Museum  June 27, 2023  Colleen Smith

Rediscovering Clyfford Still: The Untold Story of an Artistic Pioneer

Photo: Colleen Smith

Installation view of the Clyfford Still Museum

In 2010, the U.S. Post Office released a sheet of commemorative 44-cent stamps honoring 10 Abstract Expressionists. Clyfford Still (1904-1980) was included among the prominent painters. Despite receiving this stamp of approval, Clyfford Still’s name recognition is not that of other included artists: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, or Mark Rothko.

“The reason Clyfford Still was not a household name was because he held onto 93 percent of everything he made,” said Joyce Tsai, an internationally acclaimed curator, scholar, author, and the director of Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum (CSM) since 2021.  

“Also, Still decided to represent himself at the height of interest in his work in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s — and that was nothing less than American freedom,” said Tsai.  

In 2011, to announce the single-artist museum’s opening in downtown Denver’s Golden Triangle Arts District, a billboard summed up Still’s career: “The canvas was his ally. The paint and trowel were his weapons. The art world was his enemy.”

photo courtesy Clyfford Still Museum

Joyce Tsai

An art establishment dissident, Still possessed the courage of his convictions. “The artist felt strongly that artwork could not be taken simply as a commodity of the art market,” Tsai said. “He really did believe his work could help shape our sense of where we are and who we are and our place in the world. He was an incredibly ambitious, very disciplined artist with an unparalleled sense of integrity.” 

Tsai emphasized that Still benefited from prominent figures in the art world, such as Peggy Guggenheim. “He had people committed to his vision from the very beginning,” Tsai said. “Still is a man whose art is significant to us because so many individuals were bathing his work in the light of shared admiration.”

The admiration continues at the Clyfford Still Museum, built according to the artist’s wishes to bequeath his oeuvre and personal effects — including his typewriter and his baseball mitt — to an unnamed American city that would build a museum to exhibit, study and conserve his artworks. 

Photo: Colleen Smith

Installation view of the Clyfford Still Museum

The Mile High City rose to the challenge of adding the museum to an already impressive cadre of architecturally significant cultural buildings: Denver Art Museum’s structures by Geo Ponti and Daniel Libeskind, along with Denver Public Library’s Central Branch by Michael Graves. Brad Cloepfil, the architect of record, designed an understated study in hefty concrete and mercurial light that even the persnickety Still probably would approve.

“When I stepped foot in the museum, I squealed like a stuck pig,” said Tsai. “I was so undignified because I was so taken aback by the sheer beauty of the building.”

Tsai came to her position with an appreciation of Still’s work. While finishing her doctorate at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, she frequently found herself standing in front of Still’s enormous paintings.

“There’s something intimidating, but also intriguing, about abstraction,” she said. “It’s awe-inspiring. How do you even organize marks on a canvas to grasp and hold attention?”

Many of Still’s paintings show bare, unmarked canvas. And Still did not assign titles to his compelling paintings. 

“The emphasis is on your encounter,” said Tsai. “His works are so rare out in the wild, but this space allows each artwork to anchor new aspects of our place in the world. I find that really exciting.”

Photo: Colleen Smith

Exterior view of the Clyfford Still Museum

Also exciting are the museum’s architecturally spectacular terraces. “The terraces offer a nice break or palate cleanser,” said Tsai. “The paintings are demanding. This is a space of respite and reflection — needed now more than ever. This museum is for everyone. Still gives us the opportunity to understand how cultural resources and artworks can serve the needs of a community.” CSM offers a variety of programming, detailed on its website.

Still influenced and continues to inspire many artists. Jackson Pollock said, “Still’s work makes the rest of us look academic.” 

Martin Mendelsberg, an arts educator and illustrator who exhibits internationally, grew up in Denver. He recalled a 1966 high school field trip to Denver Art Museum’s exhibit “New American Painting.” He continued, “This was my first introduction to large-scale abstraction and color field painting. Entering the museum, I saw a vast black and white Franz Kline, and just around the corner was Clyfford Still,” Mendelsberg said in an email interview.

“The painting was extremely large and seemed to envelop me and my classmates. I became hyper-aware of the work's verticality and physical presence. The tactile layers of paint and the artist's use of opaque and translucent layers of color suggested a new reality,” said Mendelsberg. 

While studying art in graduate school at the University of Denver, Mendelsberg looked to Still as an influence, and he continues to praise the painter. 

“Clyfford Still remains a significant presence in the U.S. and internationally,” Mendelsberg said. “His fearless determination to stay true to his personal voice in the face of dealer or gallery pressures and marketing teaches us important lessons about authenticity.”

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime Denver arts writer and the curator of Art & Object’s Denver Art Showcase.

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