September 26, 2019–January 12, 2020
Clyfford Still Museum, Denver
Clyfford Still is one of the great abstract expressionists of the twentieth century, but his large-scale paintings, characterized by jagged fissures on thick, dark patches of color tend to project severity and rage. In other words, viewers can have a hard time warming to them. Fortunately, the Clyfford Still Museum often groups paintings from its vast archives into themes, and in Elemental, the strategy sheds needed light on Still’s oeuvre. A number of works, such as PH-826 (1972), with its organic flame-like shapes, are on view for the first time. As the title suggests, the organization falls into the categories of earth, air, water, fire and—from Aristotle—æther, or celestial phenomena. Each skylit room has no more than a handful of paintings interpreting the element in question, mostly through associated colors and varying intensity of application. In addition, each entrance provides sensory objects, images, and sounds to enhance that element. In the “Air” room, an overhead speaker plays the rustling sounds of wind, and a floor decal adds to the mood with words such as “weightless,” “rebirth,” and “purity.” The overall organization may not be subtle, but they help crystallize Still’s way of looking at the world. The curator’s notes giving insights into Still’s philosophical stances as they relate to nature are also helpful. The exhibition gels very nicely in the “Æther” room, where PH-432 (1964) is among the works where Still effectively lets vibrant colors spill across a nearly bare surface, stirring ideas about the mysteries of the universe. Also outstanding in the “Water” gallery is the sixteen-foot-long PH-247 (1951), a cerulean expanse that brings to mind the magnificent power and weight of waves. Perhaps Still’s paintings are not so impenetrable after all.