Clyfford Still Museum attempts to send its namesake artist off in style
“The Late Works: Clyfford Still in Maryland” is a heartfelt effort by the late artist’s namesake museum to seal the deal on his lifelong legacy, to demonstrate, with significant evidence, that Still was a preeminent visual trailblazer from the moment he picked up a brush right through his final days.
This later body of work, from 1961 to 1980, is not the stuff that Still’s vast reputation is made from. That would be his middle period, in the 1940s and 1950s, when he painted like his life depended on it, slathering reds, blacks and blues onto larger-than-life canvases, colliding fields of oil paint with abandon, not caring what anyone saw in his clumpy, craggy blotches of color as they jigged and jagged against each other like tectonic plates of unfathomable emotion.
No other 20th-century abstractionist painted with the courage and confidence of Still in his prime.
If you go
“The Late Works: Clyfford Still in Maryland” continues through Feb. 21 at the Clyfford Still Museum, 1250 Bannock St. Advance tickets required due to the current pandemic. Info at 720-354-4880 or clyffordstillmuseum.org.
The years before that — when Still was finding his voice and concentrating on figurative images — can be viewed, forgivingly, as necessary fieldwork for the genius that would emerge. The humans he rendered were dark and surreal, even harrowing, often with exaggerated hands and gaunt faces. They were, in their own way, original, though not the kind of work that earns an artist a museum. Still, they hint at the bravery to come, and it is easy to be grateful for them nonetheless.
The later work (the material in this current show of 40 paintings and 30 drawings) has been largely overlooked or exhibited as colorful punctuation to the career retrospectives offered at Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum. Visitors may remember encountering examples as they exited the building, distinguished by their looser, brighter personality.
They appear to show Still at ease, lighter with his brush, less vocal. It is just as easy to see them as the output of an artist mellowing with age as it is to view them as an artist running out of ideas, verging on lazy. Without the context of experiencing them in proximity to his earlier brilliance, it’s difficult to know — like with his early paintings — if they’d be in a museum at all.
In attempting to change that narrative, the curators of “The Late Works” have their own work cut out for them. They proceed bravely, if not entirely with success — though it’s the trying that makes this show so captivating.
The exhibit — the last one produced by Dean Sobel, the museum’s founding director who announced his resignation in April — is expertly presented. That’s not surprising, since Sobel, along with consulting curator David Anfam, wrote the book on Still. In fact, they are co-authors of the 100-page catalog that accompanies this exhibition, and which promises to “reveal a body of work that is far richer and more complex than previously understood.”
After a decade of running the museum and assembling its many exhibits over the years, the pair know the material, and they know Still, and they have put together a strong argument.
The exhibition mines an abundance of work Still created after he relocated from New York City to Maryland in 1961 and began his final — and prolific — chapter, creating 380 paintings and 1,100 drawings from age 56 through his death in 1980 at 75.
The show kicks off with a bold admission, with Still acknowledging at the time that he was “up against a dead wall of abstraction, manipulation and device” and in need of new ideas.
He found them, as the show demonstrates, by letting go of the angst that previously fueled his painting and adopting a pared-down style. The first works on display are stunning in their simplicity. Take, for example, the 1963 oil painting catalogued as “PH-402” (Still never titled his paintings), which is merely two, separated, jagged fields of color, one red and one black, floating on an over-sized and otherwise unpainted white canvas.
For fans of Still, who are more accustomed to seeing heaves of gooey paint piled onto surfaces, they’re quite shocking. Still painted 30 of these works, and while they feel lost and lacking, they are intriguing, earning the viewers’ attention and opening their minds to a new way of seeing Still.
From there, the show attempts to discern other periods or trends that define Still’s final products, breaking them down into sections, such as “The Later 1960s: The Fire Returns,” with examples of painting where Still revisits his use of interlocking colors and more fully covered canvases.
This is the most interesting part of the exhibit because you can see the artist going back to what’s familiar but without his signature ferocious attitude. He’s more earthy, with added shades of brown and green replacing his traditional severe reds and blacks. One painting, “PH-260,” even features a huge field of rarely-used purple.
Still also attempts to add a sense of circular motion into a body of work known for its strident, up-and-down verticality. The painting “PH-931” from 1974 appears as if fiery reds and yellows are shooting up into the air while black thunder clouds zoom down from the sky.
What works best about “The Late Works” is the specificity with which it dives into Still’s habits. It goes deep into detail about both major and minor shifts of style and assumes its audience is Still-friendly enough to go with it.
In that way, it wouldn’t work anywhere but Denver.
Still is an icon of abstractionist painting, revered particularly by scholars and critics. But his enigmatic style, and his habit of keeping paintings rather than selling them, guaranteed he would remain largely unknown to the rest of the world.
Denver is the exception because it houses the Clyfford Still Museum, which found a home here because 15 years ago, civic leaders — then led by Mayor John Hickenlooper — had the foresight to grab the collection of his work when his estate was out shopping for a city to take it.
In return for 2,000 Still works, the city had to agree to build a museum only for him and operate it under very strict rules (no other artists on display, no cafe or gift shop). It was a peculiar move since Still had no substantial connection to Colorado, but it resulted in a new cultural institution and a new tourist attraction for Denver.
Because the museum is here, many Denverites have adopted Still as their own. We’ve gotten to know his work in-depth. That’s unique to us, and makes “The Late Works,” a show that might appeal only to academics elsewhere, digestible to art fans here. We’re able to go deep.
It also makes it sentimental because the exhibition’s last section takes us right through Still’s final moments. Viewers see the paintings he made as he suffered with colon cancer and was undergoing treatment.
Still might not be a friend, but he’s an old acquaintance, so it’s a rich exercise to guess what was going though his mind and spirit looking at his final painting, “PH-1098,” with its ochre and brown arranged so it looks to be lifting skyward, or in the four of his very last drawings that close the show, which are noticeably dark and sparse.
It’s all speculation, of course. No one ever knew exactly what Still was rendering in his abstract offerings, not ever; he refused to let on throughout his life. And fortunately, the exhibit doesn’t get heavy-handed in sending off our hero. It lets the works speak for themselves. They do so, effectively.
Does “The Late Works” reframe Still’s final period so that it equals his greatest triumphs? Not even close. Those middle works were revolutionary. These works, to a large degree, struggle to matter, and the exhibition, at times, seems to reinforce that by highlighting his stumbles and insecurity.
But we’ve always needed to see a more human side of Still to appreciate the accomplishments he made in his prime. Killing him off, as this exhibit does, makes him very human.
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