A Tale of Two Artists
Craig, Denver museums show Rockwell, Still and a contrast of 20th Century style
What is art?
I don’t really know and I’m not even completely sure I know it when I see it. But I do know two exhibits showing now in Colorado offer a most interesting, unique and contrasting look at two of America’s finest 20th Century artists, Norman Rockwell and Clyfford Still.
Even the settings of these two exhibits are a contrast. Norman Rockwell in the Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig, Colo., and Clyfford Still in Denver. These two artists each painted from the early 1900s to the latter part of the century. They are contemporaries (Rockwell is Still’s senior by 10 years), but they saw the world through vastly different lenses. Rockwell was the man who painted a most literal America, an America of children, dogs, recognizable characters and shared emotions. Even during America’s darkest days such as the Great Depression and World War II, he found a bright side to life.
In stark contrast, Still is credited with being a primary force behind the development of Abstract Expressionism. It indeed lacks form and specificity leaving nothing but emotional tones. While there is a decidedly bright side to his later paintings, many of Still’s works are melancholy in tone and color.
While Rockwell was painting covers for The Saturday Evening Post, a national magazine with vast public exposure, Still withheld his art from the public. He remained a prolific painter, but many of his paintings are only now open to viewing by the public.
Each exhibit offers a rare chance for art lovers to view the work of these two artistic titans over several decades. From this vantage it is easy even for untrained eyes to see how an artist’s work evolves, matures and changes. While many museums hang paintings by well-known artists, rarely can a life’s work be examined in one place.
We did not set out to contrast the two artists, but by happenstance of the calendar we visited both exhibits in one week. So different the displays, so strikingly opposite in the approach to art, each exhibit was actually enhanced by the recent viewing of the other.
Museum of Northwest Colorado
Norman Rockwell Exhibit
Free through Sept. 28
All the way from Stockbridge, Mass., to Craig, Colo., come all 323 Saturday Evening Post covers illustrated over 47 years by Norman Rockwell. His first cover, painted in 1916 when Rockwell was only 22-years-old, started a nearly 5-decade examination of American life. Rockwell continued his association with The Saturday Evening Post until 1963.
Rockwell’s work as an illustrator was loved by the public and admired by peers. “Our Babe Ruth is and always will be Norman Rockwell,” said illustrator C.F. Payne. Rockwell himself called The Saturday Evening Post the “greatest show window in America,” probably because of the magazine’s status as one of the few magazines to surpass one million subscribers. Such a huge and consistent exposure to Rockwell’s work made him a familiar fixture of American life – the very same American life he so diligently chronicled.
The covers are all artfully displayed along a second floor walkway that rings the main hall of the Museum of Northwest Colorado. Arranged in chronological order, the covers show an evolving artist’s hand, as well as an interesting look at American history over the first half of the 20th Century.
While this time period was difficult for America in many ways, it also was a time of rapid growth and opportunity. Despite extremely difficult times like the Great Depression and World War II, Rockwell managed to chronicle everyday life. He avoided difficult depression-era scenes and his approach to World War II was to focus on the home front, choosing not to portray the agonies of soldiers overseas.
Many of the covers have become familiar American icons, such as Rosie the Riveter, recognizable to an observer born decades after it appeared in print. Even though his last cover appeared in 1963, a Rockwell painting endures because above all else he painted and artfully captured simple, every day emotions and scenes. As in his famous, clever self portrait, a look at a Rockwell painting is a look in the mirror.
Assistant museum director Janet Gerber explained the museum can afford to offer such a prized traveling exhibit due to the gifts of mineral rights. It is because of recent oil and gas exploration that the museum has the money for such an exhibit, she explained. Even with the money it is no simple matter to stage such a show. “It takes a long time,” Gerber said, “with all the changes in lighting and other requirements to meet.” Gerber said the museum staged a similar exhibit 10 years ago that was overwhelmingly successful.
The Rockwell exhibit should not be missed and is well worth the drive to Craig from anywhere on the Western Slope, but the rest of the Museum of Northwest Colorado will entertain and enlighten, as well. Among the colorful local characters in Moffat County history are Edwin C. Johnson, who was a Colorado governor (1933–36), then a Colorado senator (1937–54), then a Colorado governor again (1955–57).
Or the story of Richard Barker, who in 1906 gained fame as Buster Brown for the Buster Brown Shoe Co. Barker as a child wanted to be a cowboy, not a shoe company model, so in 1923 he moved to Moffat County near Baggs, Wyo., and became a cowboy for the rest of his life.
Local photographers A.G. and Augusta Wallihan were pioneer wildlife photographers whose photos of mountain lion, grizzly, lynx and elk earned invitations to display their work at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900 and the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.
Of special note in this museum is the Cowboy and Gunfighters Collection compiled by Bill Mackin and later acquired by the museum. This collection of saddles, guns, spurs, bits, bridals, clothing and tools of the cowboy is remarkable for the fine condition of the items. Saddles on display (including a saddle owned and used by Buffalo Bill) could be used today. A pair of boots a century old looks to be ready for the Saturday night dance.
The Museum of Northwest Colorado is at 590 Yampa Street in Craig. Museum entrance is free.
Clyfford Still Museum
Opened in November of 2011, the Clyfford Still museum amounts to a substantial arts coup for the city of Denver.
Still (1904–1980) was among the innovators of Abstract Expressionism, the powerful and influential art movement that developed in the United States following World War II. Still found his signature style much earlier than his contemporaries and is widely credited with creating the foundation for the movement. In 1951, Still ended his relationship with commercial galleries and exhibited very little of his work for the rest of his life.
With his death in 1980, Still’s work was sealed from public and scholarly view. He stipulated in his will that his estate be given in its entirety to an American city willing to establish a permanent quarters dedicated solely to his work for exhibition and study.
Still had little connection to Denver, but his wife, Patricia, selected Denver in 2004 as the city to receive the collection. In 2005, she bequeathed to the city her own estate, which included select paintings by her husband as well as his complete archives.
The Still Museum collection represents nearly 94% of the artist’s lifetime output. It comprises 2,400 works from 1920 through 1980, including 825 paintings, 1,575 drawings and prints and three sculptures. Many of the works have never been seen by the public and all have been removed from public view for at least three decades. Collection highlights include Still’s rarely exhibited and virtually unknown drawings and early works, never-before-seen masterworks from the height of his career and more than 300 works from his breakthrough period as an innovator of the Abstract Expressionist movement.
To keep the exhibit fresh, the museum will host rotating exhibitions. We viewed the second installation which showed his work arranged by where he lived and chronologically. This exhibit clearly showed the evolution of the artist and his work as he moved from a somewhat literal style in his early years, becoming ever more abstract along the way.
A particular highlight in the lower floor of the building is an interactive digital time machine that puts Still and his works in chronological context with pop culture, world events and art history. Still was born in North Dakota and lived in eastern Washington and southern Canada until age 30. Still later lived in San Francisco, New York and Maryland.
The museum itself is the newest addition to Denver’s expanding Cultural Arts District. The museum is adjacent to the Denver Art Museum in the downtown Civic Center Cultural Complex. The two-story, 28,500-square-foot building includes a series of natural light-filled galleries on its upper level designed specifically to display Still’s work. The building was designed by Brad Cloepfil and Allied Works Architecture.
The museum is at 1250 Bannock Street. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, open until 8 p.m. on Fridays. Cost is $10 for adults, $6 for seniors and students.