“It’s only by seeing the totality of a man’s life that you can get a measure of it,” or so the painter Clyfford Still told the New York Times in 1971. Four decades later, the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver—which opened in November—offers visitors as close to a total view of the pioneering Abstract Expressionist’s life as he could have possibly wanted. Actually, he insisted on it.
Famously imperious, egoistic, and cantankerous, Still was one of American art’s great mid-century mavericks, known for his raw, abstract paintings from the forties and fifties, featuring jagged fields and fissures in earthy, fiery tones that manage to feel both primal and transcendent. The artist exhibited his work infrequently, and he only sold or donated 150 or so of the roughly 2,500 pieces he created. When Still died, in 1980, he stipulated that nothing in his estate could be sold or given away. The art, all of it packed into his widow’s house in Maryland, had to go to a city that would agree to build a museum with the sole purpose of preserving and showing his work—and only his work.
Denver won the bid and has in recent years added to its downtown cultural landscape the Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by David Adjaye, and Daniel Libeskind’s striking new wing for the Denver Art Museum. Located next door to the Libeskind, the Still Museum is a two-story, 28,500-square-foot textured-concrete building that Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture says he designed to be “grounded and intimate” with light-filled galleries on the second floor.
The inaugural show of around 60 paintings and 40 drawings will be a coming out party for many rarely or never-seen works. “This will be the first truly comprehensive Clyfford Still exhibition,” says the museum’s director, Dean Sobel. “Our knowledge of Still has been based on a fraction of his output—it’s almost like the beginning and end of the movie hasn’t been shown before.”
Kristina Ensminger is a research assistant at Travel + Leisure.