A Spotlight on Collections Care and Conservation at the Clyfford Still Museum

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened show at a museum outside New York City, a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

Clyfford Still was one of the best American painters of all time, though he probably isn’t the household name he should be thanks to the same quality that allowed him to create such phenomenal works: his extreme self-seriousness. When fellow Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock appeared in Life magazine, Still said that he’d “sold out to the housewives.” Still “refused to participate in the Venice Biennale four times,” and wasn’t even that enthusiastic about selling his work. When he died in 1980, he retained 3,125 works, representing 93 percent of his total output over his six-decade career.

An abstract painting
Clyfford Still, PH-1026, 1959. Oil on canvas, 83.625 x 67 in. Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO. © City and County of Denver-ARS, NY

After a long competition to build an institution to house them, Denver opened its Clyfford Still Museum in 2011, and its just-opened show, “Spotlight: Inside Collections Care and Conservation,” highlights the museum’s efforts to preserve the artist’s wishes.

Still was so rigorous about the upkeep and cataloging of his work that it could be considered a part of his practice. The show features two archival cases with objects and conservation tools from the Clyfford Still Archives. His will not only stipulated that his estate could only be shown in its own museum but also detailed how much space that museum had to dedicate to conservation and storage. He was a masterful painter, but isn’t all that an opus in the medium of control? The joy of this museum is the way it forces you to crawl inside Still’s head.

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Though the museum only shows Still, its exhibitions rotate several times a year. This show features five never-before-seen paintings by the artist, including one presented unstretched on a panel strainer. Among these is PH-1026—Mr. Sunshine did not title his works—which was made in New York in 1959 and feels like a response to Barnett Newman. There’s a line running down the middle, and it feels airy compared to Newman’s big blocks of color. Something gray seems to materialize through its clouds.

Another of the never-before-seen notes, PH-661, was made in 1968 after Still left the city for Maryland. This one positively bleeds, with chunky browns and grays tumbling like a thick waterfall. Still may not have named his paintings, but the joy of this museum is seeing how different they all are. It’s no slight to Mark Rothko that a room filled with nothing but his work starts to feel a little monotonous, but that’s never the case with Still. The show also features fourteen works on paper never shown before, and the creativity he brings to pastels is astounding. It’s the same instinct for shapes, colors and compositions, distilled to an even simpler form.

Woven through all this are perspectives from the museum collections staff, and those who work with it, on the difficulties of keeping these objects as Still would have wanted. If this museum is his brain, then they are his neurons, and we can only be grateful for the way they continue to carry out his wishes.

“Spotlight: Inside Collections Care and Conservation” is on view at the Clyfford Still Museum through May 5, 2024.

A Spotlight on Collections Care and Conservation at the Clyfford Still Museum