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Wednesday, 30 November 2011 03:32

Abstract Expressionist Made Whole

Michael Chavez, left, and Chris Perez adjust a painting, “PH-972” (1949), at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. Michael Chavez, left, and Chris Perez adjust a painting, “PH-972” (1949), at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. Cyrus Mccrimmon/The Denver Post, via Associated Press

It was a crisp fall day here, and the new Clyfford Still Museum was humming with activity. Works by Still, the institution’s Abstract Expressionist namesake, had begun arriving in the galleries a couple of days back, and now the 60 paintings that were going on view had been unpacked and propped on blocks, leaning against the walls. Many had never been seen by more than a handful of people.

For some — like Dean Sobel, director of the museum — it was a moment of discovery. Although he had spent years inspecting the paintings in storage in Maryland, where they had been sequestered since the ferociously unsociable Still moved there in 1961, Mr. Sobel had never had the opportunity to look at this large a grouping en masse, or even on stretchers.

“We stretched this yesterday,” Mr. Sobel said, pointing to a 16-foot-long canvas Still had painted in 1951, around the time he began cutting his ties to galleries, then museums, then the rest of the art world. Glowing with thickly impastoed blue oil paint, it was roughly bisected by a vertical black band and a flamelike crimson streak, one of Still’s “life lines,” as he termed them. He had been persuaded to exhibit it only once, at the 1963 opening of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Nearby two more rolled-up paintings from the 1970s lay waiting for their own stretcher-bar debut. Other canvases around them blazed with color, looking as fresh as if they had just come from Still’s studio.

“It’s a pristine collection,” Mr. Sobel said happily.

Someone else in the museum that day had more bittersweet emotions, however: Still’s younger daughter, Sandra Still Campbell. She was clearly delighted to rediscover the paintings, many of which she had lived with growing up. “If you get close enough, you can still smell the paint and the linseed oil,” she said, gazing teary eyed at an ochre painting from 1949. “These are old friends. It’s, like, ‘Hey, siblings, you’re back!’ ”

Yet as co-executor (together with her older sister, Diane Still Knox) of her father’s estate, Ms. Campbell was nervous about opening his work up to public scrutiny. “Dad didn’t need anybody to tell him what he was about,” she said. “He didn’t like being analyzed. And now he’s going to be analyzed to death.”

A founder of Abstract Expressionism, along with Rothko and Pollock (who said, “Still makes the rest of us look academic”), Still these days is most notable for being the least known of that pioneering group. In life he sold or gave away only about 150 paintings, and he tightly controlled how and when his work was shown. After his death in 1980 at 75 his widow and initial executor, Patricia Still, guarded his work just as jealously, selling or giving away only 12 paintings and largely refusing to let the rest be seen by anyone, including scholars.

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