In an age where people tweet their every move, where even the talentless become celebrities, it’s refreshing to be introduced to Clyfford Still.
He’s one of the most significant and influential artists of the 20th century, yet rather than seek the celebrity of such contemporaries as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock, he dropped out, went into hiding and wouldn’t have posted a Facebook update if a gun was put to his head.
Lucky for us, he never quit painting…even though he fled the art world in the 1950’s at the height of his fame. Instead, he relentlessly pursued his ground-breaking Abstract Expressionism far from the glare of the spotlight.
He cut off all ties with the above mentioned artists, told Peggy Guggenheim and other important gallery owners to go to hell and communicated mainly through vitriolic letters, spouting his desire “to get out of the orbit of their devices and leeching ambitions.” When he died in 1980, he left a one-page will bequeathing his giant body of work, most of which had never been seen, to the American city that would build a museum to showcase his work. Needless to say, there were stipulations. The museum had to be solely devoted to his work, none of his pieces could be lent or sold and it couldn’t bother with any of that foo-foo stuff, things like an auditorium or a restaurant.
Several dozen cities vied for the honor, but it wasn’t until 2004 when then mayor John Hickenlooper (now Colorado’s governor) flew to Maryland and convinced his widow Patricia that Denver, a city with no ties whatsoever to the finicky artist, was up for the task of properly displaying his creative output. As Hickenlooper pointed out in what must have been an extremely charming dog and pony show, Denver was throwing massive amounts of moolah into its Golden Triangle Arts District. And besides, they would bend over backwards to follow every one of Still’s demands.
In return, they would be executors of some 2400 pieces, more than 94 percent of his body of work, created between 1920 and 1980.
As British art historian David Anfam said when given the task of joining newly-appointed museum director Dean Sobel at perusing the as-yet-unseen collection, “I feel like the archaeologist Howard Carter about to enter Tutankhamen’s tomb.”
Many of the pieces, rolled up immediately after being painted and stuffed into tubes and assorted plumbing pipes in the Maryland barn where Still painted, still smelled of oil, still had the masking tape that Still himself had affixed.
As Sobel said as he showed us around the two-story, 8500-square foot concrete museum that opened 31 years after his death, “We’re still going through his estate. It will take ten years, maybe more. It’s like opening a long-lost treasure chest.”
In addition to the nine galleries on the top floor of the Zen-like building, beautifully designed by architect Brad Cloepfil, the museum displays archival materials such as sketchbooks, photographs, tools and letters including the one Still wrote to Betty Parsons officially seceding from the art world. A glass door on the first floor reveals the conservation studio where, every week, never paintings, some spanning 12 to 14 feet, are unfurled and painstaking prepared to be exhibited for the first time.
To give you an idea of how important this reclusive artist was and still is, four of his pieces (from his wife’s collection, not in the collection protected in that one-page will) sold for $114 million in November 2011.
So, yeah, Kim Kardashian may have a lot of twitter fans now, but I’d be willing to place a hefty bet that in 50 more years, Clyfford Still will have a lot more followers. In the end, talent always trumps PR.