Denver Museum Features Native North Dakotan
Recently I was in Denver and visited a spectacular new art museum dedicated to a native North Dakotan, Clyfford Still. Clyfford is spelled C L Y F F O R D.
Still was born in Grandin, North Dakota, just outside Fargo, in 1904. His family soon moved west and he spent the first 35 years of his life on the barren prairies of eastern Washington state and central Alberta, Canada, where his family farmed. His images depict the people and places that comprised these agrarian regions, including scenes of farm life, labor and agricultural themes, and machine forms set against the austere landscape.
Still had deep empathy for farm laborers – he described vivid memories of “arms bloodied to the elbows from shucking wheat” and “men and machines ripping a meager living from the thin top soil.”
His American scene painting reflects the depression era, depicting daily life. He used intense color with large elongated figures with enlarged feet and hands. Characteristics of his art work are: dramatic textures, monumental size, and jagged, vertical forms.
According to Museum curators, Still “seems committed to revealing the physical, emotional and even psychological effects of hard work.”
Clyfford Still is considered one of the most important and significant American artists of the 20th century. He originated the abstract expressionism movement and influenced the work of contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
Never before has the world seen such a comprehensive collection of work displayed intact, and under one roof. Still retained 94% of his life’s work and that work is at the Still Museum. The artist stipulated that the collection must stay together, and a number of cities competed to be the Museum site. Still’s wife, Patricia Still, selected Denver to receive the collection, and she gave the city her own estate, which included select paintings by her husband as well as his complete archives.
The collection contains 2800 works including 825 paintings, and 2040 works on paper, encompassing drawings executed in graphite, charcoal, pastels, crayon, pen and ink, oil paint, and tempera as well as some etchings, woodcuts and silkscreens. He also created sculpture. The variety is rich and amazing! Only 5% of the collection is on view at any one time.
A current exhibit is entitled Red/Yellow/Blue (and Black and White). This large-scale exhibition, also titled Clyfford Still as Colorist, explores the significance of color in Still’s art. The exhibition is arranged among five distinct galleries, each devoted on a monumental scale to one of Still’s signature hues. His broad use of color was unique among the artists of his generation. I found myself reacting strongly and postively to the huge, vibrant blocks of color. The works are displayed in spacious, high-ceilinged, white-walled galleries.
Still said: “Color is essential in determining the ultimate experience of the artwork. Color is an integral part of the conception. The works are conceived in color and do not exist amply without it. Each picture takes on the color it demands.”
This is his comment on black: “Black was never a color of death or terror for me. I think of it as warm and generative.” To me, the black in his paintings, amazingly, generates warmth.
While Still titled some of his earliest works, the overwhelming majority of works are identified by dates or numbers such as: “1938-No. 3” and PH4.
The Museum is located adjacent to the Denver Art Museum. Opening in 2011, it was designed by Brad Cloepfil. It is a concrete structure reminiscent of Marcel Breuer’s buildings at St. John’s University and the University of Mary. The ceiling is perforated concrete, with oval skylights providing pervasive natural light.
Although Still was on the art faculty of several institutions, he is an artist whose life has been shrouded in mystery and the bulk of whose work has been hidden from public view for over 30 years. He died in 1980.
If you get to Denver, don’t miss the fascinating and stimulating Clyfford Still Museum with a prairie connection.