BY BRIAN LIBBY
To Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, it is "nothing less than a marvelous model for what a single-artist museum can be. Virtually every aspect of it is designed to maximize a visitor's encounter with Still's often riveting art."
For Time magazine's Amanda Bower, the building is "an island of tranquility amid the cacophony of the surrounding Denver Art Museum by Daniel Libeskind....Clyfford Still had referred to museums as 'morgues' for paintings displayed in a harsh and unchanging light, and so natural light filters through a delicate cast-in-place concrete ceiling, that from a distance looks almost like fabric suspended from the ceiling."
The recently opened Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, designed by Portland's Allied Works and its leader, Brad Cloepfil, seems to be receiving the kind of attention and accolades that can re-ignite a career.
Of course the Allied Works portfolio already includes a host of art museums, such as the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the Seattle Art Museum and the University of Michigan Museum of Art. For some of these projects, Cloepfil and company secured the commissions via design competitio, winning out against internationally prominent architects like Zaha Hadid (for MAD) and Herzog & DeMeuron (for St. Louis).
Yet the New York project, although praised by legendary critics like Ada Louise Huxtable in The Wall Street Journal, was always mired by controversy stemming from its transformation of the original structure there by Edward Durell Stone, informally known as the Lolipop Building. The firm seemed to stay reasonably busy during the recent Great Recession years, with not only the Michigan museum but the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts in Dallas, as well as houses and master planning work. But there were also projects that went unbuilt, be it a Fire Station One proposal in Portland or the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.
To see not only the Still Museum fully realized in Denver but also, at least so far (with heavyweights like Paul Goldberger and Michael Kimmelman yet to weigh in) receive high accolades, may remind potential future clients that Cloepfil is a torch-bearer of Louis Kahn-style modernism, using masonry and glass to create light-filled volumes aspiring to soulfulness.
"The best of Still’s abstractions look as inevitable as the heedless, randomly beautiful patterns of geology or flowing water. The boxy bunker designed by architect Brad Cloepfil bristles with ragged concrete fins, evoking Still’s intricate compositions," writes Bloomberg's James F. Russell. At first he seems to dislike the museum, calling it a "concrete bunker," yet to Russell that phrase apparently isn't damming. "That roughened exterior radiates an elegant gravitas," he adds. "It forms a carapace that guards Still’s cerebral work from our jangled, attention-deficit lives. Cloepfil...brings a Zen calm by framing the nine, squarish second-floor galleries in planes of concrete and painted drywall that alternately obscure and reveal, like Shoji screens. He mixes salon-style rooms with high galleries topped by a rippling scrim of concrete in which teardrop perforations delicately shower the space with shimmering daylight. Each room feels contained, so that you stop and look rather than glance and move on. The galleries still breathe because Cloepfil opened corners to diagonal vistas that gently tease you along."
"I’ve never seen another museum that paces the art-viewing experience so well," Russell adds.
Still, who grew up in Spokane, Washington, didn't have any particular connection to Denver. But his will offered his collection to an American city that would build a museum completely devoted to his work. "More than a dozen art institutions made serious attempts to convince Still's widow, Patricia, that they would be the best custodians of the work," Time's Bower writes. "She rejected them all. And so, for almost a quarter of a century, some 825 canvases and 1,575 works on paper remained in storage. Still's name and work vanished from the public eye."
But under then-Mayor John Hickenlooper (who is now Colorado's governor), Denver raised $32 million privately and finally built the $15 million structure. Although Clyfford Still is credited as the father of Abstract Expressionism, his work in this style predating titans like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, by the 1950s had almost completely withdrawn from the world of gallery and museum exhibitions. He may have diminished his own reputation by removing himself from the national-international artistic conversation. But because of Still's cantankerousness, this is also a serious art collection, much more so (as the LA Times' Knight notes) than other single-artist musuems like those devoted to Van Goh in Amsterdam or Picasso in Paris. The new Still Museum includes more than 90 percent of his life's work.
Per the artist's wishes (and in effect living up to its name), it also will not have a gift shop, cafe, or other accoutrements of the modern museum. But if it is to be a more sober, spiritual temple to art, that arguably is even better suited for Cloepfil's style. It's not to say Allied Works doesn't design spaces meant to be filled with people. The project that put Cloepfil on the architectural map, the Wieden + Kennedy headquarters in Portland, is a veritable hive of activity, with employees continuously moving around a central atrium and its catwalks. Yet Allied Works projects, at their best, use light and volume to forge transcendent space, not loudly like Daniel Liebeskind, whose museum is across the street, but by yielding, Zenlike, to the forces in and around. It's not a coincidence that Allied gets chosen for a lot of art museums, because despite Cloepfil's growing international reputation, the work itself yields to and enhances the art.
"Unlike most art museums, the Still's program is crystal clear from the moment you walk through the grove and enter the front door," Knight writes. "Across a modest lobby, a stair rises to the second floor, where paintings lead you through nine lovely galleries, enhancing a sense of immediate intimacy with the art. Separations between rooms allow views across and down into other spaces, facilitating awareness of where you are in the building. The art experience is the program, first and last."
A decade ago, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain ignited the "Bilbao effect," the notion that arts and culture facilities can prompt widespread economic growth for the host city. Maybe there is a little of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Effect in having the Still Museum in Denver. (As in, "The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland? What? Why?") But right now, particularly on the heels of the Denver Art Museum expansion, the city's efforts to bring the Still Museum to Mile High elevation beside the Rockies is bringing a lot of media attention and tourism, and may be part of a long-term reconsideration of the cultural merits of this middle-American outpost.
Particularly given that Portland was once the adopted hometown of one of the only artists to rival or surpass Clyfford Still in stature as an Abstract Expressionist of the 20th Century, Mark Rothko, Denver's move ought to be worth noting. Whether it's by spearheading a Mark Rothko Museum in Portland or simply an expansion of the Portland Art Museum to include its vacant city block of property to the north of the current facility, our city can do something like Denver did to give added institutional weight to the excitement already being generated locally by so many young artists locating here. It's no easy task to raise the millions of dollars and incur the favor of power players necessary to make an artistic-architectural game changer, but if Broncos can do it, so can Trail Blazers.