The final gallery in the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver. PHOTO: JAMES FLORIO, COURTESY CS MUSEUM

The final gallery in the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver. Photo by James Florio, courtesy of the museum.

It’s rare to see a significant portion of an important artist’s oeuvre in a single exhibition, or even in a single museum. By the time artists become established, most of their work is dispersed in museums and private collections, making it extremely difficult to organize a thorough retrospective. The best an ardent fan can do is to visit a few exhibitions featuring works by a favored artist, and to view a published version of the artist’s catalogue raisonné.

My recent experience at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver called my attention to the importance of considering artists based on the entirety of their work, not just a few well-known pieces. Of course it’s never possible to see every single piece by a particular artist, but many major retrospectives and single-artist museums select as many “representative” pieces as possible, aiming to show viewers the full trajectory of the featured artist’s career. The Still Museum does a great job of doing just that.

Clyfford Still is the perfect feral child for such an endeavor. Rather than relying on art sales, he earned most of his money from teaching, hoarding the bulk of his work. According to museum literature:

In 1951, Clyfford Still ended his relationship with the prestigious Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. From that time forward [until his death in 1980], only a very select few of his works entered the art market. As a result, the Clyfford Still Museum now houses 95 percent of the artist’s total output, making its collection the most intact body of work of any major artist.

The museum’s collection boasts around 825 paintings and more than 2,300 works on paper, with 375 paintings from 1961 to 1979, “most of which have never been exhibited.” Artists of Still’s generation took Art with a capital “A” very seriously, and Still was very particular about where or whether his work could be exhibited. His will stipulated that his remaining body of work not be split between several institutions, that it not be exhibited next to works by other artists, and that it be kept in an American city “in perpetuity for exhibition and study.”

Outside the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. PHOTO BY JEREMY BITTERMANN, COURTESY CSM

Outside the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. Photo by Jeremy Bittermann, courtesy CSM.

After Still’s death, the works weren’t available to the public for more than two decades while his wife Patricia found and negotiated terms for a permanent space. She eventually chose Denver as the home for the collection, and the Clyfford Still Museum opened in 2011, more than 30 years after the artist died.

Last month (in February 2015) I had a chance to visit the museum for the first time. Still’s early works are reminiscent of other painters of the first half of the 20th century: Several echo Thomas Hart Benton, there’s a bit of Edward Hopper, and there was even a piece featuring drooping faces that was reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory.” I’m not saying that Still was copying from other artists, but that to my eye, 80 or 90 years later, his early works don’t look distinct from others of that era.

This work, dated 1936, features angular lines foreshadowing those in Still's later abstract paintings. PHOTO: GARY REGESTER, COURTESY CSM

This work, dated 1936, features angular lines foreshadowing those in Still’s later abstract paintings. Photo by Gary Regester, courtesy CSM.

The museum is arranged chronologically. After the first gallery of technically proficient but unexciting earlier work, visitors turn a corner into the second gallery, which contains figural paintings that Still created mostly in the 1930s. On their own, these pieces would also be unexciting to me, but I immediately recognized the mostly vertical, lightning-shaped lines that Still became famous for in his later abstract works. As the gallery progressed, the earthy, long-limbed figures became more and more abstract, and at the end, Still had realized that the line and shapes and composition were more interesting than the socialist-baggage-laden tillers and planters and mopers he’d been painting. Bam! Still was plowing new ground as one of the first Abstract Expressionists, exploring topics that were bigger than ordinary life. He’s now considered a founder of the movement, along with Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.

As I walked into the gallery displaying Still’s earliest abstract paintings, I saw a child run up to his father and ask, “Dad, do you know what this painting is of?” The father said something about the line being interesting and asked his child whether the shapes were interesting. The kid ran off.

To me, after seeing his earlier work and reading a bit about Still and his grandiose ideas about abstract art, these paintings were meant to capture and represent Truths that transcend what we normally focus on. He wanted to show that there were repetitive patterns under everything, and that those patterns could and should be seen and explored. The term “mystic” often pops up in talk about Still and contemporaries like Rothko. I wonder whether Still would respect other people seeing different patterns and exploring them, or whether he would insist that he had found the “real” patterns.

No "orange is the new" jokes please, this is serious Art. PHOTO: JEREMY BITTERMANN, COURTESY CSM

No “orange is the new” jokes please, this is serious Art. Photo by Bittermann, courtesy CSM.

The last two galleries in the museum showed the culmination of Still’s explorations of patterns that he’d gradually gleaned over years of looking at and thinking about the world. The paintings are large, mostly at least 10 feet by 10 feet, and some much larger. They represent his mature work as known to me and the rest of the general public. He’s been noted for his role as a “visionary loner” by the no-holds-barred art critic Robert Hughes:

All dialogue with other art, indeed all exchange with the culture around him, had stopped long before, and he was frozen by his own sense of grandiose outsidership in an art world whose corruptions he loudly despised – but which he skillfully manipulated himself …”

I walked into the Clyfford Still Museum not expecting to be impressed, but I thought it was my duty to visit, especially as the bulk of his work will never be exhibited outside of Denver. Before visiting the museum, I wasn’t a fan of his vertical, crunchy abstractions, and I certainly wasn’t a fan of him telling everyone what art should be about. I changed my mind though, and by the time I reached the final couple galleries of his larger pieces, I felt like a fan. I noticed forms he stuck with and explored over several paintings or even several decades, and I appreciated the experimental features in paintings that I may have previously thought were all overly similar.

I don’t think any of Clyfford Still’s paintings will ever be among my favorite images from mid-20th century art, but I admire him for his perseverance and insistence on us viewing his work in the context of his own work. I’m not sure if he was a genius or a grump or both, but it works at the museum in Denver. For me, visiting the Still Museum felt like a step into the artist’s mind. He didn’t consider other artists his equal, and insisted we view his work in that context. As far as I can recall from what I’ve read, Still worked hard and paid his bills by teaching, keeping his best art to himself. His insistence on not showing his paintings in the context of other artists worked, and it’s great to see that his wife found enough donors to create a museum that features most of his work.

I learned a lot more about Clyfford Still by seeing his works together than I ever would have if I’d seen them surrounded by the work of his peers or historical bookends.

Who doesn't enjoy their behind getting felt? PHOTO COURTESY CSM

Who doesn’t enjoy their behind getting felt? Photo courtesy CSM.

I visited the museum with my aunt Jon and my cousin Ed. We stopped by around noon on Superbowl Sunday and had some of the galleries to ourselves. I was impressed with the chronological layout and succinct descriptions of Still’s career, and I think my companions were too. We were all impressed with the bench seats, which were made of simple, two-inch-thick pieces of gray felt. An activity room seemed to keep children entertained, and the Clyfford Still jigsaw puzzle there kept us entertained for a few minutes. As noted by another blogger before the puzzle was available, it was “being produced by hand locally, in a very low volume, and will be sold only at the shop.” It’s there now and available for $275.

The limited availability of the Still jigsaw puzzle matches the spirit of the artist's will. Photo courtesy CSM.

The limited availability of the Still jigsaw puzzle matches the spirit of the artist’s will. Photo courtesy CSM.

Too bad not all artists are as strong-minded as Clyfford Still. Or maybe not. One Clyfford Still is probably enough, and he did a good job of it. It could be a remnant from another era, but I can’t shake the belief that art should be unique, and I respect artists whose work is distinctive, more than any other quality. Perhaps it’s the result of the fact that I was a child of Modernism, at least in my mind. That’s what I thought I was up against in college, when I had my first hint of being an artist in the context of other artists.

I think that uniqueness is still the most overlooked quality in contemporary art. Historically, art may be well past that stage and back again several times over, joking about the effort to be original instead of truly striving to create something new, but I’m still impressed with pioneers like Clyfford Still.