Once every five years or so, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery clears a big swath of wall space in its original building, pulls a few dozen large canvases out of storage and pays tribute to Clyfford Still.
All but four of the 33 paintings by Still in the Albright-Knox collection go on view today as part of an exhibition meant to refresh museumgoers' memories about the gallery's unparalleled trove of work by the late abstract expressionist painter whose prickly personality and prolific body of work has become a subject of fascination for thousands of museum visitors and scholars.
Until Denver's Clyfford Still Museum opens next year, the Albright-Knox will be home to the largest publicly accessible collection of the legendary artist's work in any institution. In 1957, former gallery director Gordon Smith visited Still's studio in New York City in the hopes of acquiring a painting. But because of the artist's innate distrust of the art establishment, Still insisted that Gordon purchase the work without approval of the gallery's art committee. After a quick phone call to Knox, the deal was sealed, and the Albright-Knox managed to gain Still's hard-to-earn trust.
In 1959, in an unprecedented move in major American museums, the Albright-Knox allowed Still full control over the curation and installation of an exhibition of his work.
Seven years later, Still gifted 31 of his canvases to the gallery, a bequest which has made the Albright-Knox an indispensable repository of the artist's work and a magnet for fans and scholars of Still's work.
The exhibition also contains a segment curated by Susana Tejada, the gallery's head of research resources, which will feature letters, documents and photographs exploring the gallery's storied relationship with Still.
Albright-Knox Chief Curator Douglas Dreishpoon organized the exhibition chronologically, so viewers can observe Still's transformation from a painter of loaded and complex canvases that mixed abstraction and figuration to a creator of more airy and self-assured paintings he produced from the 1950s onward. The paintings in the Albright-Knox's Still collection range from 1937 to 1963.
Dreishpoon reflected on the experience museumgoers might have as they make their way from Still's earlier works to his later canvases.
"It starts rather thick and darkly. The paintings are very complicated. He's working through a lot of possibilities and the result is that the canvases tend to get sometimes very muddy, not in an unsuccessful way, but they're heavily painted," Dreishpoon said. As time went on, he added, "some of the images are actually very light and airy and the gesture that's a part of how he paints is almost liberated from any kind of image, and so the gesture becomes the image. So they speak in whispers rather than in heavy, somber voices. And they fly in a very nice way."
Still's reputation as a curmudgeon who would cut off all contact with a fellow artist for what seemed to be the slightest offense has become part of his appeal. This exhibition, in addition to airing out one of the most storied collections of abstract expressionist painting in America, allows visitors to contemplate the character alongside the art he created.
"It's a psychological profile that evolves through time, and the older he gets, the more skittish and paranoiac he gets," Dreishpoon said.
"He was a complicated human being, and I also think he thought what he was doing was entirely unique, entirely original and untouchable by anyone else."
WHAT: "Clyfford Still"
WHEN: Today through Aug. 29
WHERE: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.
TICKETS: $8 to $12
INFO: 882-8700 or www.albrightknox.org