Still On His Own

On the evening of Nov. 9, 2011, the salesroom at Sotheby's auction house in New York was packed.


Anticipation was high surrounding four paintings being offered for sale by the City of Denver. The best of the lot did not disappoint. It sold for a bit over $60 million. The four together brought $114 million. An instant endowment was secured. 


The artist? Picasso? Monet? Rembrandt?


No. Clyfford Still.


If we want art that’s hard to get, then we (or they) really want work by Clyfford Still (1904-1980). Still, though not as widely known as his friends Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock, was by many accounts the best of the Abstract Expressionist artists whose work moved the center of the art world from war-torn Europe to America soon after World War II. 


1949, oil on canvas, © Estate of Clyfford Still


Still had grown up an only child in Spokane, Wash., and Alberta, Canada, having been born in North Dakota. His father, Elmer, an accountant, would go months without speaking to him or his mother. That does something to a person.


So later in his life when Still was the darling of the art world, he overtly rejected it as commercial and insincere. He withdrew from galleries and painted solely for himself. He had to. It was his passion. He knew nothing else, but occasionally he exhibited his work in museums.


After divorcing his wife and marrying one of his former art students, he continued his expressive, deep, intense work, and when he died he left it all, some 2,000 works of art on canvas and paper, to any American city that would build and support a museum dedicated only to his body of work. Twenty cities vied for the work, but his widow, Patricia Still, took almost 20 years to finally select Denver. And so an architect was chosen (Bruce Cloepfil), a building erected and the week of Nov. 15, 2011, previews began.


The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver opened to the public Nov. 19 2011. 

Photo: Raul J. Garcia


For anyone interested in passion and feelings, a stop in Denver is a must. Not only is the building drop-dead gorgeous, but the 110 works exhibited are masterpieces. This inaugural exhibition is just scratching the surface. Great tribute should be paid to Denver and the many people who were finally able to open such a stunning piece of architecture. 


The road was not an easy one, for Denver or the artist, but the result was well worth the effort. 



Story by Ellen Katz, an art collector and former chairman of the Phoenix Art Museum board of trustees from 2007 to 2010.


At top, photo of Still's "Self Portrait" by Peter Harholdt


More on the museum


"It’s Not Easy Being Single," by Daniel Grant, The Wall Street Journal


"Abstract Expressionist Made Whole," by Carol King, The New York Times



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