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I have tried to be rational, objective and evenhanded in thinking about the Clyfford Still Museum that finally opened this week in Denver. But it isn’t easy to stay in that place and here’s why.

The problem with Still is that many of us are holding a split deck on him and his work. On one hand many support his famously incendiary condemnation of hypocrisy in the art world (imagine what his response would be now!) and his unflinching refusal to participate in its shenanigans. He painted away, putting the works in storage. Very few were sold or circulated in his lifetime. The subversiveness of his extreme counterposition has its appeal.

But then there is that damned narcissism behind it all. And just plain bitchy curmudgeonlyness. His will stipulated that his estate would only be bequeathed to an American city that agrees to build a museum that will be a temple to Still and include nothing else. No works can ever be sold. No other artist can ever show a single piece alongside his. All Clyfford Still, all the time.

Are you serious?

There was a time when his massive canvases brought praise. Motherwell‘s response to Still’s first solo show in New York in 1946 was that it was “a bolt out of the blue.” Yes, the Stills are physical, soaring and overwhelming.

But there is something missing in the work for me. And I have been looking at Still seriously for 40 years. My problem is that even after having given his work serious time and attention, it feels static. The vibrancy I still encounter when I look at a Pollock or a Rothko or a Newman from the same era just isn’t there for me with a Still.

Much of the museum pre-publicity has been in answer to the “does he deserve it?” question that everyone has been asking, tacitly and at times overtly. Because Still’s full body of work has never been seen before, some have said the new museum is the first time Still can be fairly evaluated and appraised in the context of his own era.

That may prove to be true. But in the meantime I’m just not feeling a trip to Denver is going to do it for me.

stillportrait.jpg
Clyfford Still

So maybe this is my week to air art world frustrations. My latest complaint: The newly unveiled Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.

An excerpt about the proposed museum from the Denver Post can be read on Slow Painting. The building concept sounds soulful, more of an invitation to solitude than its brassy, sassy neighbor, the Denver Art Museum, with its angular new Daniel Liebeskind addition.

So yes to a museum that aspires to create a space for “reflection, refuge and intimacy.” But devoted exclusively to the work of Clyfford Still?

Still spent most of his life bucking up against the commercial art mainstream. I’m all for transgressives, but his brand of rebellion had a particular aura of self aggrandizement about it. He was curmudgeonly, demanding that his work be displayed in its own gallery space, under his explicit control.

Here’s an excerpt from an excellent overview on Clyfford Still by Sandy Donabed on Ragged Cloth Cafe:

Still wanted his paintings to be under his own personal control, and did not like them separated from one another or exhibited with other artists’ work. He felt that his paintings could only be understood as part of a whole, with the whole being the evolution of his entire life’s work. This obsession with maintaining absolute control resulted in his rejection of offers to buy his paintings, refusing awards and honors, and declining invitations to exhibit both in individual and group shows. In so doing, with contempt, he rejected the politics of the New York art scene, which for the first time in history had become the international center of the art world.

In his words: “I hold it imperative to evolve an instrument of thought which will aid in cutting through all cultural opiates, past and present, so that a direct, immediate, and truly free vision can be achieved. . .and I affirm my profound concern to achieve a purpose beyond vanity, ambition, or remembrance.”

Beyond vanity, ambition, or remembrance? I don’t think so. I would prefer a contemplative, solitude-encouraging museum as this one aspires to be that housed a variety of transcendent-inducing works by Still AND some of his contemporaries like Rothko, Diebenkorn, Newman, Mitchell, Marden.