textiles remains largely as she wished. However, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s new Renzo Piano-designed wing, due to open in January 2012, will offer a different experience.

Clyfford Still in 1969
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17 Nov 11
22:45 CET


If Clyfford Still and Donald Judd distrusted museums and the art world, there is masses of evidence over generations to support that distrust. Anyone bequeathing works in the belief that their wishes will be carried out for any length of time needs to consider what has happened to others suffering that delusion.

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