Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Downtown Colorado Becomes Clyfford Still's Gulch

       Although he didn't hide his paintings in a valley in the mountains of Colorado, Clyfford Still was for all intents and purposes the John Galt of America's art world.
       Unlike Ayn Rand's character, Still didn't seek to subvert the government. He just kept to himself, rarely selling paintings, and even deciding which work a customer could buy.
       The words of his contemporary, who created  Galt in "Atlas Shrugged," would have suited him well.
       Still rarely was interviewed, and kept his thoughts to himself. But the way he acted was almost a mirror-image of John Galt.
       In a chapter in which Galt is trying to persuade train magnet Dagney Taggert to join his struggle, this is what he said to explain why he was secretly recruiting the best of the best to join him an effort to bring the government down.
       "We are on strike. Why should this seem so startling? There is only one kind of men who have never been on strike in human history. Every other kind and class have stopped, when they so wished, and have presented demands to the world, claiming to be indispensable -- except the men who have carried the world on their shoulders, have kept it alive, have endured torture as sole payment, but have never walked out on the human race."
       It would not be that much of a stretch to take Rand's anti-socialist theme and apply it to some of the Occupy Wall Street activists. Rand frequently threw darts at corrupt capitalists.  What follows might fit today.
       "Yes, this is an age of moral crisis. Yes, you are bearing punishment for your evil.But it is not man who is now on trial and it is not human nature that will take the blame.It is your moral code that's through, this time. Your moral code has reached its climax, the blind alley at the end of its course. And if you wish to go on living, what you now need is not to return to morality -- you who have never known any -- but to discover it," said Galt.
       Still didn't want to influence anyone or be influenced by anyone.
       His work, now that it is being revealed to the world in a new museum exclusively for his art in Denver, will stun many. His 2,400 works were far more than the several dozen large impasto-laden abstractions that did impress museum curators and his colleagues when they were allowed to see them. In fact the museum only got possession of all of them several weeks ago.
       Some of the most stunning are still waiting to be framed or put on stretchers so that they could be hung after being rolled up for more than 40 years.
       The sale of four of them at Sotheby's in Manhattan last week for a total of $114 million was twice what was expected, an indication of how hungry the market is for his unseen works
       Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko recognized Still's vision long before the public.
       At first glance some of his works can be almost scary as they tower overhead. Many were ten feet high and 12 feete wide. On the other hand, you have to get within two feet to see all that is there.
       Still climbed up ladders to do his work with a palette knife, employing thick impasto.
       Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb had made a run at persuading Still's late wife, Patricia, to let Denver build the museum her husband wanted. It fell through.
       But the city did not give up and managed to enlist Still family members to help them persuade her.
       Mayor John Hickenlooper, now governor, went to Washington, D.C., to meet Mrs. Still. He passed up on a meeting of several mayors with the president to make sure he got to her.
       Correspondence shown at a media briefing Tuesday showed it was never a sure thing. Still's two daughters were persuaded to support the sale of four paintings to help pay the cost of construction and create an operational endowment. Mrs. Still had died and thus a judge in Maryland had to give his approval. The four paintings drew $114 million.
       Museum Director Dean Sobel says no museum has as many works, 2,400, of any major artist. And few artists hated museums as much as Still.  "Museums were like morgues,death places," Sobel said.
       The planners had to take that into consideration when they chose to put it next to the Denver Art Museum's two buildings, one built by Daniel Libeskind and the other by Gino Ponti. The library just across the street had a top put on it by Michael Graves.
       It is a museum to an interesting man. Some of his library is displayed, and it included Marcel Proust, Sophocles, Oswald Spengler and many other of the literati.
       Born in 1904 in North Dakota his family moved quickly to Alberta, and it's hard to conceive that the rolling and jagged plains did not influence him. He died in 1980, 30 years after turning away from any public interaction with the art world.

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