A jewel box of a museum, tucked in downtown Denver, devoted entirely to the work of Clyfford Still—a man made enigmatic by his own agency. Having removed his art from the public eye at the height of his career (by severing all ties with commercial galleries and most with museums), he spent his final years living and painting in rural Maryland. And when he died, he left his entire oeuvre to an as-yet-determined American city under rigid stipulations that said city would agree to build or assign permanent quarters for his art to be exhibited and studied in perpetuity, and to never sell, give or exchange anything from his collection. For two decades, his widow Patricia Still searched for such a site. Meanwhile, the collection remained off-limits to all. Finally, in 2004, Denver stepped forward as the chosen home of the Clyfford Still Estate—some 825 paintings on canvas and 1575 works on paper. To house the collection, the city enlisted Brad Cloepfil and his Allied Works Architecture. Cloepfil rose to the challenge of sheltering the work of a singular artist by imagining a single form—a solid mass of concrete, crushed granite and quartz made luminous by natural light.
What could architecture offer to Still’s work? A challenging and charged context. A building that opens visitors to the emotion and power of the work. A building that offers time to stand with the work, a sense of intimacy and immediacy.
The eloquent space, opened in 2011, speaks to the profundity of Still’s paintings—their jagged contours of color, seemingly torn from existing layers like wrenching natural phenomena. Presaging the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Still began shifting from the representational paintings of his early days to abstract Color Fields in 1938, to wide/wild acclaim (“a bolt out of the blue,” said Robert Motherwell of a 1946 show). As critic Clement Greenberg wrote in the Partisan Review in 1955.
When I first saw a 1948 painting of Still’s . . . I was impressed as never before by how estranging and upsetting genuine originality in art can be.
Me too, some 60 years later. Impressed, upset, astounded by the soaring experience set a mile above Still’s sea level.