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12.19.2011
Contemplating Still
Allied Works completes new Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.
West facade of Allied Works' low-profile ribbed concrete structure.
Jeremy Bitterman

Allied Works’ newly completed Clyfford Still Museum makes downtown Denver a museum hub spanning over 40 years and multiple stylistic statements, from the crenellated brutalism of Gio Ponti’s 1971 Denver Art Museum (DAM) and Daniel Libeskind’s geologically intense $90 million addition of 2006 to the deceptive simplicity of David Adjaye’s Museum of Contemporary Art completed in 2007.

The $29 million Clyfford Still literally backs up against DAM but where the Libeskind is a spiky, silvery billboard with sharp angled walls guaranteed to fight with the art and give curators headaches, the galleries crafted by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works fully complement the Abstract Expressionist Still’s resonant canvases in terms or proportion and subtly calibrated light.

   
Left to right: The corner entrance; Libeskind's addition to the Denver Art Museum is a lively backdrop to the Still; the museum entrance.
 

Cloepfil, of course, knew exactly what he was working towards. The 28,500 square-foot museum is purpose-built to house a bequest of 2,400 paintings and sketches by a single artist. Clyfford Still moved to New York in 1950 as a leading proponent of Abstract Expressionism and almost immediately withdrew his work from dealers and museum shows, preferring to work in splendid isolation (comparing his works to the creations of gods). He held on to 94 percent of his work. When he died, in 1980, he willed his trove to an American city that would install it in a permanent home—setting off more than two decades of campaigns and courtship with the artist’s widow to get the goods. Once Denver was selected, Cloepfil was chosen as architect in 2007 for his ideas, not a design, and he collaborated closely with the museum director, Dean Sobell, who wanted a chronological installation, and spaces without natural light for works on paper. During the recession, the building was resized to a two-story block set back from the street. The opening exhibition features 60 paintings, 53 works on paper, and three sculptures; it is the most comprehensive exposure to an admired but still mysterious artist ever.

 
Natural light filters into galleries from white concrete screened ceilings (left) and another view of the gallery spaces (right).
 

Cloepfil has said that he found inspiration in the elemental forms and radiant lighting of Louis Kahn’s Kimbell, the intimacy of Renzo Piano’s Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston, and the idiosyncratic character of the Picasso Museum in Paris, with its interweaving of galleries and circulation routes.

Paintings are stored and conserved on the first floor with a beam of natural light prompting visitors to follow a staircase up from the foyer to the second floor galleries. Twelve-foot-high galleries for smaller works and sketches are topped with diagonally boarded concrete ceilings. In the principal galleries, large canvases fill the 14-foot display walls, lit from 18-foot perforated concrete ceilings that diffuse light filtered through roof lanterns. Walls behave almost like sliding screens where cut-out openings frame canvases on a far wall, allowing visitors an experience of merging with the paintings’ jagged forms and vibrant colors. Each gallery is proportioned to the work it contains, and flows easily into the next, opening vistas across the entire floor.

The Editors