Behind the Scenes at the DAM

On the Back of a Clyfford Still Canvas

The Denver Art Museum is excited to welcome our new neighbor, the Clyfford Still Museum, to the neighborhood. Still was basically an art-world recluse who moved with his family from New York to Maryland in the 1950s. Even though he was away from the art world, he continued to work prolifically. If you're interested in learning more about the artist, I included a brief biography at the end from the museum's website.

Image courtesy of the Clyfford Still Museum.

Still kept 94 percent of his output and stored it at his house in Maryland until his death in 1980. When the dust settled around his will and the decision was made that Denver would be the home of a museum dedicated solely to his work, the fun really got started. Get the back story about Still and the museum from Kyle MacMillan, the Denver Post’s art critic.

By fun, I mean exploration of the artwork. Museum staff had the opportunity to view hundreds of artworks that had never before been seen by anyone but perhaps the artist and his family. Still had a formulated way of storing and documenting his work; he would title them in numerical order and then roll the canvases on cardboard tubes. This is where we come in. The Denver Art Museum was lucky to receive a Mellon grant for a painting conservator—a position that is shared with the Clyfford Still Museum. As the museum was being built, many of the pieces designated for the opening exhibition needed a conservator for treatment. Meet James Squires.

James has been working for months on unrolling and treating various Still paintings. I was in his lab the other week and James had a surprise for me. He held up this painting, one of Still’s earlier works. You can see that Still was starting to move in the direction of abstraction in this painting by the great line of smoke coming out of the train. 

Then James smiled and flipped over the painting. On the back was another painting of what we believe was Still’s first wife, in the nude.  It was a delightful surprise when they unrolled a particular tube of paintings and discovered this piece of canvas had art on both sides. When you visit the museum, you’ll see the early painting of Still, but remember there’s a surprise on the back! The Clyfford Still Museums opens to the public Friday, November 18. I hope you'll swing by to check out Denver's newest cultural gem.

Here is a brief biography from the museum’s website: Clyfford Still was among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists who developed a new, powerful approach to painting in the years immediately following World War II. Still's contemporaries included Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. Though the styles and approaches of these artists varied considerably, Abstract Expressionism is marked by abstract forms, expressive brushwork, and monumental scale, all of which were used to convey universal themes about creation, life, struggle, and death ("the human condition"), themes that took on a considerable relevance during and after World War II.

Described by many as the most anti-traditional of the Abstract Expressionists, Still is credited with laying the groundwork for the movement. Still's shift from representational painting to abstraction occurred between 1938 and 1942, earlier than his colleagues, who continued to paint in figurative-surrealist styles well into the 1940s.

Still was born in 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota and spent his childhood in Spokane, Washington and Bow Island in southern Alberta, Canada. Although Abstract Expressionism is identified as a New York movement, Still's formative works were created during various teaching posts on the West Coast, first in Washington State and later in San Francisco. He also taught in Virginia in the early 1940s. Still visited New York for extended stays in the late 1940s and became associated with the two galleries that launched this new American art to the world—the Art of This Century and Betty Parsons galleries. He lived in New York for most of the 1950s, the height of Abstract Expressionism, but also a time when he became increasingly critical of the art world. In the early 1950s, Still severed ties with commercial galleries and in 1961 moved to Maryland, removing himself further from the art world. He remained in Maryland with his second wife, Patricia, until his death in 1980.

In 1979, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the largest survey of Still's art to date and the largest presentation afforded by this institution to the work of a living artist. Following his death, all works that had not entered the public domain were sealed off from both public and scholarly view, closing off access to one of the most significant American painters of the 20th century.

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This originally was published as a blog post on the DAM's Collective website on November 17, 2011.

Ashley Pritchard is communications and media relations manager at the Denver Art Museum. Ashley has been at the DAM since 2008 and her favorite exhibition that has been on view here is Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective. She gets to peruse the galleries some mornings around 4 am for TV segments and loves having a little quiet time with the art.