Not many museum directors have the opportunity Dean Sobel has—which is nothing short of the chance to rewrite a chapter of American art history.

As the first director of the Clyfford Still Museum, set to open in Denver on Nov. 18, Mr. Sobel will be reintroducing a first-generation Abstract Expressionist who abruptly severed his ties to the commercial art world in 1951 and rarely showed or sold his works after that. A few museums own some of his works—massive canvases of ragged swaths of black and a primary color that resemble rawhide—but his last large exhibition was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979-80. Nearly 95% of Still’s output has been locked away for decades. At the Museum of Modern Art’s Abstract Expressionist exhibition earlier this year, which had roomfuls of works by Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, Still was represented by one painting.

Mr. Sobel, who has spent the past six years studying the hidden trove—825 paintings and 1,575 works on paper—is convinced that Still is not only a giant of Abstract Expressionism, but also the first of the breed. “We are going head to head with Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning and Newman,” he says. “The goal for us is to put Still back in, to show the greatness of him and that he was the great innovator of the movement. He creates Abstract Expressionism before all the others.”

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Judith H. Dobrzynski
Wall Street Journal

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