IT was a crisp fall day here, and the new Clyfford Still Museum was humming with activity. Works by Still, the institution’s Abstract Expressionist namesake, had begun arriving in the galleries a couple of days back, and now the 60 paintings that were going on view had been unpacked and propped on blocks, leaning against the walls. Many had never been seen by more than a handful of people.
For some — like Dean Sobel, director of the museum — it was a moment of discovery. Although he had spent years inspecting the paintings in storage in Maryland, where they had been sequestered since the ferociously unsociable Still moved there in 1961, Mr. Sobel had never had the opportunity to look at this large a grouping en masse, or even on stretchers.
“We stretched this yesterday,” Mr. Sobel said, pointing to a 16-foot-long canvas Still had painted in 1951, around the time he began cutting his ties to galleries, then museums, then the rest of the art world. Glowing with thickly impastoed blue oil paint, it was roughly bisected by a vertical black band and a flamelike crimson streak, one of Still’s “life lines,” as he termed them. He had been persuaded to exhibit it only once, at the 1963 opening of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Nearby two more rolled-up paintings from the 1970s lay waiting for their own stretcher-bar debut. Other canvases around them blazed with color, looking as fresh as if they had just come from Still’s studio.
“It’s a pristine collection,” Mr. Sobel said happily.
Someone else in the museum that day had more bittersweet emotions, however: Still’s younger daughter, Sandra Still Campbell. She was clearly delighted to rediscover the paintings, many of which she had lived with growing up. “If you get close enough, you can still smell the paint and the linseed oil,” she said, gazing teary eyed at an ochre painting from 1949. “These are old friends. It’s, like, ‘Hey, siblings, you’re back!’ ”
Yet as co-executor (together with her older sister, Diane Still Knox) of her father’s estate, Ms. Campbell was nervous about opening his work up to public scrutiny. “Dad didn’t need anybody to tell him what he was about,” she said. “He didn’t like being analyzed. And now he’s going to be analyzed to death.”
A founder of Abstract Expressionism, along with Rothko and Pollock (who said, “Still makes the rest of us look academic”), Still these days is most notable for being the least known of that pioneering group. In life he sold or gave away only about 150 paintings, and he tightly controlled how and when his work was shown. After his death in 1980 at 75 his widow and initial executor, Patricia Still, guarded his work just as jealously, selling or giving away only 12 paintings and largely refusing to let the rest be seen by anyone, including scholars.
On Friday the museum was to have opened and this long-hidden oeuvre made public — the result of a compromise between the exigencies of today’s art world and an artist’s single-minded attitude toward his work. Still’s one-page will bequeathed the bulk of his work to “an American city that will agree to build or assign and maintain permanent quarters exclusively for these works of art and assure their physical survival” for exhibition and study. Owing to his conditions (that the space be dedicated exclusively to his work and that nothing be “sold, given, or exchanged”) and those added by Patricia, who left her own 30-page will, it has taken more than 30 years to make this a reality.
Until now, said David Anfam, an art historian and Still scholar who is also adjunct curator of the museum, Still “has been an enigmatic figure whose work was only known by fragments.” Although he and Patricia donated groups of paintings to three museums (theAlbright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art), “they’re discrete pockets of work,” Mr. Anfam added. “What we’re seeing now for the first time is Clyfford Still whole. And in the history of 20th-century art there’s nothing that quite compares with the size and import of his estate.” Born in 1904 in Grandin, N.D., Still grew up between Spokane, Wash., where his father worked as an accountant, and Alberta, where his parents eventually moved to homestead a farm. He got the bug for art, Mr. Sobel said, by looking at reproductions of the great masters in his mother’s magazines and taught himself to paint. Many of his early oils and works on paper, some of which are on view here, are filled with gaunt, tortured-looking figures: farm laborers, farmers, farmers’ wives. Moving through the chronologically installed galleries you can see their expressionistically painted bodies morphing into the blocky, jagged, allover abstractions we associate with Still today.
Among the most telling works, however, are some frankly realist landscapes from the late 1920s. They show trains moving across a bleak prairie landscape, sending up ribbons of steam that seem to prefigure Still’s “life lines.” Those trains were moving across the plains “to freedom, to civilization,” Ms. Campbell explained. Just like the trains, “Dad was always leaving, and then he’d have to come back.”
Between 1942 and 1944 Still began making forays — arguably the first, Mr. Sobel said — into what later came to be known as Abstract Expressionism. His first large-scale abstract work was “1944-N No. 1,” a nine-foot-high black canvas streaked with red, yellow, blue and white. By that time Still was dividing his time between Washington, where he had taught at Washington State University, and the San Francisco Bay Area, where he would soon become a renowned teacher at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. His first wife, Lillian, and his two daughters lived in the Bay Area. And in Washington there was Patricia, a former student 15 years his junior. “Let’s be honest,” Ms. Campbell said, it was “a ménage à trois.”
Throughout the 1940s Still traveled to teaching jobs around the country, sometimes accompanied by Lillian and the children, and other times by Patricia, who eventually moved with him to New York in the 1950s. Although Ms. Campbell evinced mixed feelings about the situation, she has clearly tried to understand her father’s motivations. “What Dad wanted was a partner in this world that he wanted to create,” she explained. “And when Dad needed someone to help him out, Patty was always there. She basically supported him.” (According to Ms. Campbell, it fell to Lillian to support the children; the couple divorced in 1954, she said.)
At first Still seems to have thrived in New York, surrounded by painters who, like him, sought to “paint my way out of the classical European heritage,” he once wrote. But he gradually distanced himself from just about everyone, deploring (among other things) commercialism, status seeking, the idea of showing several artists’ work in a single room. After he and Patricia moved to a farm in Richmond, Va., in 1961, he spurned the art world further, turning away old friends and interrogating collectors before he would permit a visit.
Ms. Campbell, who lived with them there in her early 20s, recalled a bleak and rigorous lifestyle. Because Still feared fires, cooking was done on a single hot plate, only one room was heated, and electrical appliances were used but sparingly.
“The house was about the security of the paintings,” Ms. Campbell said. After completing one in the barn that served as his studio, he’d store it rolled up with others, sometimes covering the paint with foil if the surface was still tacky. “Dad needed to get working,” Ms. Campbell said. And because barn burnings were common, she added, they spent months documenting the paintings with photographs so he could recreate them if arsonists struck.
To support this operation Still sold paintings to the Marlborough Gallery in New York, which held Still’s last gallery show in 1969. He allowed the Metropolitan to give him a retrospective in 1979, in part because the curator allowed him considerable control over the installation.
Still died of cancer the next year, leaving that one-page will, which also bequeaths a fraction of his work (including 100 paintings, 300 drawings and his archives) to Patricia. She was courted by museums for his estate but spurned them all for nearly a quarter-century. “She kept finding ways to say no,” Ms. Campbell said. In 2004 Patricia finally struck a deal for Still’s estate with Denver, which agreed to build a museum dedicated to his oeuvre. When she died in 2005, soon after Mr. Sobel had been named director, the city learned that it had inherited her estate too. (It now holds title to about 94 percent of Still’s total output.) Since then the challenge has been “to get public what has been so fiercely guarded,” Mr. Sobel said.
The financial climate intensified that challenge. The footprint of the new museum, a Brutalist structure designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, was slightly reduced for budgetary reasons, and the opening was delayed by a year. To support the endowment the city sold four paintings from Patricia’s estate for $114 million at Sotheby’s on Nov. 9, a move that caused controversy in the art world, in part over whether Still’s intentions were being honored. Yet his life and will also make it abundantly clear that his deepest desire was to have his work seen on his own terms. And for Ms. Campbell that factor is powerful enough to trump her trepidation. “Look at the paintings, that’s all I’m asking,” she said. “Dad had more faith in the viewer than what is written about the work.”