Clyfford Still Museum to Open with Fanfare, and Controversy from adobeairstream.com

I wrote this piece last month for adobeairstream.com. The museum opens this week.

On September 22, I took a hard-hat tour of the Brad Cloepfil-designed Clyfford Still museum in Denver. The 28,000-square foot, two-story structure— a rooted concrete cube—sits behind its more outlandish neighbor, the Denver Art Museum. By way of  transition,  a pastoral park moves visitors from the glacier-slick surfaces of Daniel Libeskind‘s Hamilton building to the elemental elegance of Cloepfil’s Still museum. The latter is modern, cool, and earthy—Adele to the Hamilton’s Lady Gaga.

But where new art museums go, so do opinions. Consider the controversy surrounding the upcoming auction of four paintings by the City and County of Denver to fund the museum’s endowment. The same morning I visited the building a headline on AFAnews.com read: “Clyfford Still Works Could Raise $70 Million at Sotheby’s.”  The following Saturday, Denver Post art critic Kyle MacMillan took the museum to task for the decision, and CultureGrrl, Lee Rosenbaum, continues to dig at the city and the museum for the sale.

Legally, this is not a deaccessioning, as the works are owned by the City and County of Denver, not yet transferred to the museum. Nevertheless, I disagree with my colleagues. Don’t pick on the city and the museum, fault instead the Maryland Circuit court for the legal decision to allow the sale.

But before doing so, consider that there are three legal documents at work here: the artist’s will, his wife Patricia’s will, and the donation agreement. The sale is supported by the late artist’s daughters who serve on the museum’s board. And, this modernist-museum jewel in Denver’s crown has been funded solely by private donations (which does include a small amount of endowment funding, in place since early on in the project, according to museum director Dean Sobel).

“The mayor [then John Hickenlooper] thought there would be lots of national funding [for the museum]. It wasn’t to the degree that had been initially proposed,” Sobel told me. “It’s difficult getting someone from outside your community to donate. People invest in their own communities.”

And that’s what happened here. The $30 million raised came from a who’s who of Denver metro-area cultural supporters. Only one of the  Top 200 Art Collectors with second homes in Aspen or Vail has their name on the list. This is Denver’s museum. It doesn’t belong to the abstract expressionist collectors or to the art world. In fact, many of the donors are not interested in ab ex painting or modern art, but understood the importance of the museum for the city and for the artist. In spite of the fact that Still had no connection to Denver other than teaching a summer session at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1960.

Born in Grandin, North Dakota, Still spent his childhood in Spokane, Washington and Bow Island, Alberta, Canada. He taught in California before moving  to New York in the 1950s, eventually severing all ties with the commercial art world in 1961. He lived in Maryland with his second wife Patricia until his death in 1980. Patricia wrote to her nephew Curt Freed, a Denver resident who helped her begin negotiations with the city. The first round fell apart during the Wellington Webb era, but Hickenlooper convinced Patricia to allow the city to build the Still Museum.

In 2004, when the decision was finalized to send the works to Denver, an article in the Baltimore SUN pointed out that Still’s restrictions could make it hard for any museum to sustain itself financially. Still specified that no restaurant be included in his museum, that none of his works could go on loan to other museums, and no other artist’s works be displayed at his museum. Details that deterred other contenders, but Denver viewed as an opportunity.

“The depth and breadth of the collection is so rich, I consider it a great opportunity and a challenge to mine the collection over several decades,” Sobel said. “It is so unlike any single artist museum.”

Clyfford Still’s one-man museum will house 94% of the artist’s oeuvre, more works by a single artist than any other one-person museum in the United States (Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Isamu Noguchi, Norman Rockwell, and C.M. Russell to name most). And this is an artist whose work has not been written about or shown much during his lifetime or since.

“Clyfford Still believed what he did and what his contemporaries were doing was really important,” Sobel said. “In today’s world with irony, appropriation and post-modernism, it’s hard to understand. But he walked the walk. He was devoted to his art, he made sacrifices so this institution could become reality.”

If selling four works to make the endowment possible is a similar sacrifice then so be it.

I know Sobel told CultureGrrl that if permission to sell the works were denied, he would “ramp up efforts to raise endowment and would do less in those first several years.” But the permission was not denied. The court ruled. Rosenbaum suggests the ramp-up should have come first. But in this economy, Sobel would have had a very difficult time raising additional funds. Donors are willing to give more to capital campaigns than for daily operating expenses. The city and the museum didn’t anticipate that it would take seven years to raise the money to build the building. And it would likely take more than seven years to raise the $25 million guaranteed by Sotheby’s. So in aggregate, selling four works represents a mere 2% of the artist’s creations. It makes sense.

For decades Still has been labeled as a cranky, egotistical artist. The museum will likely change that perception IF they can get people to come through the doors. That might be a big IF for the New York-centric art world. My colleague John Perreault writes: “Scorned by MoMA? Rejected by Clement Greenberg? Afraid of Pollock? Just fund a museum all about you. Your estate will have control. You are totally divorced from art history, social context, and other artists. But do I really want to travel to Denver just to see more evidence of Still’s ego-trip?”

Yes, Mr. Perreault, you do. What do any of us really know about Clyfford Still? An entire body of work, much of it unseen since they were painted in the 1930s and 1940s, will be viewable in Denver. In a building that will prove to be Denver’s greatest place to view art. It’s more functional than the Hamilton Building with it’s angled walls, and more brooding than the David Adjaye designed Museum of Contemporary Art. When the museum opens November 18 it will debut 110 works featured chronologically in the 9 linking galleries. Open storage will allow viewers to see the expansiveness of the collection. Archives and a conservation studio will provide viewers and scholars the opportunity to finally strip away the myth of Clyfford Still and find the truth.

And that’s what makes the art world nervous. Clyfford Still made up his own rules and didn’t play by theirs. In stripping away the myths, we might discover that Still has not divorced himself from art history, but he may very well be rewriting it.

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