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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

Touring Denver’s Newest Art Museum

I wasn’t sure of what to expect, as I walked through the doors of the Clyfford Still Museum. After much fanfare, news coverage, and general hoopla, I was about to walk through the doors of Denver’s newest museum on its opening weekend. I had been planning this visit for nearly a year – ever since I heard about the opening date – and was now concerned I might be let down after so much buildup. I worried I’d experience that all-too-familiar feeling of being let down after so much talk – rather like seeing a movie after it has been out for a couple of weeks and all of my friends talk about how amazing it is; the idea seemed silly, though, so I tried to remain positive.
The thought of the Clyfford Still Museum was conceived long before I even knew anything about the artist, even his name. Still passed away at the age of 75 in 1980 when I was only four. The extent of my interest in art at that point in my life was largely focused on finger-painting. The occasional stick figure would dance into the picture, but rarely. My interest in art would grow, though, as I did, and I would take a few sketching classes in high school and later gain a better appreciateion for museums. I had yet to hear of Clyfford Still, though.
Not too long ago, I was exploring the new addition to the Denver Art Museum – the Hamilton Building – and stumbled upon a giant Clyfford Still painting on display. Well, at least as much as one can stumble upon such a massive painting hanging on a wall in an art museum. Nonetheless, it intrigued me and I was curious to learn more about Clyfford Still; it was then that I learned of a new museum being built in the shadows of the Denver Art Museum.
Clyfford Still had a dream to have all of his work collected in one institution. He left it in his will to his second wife, Patricia, to see his desire fulfilled. In 1999, Patricia wrote her nephew living in Denver and asked what he thought of having the museum in the Mile High City. It obviously went over well, since twelve years later the much-anticipated Clyfford Still Museum was finally opening the doors. And I could not have been more thrilled – despite a shadow of concern in the back of my mind – to be one of the first people to walk through the doors.
It may seem cliche, but I was instantly surprised by what I found in the museum. I had expected the Clyfford Still Museum to simply be a collection of his art. Instead, the first floor was dedicated to who Clyfford Still was and what was happening in the world that would have influenced his creations; there are also offices, a few works on display in storage centers, and a conservation studio for Still’s art.
It was fantastic and I appreciated the perspective I was given on the first floor. But I already knew a little about Clyfford Still and the world events that would have influenced him. What I was there to see was more of what I had first seen at the Denver Art Museum.
Clyfford Still: “My work in its entirety is like a symphony in which each painting has its part.”
The symphony begins in the mid-1920s, when Still’s art was influenced by his life on the high prairies of North Dakota, where he was born, eastern Washington State, and Alberta, Canada. He spent the first 35 years of his life in the area on family farms. It was obvious that his surroundings strongly influenced his art. What was also immediately evident as an influence was the Great Depression. I looked at the displayed works and it quickly made me think of author John Steinbeck’s own masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, on canvas.
“My paintings have the rising forms of the vertical necessity of life dominating the horizon. For in such a land a man must stand upright, if he would live. And so born and became intrinsic this elemental characteristic of my life and work.”
I moved on to the next hall with my friend. What she and I saw seemed in no way connected to what was in the previous hall. Actually, though, this is more the Clyfford Still I initially knew and had discovered at the Denver Art Museum; the Depression-era art of “arms bloodied to the elbows from shucking wheat” and “men and machines ripping a meager living from the thin top soil,” was a drastically new experience. It was something I had not expected. But what I was now looking at was what I had initially hoped to see.
Clyfford Still had moved to the San Francisco Bay area from the North American high plains. It seemed as though here, in California, he was influenced by a life similar to that of Jack Kerouac. And it showed in his work. But, despite what I consider to be subtle changes in the use of the empty space on his canvas – although others will most certainly argue that the effects are dramatic – I did not notice a drastic change in his art as he moved back and forth from the west and the east coasts. To me, up through Still’s time in rural Maryland, where he lived and worked in seclusion through the 1960s and ’70s, I did not notice any gross change in his work. It all remained incredibly abstract; only the use of the blank areas on the canvas and different colors seemed evident to my untrained eyes.
I have no doubt that an art historian, or someone of some other professional connection to the art community, would scold me for my limited observations and knowledge. But, simply, the change in Clyfford Still’s art from his time in San Francisco on was nowhere near as dramatic as it was from when he moved out of the prairies and to the cities. Then the change was dramatic and evident, as though a totally new artist emerged. The following decades of his life showed me only subtle changes, albeit beautiful and distinct, in Still’s art.
The crowds were not overwhelming for the museum’s opening weekend. Part of me was disappointed by this, but I also appreciated the occasional opportunity to take a moment, sit on a bench, and admire Clyfford Still’s life through art. In the final gallery – the Jana and Fred Bartlit Gallery – I hunched down and tried to decide which of the two works I was looking at was my favorite. They both had a lot of energy, violence even, and that attracted me. I liked most of Still’s other works, even the largely monochromatic pieces in other parts of the museum, but these two were drawing my eyes more than any other piece I had yet seen.
And then, as I got up and took one last close look at the two works before leaving, I noticed a date. Clyffford Still finished and signed one of them four days after I was born. That had to mean he was hard at work on it in his Maryland studio when I first came screaming into this world. With that in mind, and the image of a screaming yellow demon on the left side of the painting in sight, I settled on it as my favorite. I left the Clyfford Still Museum happy and content, all anticipatory concerns now evaporated, with what I had seen and experienced.

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5 Comments on “Touring Denver’s Newest Art Museum”

  1. The Physician's Palette March 15, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    I keep hearing only good things about this museum. I will have to visit it someday.

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