Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Get to Know: The DAM's Neighbor, Clyfford Still Museum

Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery at the DAM is presented in conjunction with a special exhibition at the Clyfford Still Museum titled 1959: The Albright-Knox Art Gallery Exhibition Recreated, which recreates Still’s landmark 1959 exhibition at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery. What should visitors know about the Clyfford Still Museum before they go? What exactly IS the Clyfford Still Museum? And who is this guy, Clyfford Still?

The Clyfford Still Museum was founded to promote public and scholarly understanding of the late artist’s work, through the presentation and preservation of the Clyfford Still and Patricia Still estates, totaling approximately 2,800 artworks donated to the City of Denver in 2004 and 2005. Considered one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, Still was among the first generation of abstract expressionist artists who developed a new and powerful approach to painting in the years immediately following World War II. The museum, designed by Allied Works Architecture, allows visitors the unique experience to understand the legacy of Clyfford Still, an artist whose life has been shrouded in mystery and the bulk of whose work was hidden from public view for more than 30 years.

About Clyfford Still

Born in North Dakota in 1904, Clyfford Still spent the first 30 years of his life in western Washington state and southern Canada. His early works, from the first half of the 1930s, are marked by an exaggerated figurative style, but by the late 1930s Still began to simplify his forms, shifting from representational painting to abstraction.

Still’s mature style, marked by purely abstract form and monumental scale, was achieved early in his career and years before his contemporaries, causing the artist to be widely considered as one of abstract expressionism’s first innovators. His work also inspired a variant of the movement in San Francisco’s Bay Area, where Still lived for most of the 1940s and was an influential teacher. Scholars consider Still alongside Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman in identifying the most significant contributors to the abstract expressionist movement.

In the late 1940s, Still began showing with The Art of This Century and Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, the two galleries responsible for introducing American abstract expressionism to the world. Still’s relationship with the art world was tumultuous, however, and in 1951, shortly after moving to New York, he ended his involvement with commercial galleries. In 1961, he moved from New York to Maryland, further severing his ties with the art world.

From 1950 until his death in 1980, Still exerted enormous control over how his works were exhibited, selling very little art and frequently rejecting exhibition opportunities. Believing that his purity of vision could be maintained only if his work could be shown in a setting as a single body, he gifted two large groups of work to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, with the restriction that the works could never travel or be shown among other artists’ works. In 1979, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the largest survey of Still’s art, which was the most comprehensive retrospective of his lifetime and the largest presentation ever afforded by the institution to the work of a living artist.

The Still estate and will

After the artist’s death in 1980, the Clyfford Still estate was sealed off from public and scholarly view. Still’s will stipulated that his estate be given in its entirety to an American city willing to establish a permanent quarters dedicated solely to his work, ensuring its survival for exhibition and study. In August 2004, the City of Denver, under the leadership of then-mayor John Hickenlooper, was selected by Still’s wife, Patricia Still, to receive the substantial Still collection. In 2005, Patricia Still also selected Denver to receive her own estate, which included select paintings by her husband as well as his complete archives.

Collection

The Clyfford Still Museum collection, which represents nearly 95 percent of the artist’s lifetime output, comprises approximately 2,800 works created by the artist from 1920 through 1980, including 825 paintings, 1,850 works on paper, drawings and prints, and three sculptures. The collection also encompasses the artist’s archives, including personal letters, photographs, journals, sketchbooks, and other documentation of Still’s work. These materials provide new scholarship and interpretive opportunities and enrich museum visitor experiences with insight into Still and his creative evolution. In addition, direct correspondence between Still and other leading artists of the time reveal the esteem in which his contemporaries held him. These letters and documents remain of considerable value in the ongoing evaluation of Clyfford Still and mid-century American art.

Irene Weygandt was the director of marketing at the Clyfford Still Museum during the planning for the exhibition 1959: The Albright-Knox Art Gallery Exhibition Recreated.