On Jan. 15, 1951, Life magazine featured a photo of 14 New York artists—including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still—who came to be known as the Irascibles. The term perfectly suited the cantankerous Still, who so detested art critics, dealers, collectors and scholars that he seldom allowed his work to be exhibited or sold. Still believed that his monumental canvases—notable for jagged fields of raw color anchored by contrasting hatching and bisected by spindly, totemic verticals—should be seen together, in isolation, away from other artists' work. His paintings, despite the difficulty most people had getting to see them, exerted a powerful influence on colleagues who braved the artist's truculence on periodic pilgrimages to his studio.
At the time of Still's death in 1980, approximately 90% of his known work—some 2,400 objects—remained in his possession. This remarkable estate collection constitutes the core holdings of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, whose architecture and contents are beautifully documented in 'Clyfford Still:
The Artist's Museum' (Skira Rizzoli, 240 pages, $65). Sumptuous color plates—some of which fold out—reproduce works from every era of the artist's career, while photographs show how Brad Cloepfil's sensitively designed museum building complements Still's austere yet eloquent art. In an introductory essay, museum director David Sobel outlines the fascinating narrative of the museum's formation, which involved a competition between various American cities vying to win the estate's favor by satisfying the demands of Still's will. (The museum, for instance, is forbidden to engage in merchandising; it boasts neither gift shop nor café.)
The high point of the volume is a concise but wondrously insightful overview of the artist's life and work—easily the best piece of writing in existence about the man—by David Anfam, the foremost scholarly authority on Still. Giving due consideration to Still's early figurative art and hardscrabble upbringing in the drought-stricken Canadian prairies, where life was a struggle between man and nature, Mr. Anfam explains the painter's mature achievement in a manner that renders this notoriously difficult artist both sympathetic and profoundly impressive. Anyone with a sincere interest in American modernism ought to own this book.—Jonathan Lopez