My sister in Denver urged me to exchange an adventurous day in the Rockies for a trip downtown, to the Clyfford Still Museum, and I will be forever grateful. Still was one of the most highly regarded American abstract expressionists of the 20th century, hanging out with luminaries Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.
He is less well-known due to his decision to avoid the art game. He spent his 60-year career (1920 to 1980) painting and teaching in relative obscurity. But in 1979 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York honored him with its first-ever retrospective of an individual artist, an exhibit he curated.
After his death in 1980, his estate offered the entire collection, including 800 paintings, 2,000 drawings and many personal items, to any city that would build a museum dedicated exclusively to his art. Denver won the prize, though his only connection to the area was teaching one summer at the University of Colorado in Boulder. We are now able study his life in a new two-story concrete pillbox opened in 2011 next to the Denver Art Museum.
Its grated ceiling allows diffused natural light to illuminate the high-ceilinged galleries of abstract art on the top floor, where Still's early and smaller paintings are shown. The early art shows Depression-era farmworkers with oversize hands and feet, based on his experiences growing up in Washington state and Alberta, Canada.
Massive canvasses are common to abstract expressionists, enabling viewers to almost feel that they are inside the paintings. Whereas for most art there is a focus point, abstract art generally offers no such respite. Our eyes travel from color splash to puzzle piece, searching for a resting place or enlightenment, while relishing the journey. And like a hike though the Rockies, viewers are engulfed by these interlocking pieces of color. To further discourage us from intellectualizing his work, Still did not use titles.
Clyfford Still Museum, 1250 Bannock St.; 720-354-4880; clyffordstillmuseum.org. Adult admission, $10.