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Clyfford Still’s will fulfilled
Estate will donate over 2,000 works for new museum in Denver

The massive estate of the reclusive Abstract Expressionist artist Clyfford Still (1904-80) will at last come to light after two decades locked away in storage, unseen by scholars and the public.

The artist’s widow, Patricia A. Still and the City of Denver signed an agreement in August that allows the city 10 years to raise funds to construct a Still museum and establish an endowment to operate it. If the city raises the money, Ms Still will donate more than 2,000 works by her late husband, including approximately 750 paintings, 1,300 pastels, other works of art, and the artist’s archives, a cache that Mayor John Hickenlooper says “will make Denver a destination for all those interested in 20th-century art”.

An art-world antagonist, Still hoarded his work, chided critics, and refused invitations to exhibit. In his lifetime there were major shows only at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) 1943), the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo (1959), the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York (1969), and the Metropolitan (1979), and he rarely sold his work, preferring to keep it together. “My work in its entirety is like a symphony in which each painting has its part”, he once said.

According to Harry Cooper, a curator at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum, there are only around 225 paintings not owned by the estate: the artist sold approximately 150, and gave 31 to the Albright-Knox, 28 to SFMoMA, and his widow gave 10 to the Metropolitan in 1986. In each case, he stipulated his art be displayed in its own galleries in perpetuity.

His will was no less severe, requiring that his entire estate be bequeathed to “an American city that will agree to build or assign and maintain permanent quarters exclusively” to house the works of art, which may never be “sold, given, or exchanged”.
As a result, his work has been inaccessible to curators and art historians, there has not been a definitive retrospective, and his posthumous reputation has lagged far behind that of his contemporaries, making it all the more difficult for the artist’s widow to find a city willing to fulfil her late husband’s will.

The artist’s nephew Curt Freed, a Denver resident, was instrumental in securing the deal for the Colorado capital, which otherwise has no connection to the artist. Mr Freed and Mayor Hickenlooper visited Ms Still outside Baltimore in January to persuade her that Denver would be a suitable home for a Clyfford Still Museum.

In announcing the deal, which must be approved by the City Council, the mayor’s office described it as a bargain for Denver, citing Sotheby’s recent sale of a single painting by Still for $3,144,000. “Let’s assume that over the next five years we raised a $10 million endowment and the $7 to $10 million to build the museum. That gets us, for the sake of argument, $1 billion of art”, the mayor told the Denver Post.

None of that art can be sold, and some question whether Still’s name will attract a wide audience. Few would question the viability of a Pollock, de Kooning, or Rothko museum, but those artists are much better known.

If marketing abstraction to the masses weren’t challenge enough, the artist’s will forbids the display of work by other artists in the museum, so the institution cannot create a varied schedule of temporary exhibitions to lure return visitors.