Mile-High Culture


Growing up near New York’s Metropolitan Museum, I had no idea how lucky I was to have access to a room full of Clyfford Still’s wild, uninhibited canvases. With their signature vertical drips of paint, they reminded me of the water damage on the wall of our spare room. When I told my dad this, he always said I’d appreciate Still when I got older: “He’s one of the giants.”

As in so many things, my dad was right about Still, and not just for me. A contemporary of Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko, Still is the least-known of our mid-century Abstract Expressionist masters, largely because of the paucity of work on view (the Met was just one of a handful of such sites).

But 32 years after his death, Clyfford Still is finally getting the wider attention he deserves. Since its opening in November, the Clyfford Still Museum — the newest addition to Denver, Colorado’s Civic Center Cultural Complex — has been a mecca for lovers of American art, the repository for a stunning 94 percent of Still’s creative output.

The Still Museum continues a recent trend of ambitious museums opening in America’s heartland. But it also cements Denver’s new sophistication, which is represented by a crop of new arts venues that challenge the city’s old identity as a crunchy paradise for skiers and computer programmers.

Case in point is a landmark Jewish arts venue — the Wolf Theatre at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, a premier regional facility housed at the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center. The 430-seat auditorium, which was unveiled last month, is named for its brainchild and patron Elaine Wolf, who thought Denver ought to have a theater with the grandeur and scale of Broadway.

Denver’s cultural ambition first got my attention in 2006, when the Daniel Libeskind-designed Hamilton Building transformed both the Denver Art Museum and the downtown skyline. Next to it sits the Denver Public Library building by Michael Graves — the architect and designer best-known to many of us for his cool line of Target kitchenware.

But those projects were conceived during the boom years. Given the recent economic climate, to which not even technology-hot Denver has been immune, it’s all the more impressive that Still’s museum came to fruition. Endowing the handsome, wood-paneled institution meant auctioning a few choice paintings — a controversial move, especially in light of the strict instructions in the artist’s will (the collection had to be exhibited together in one exclusive museum).

The 800-plus paintings, drawings, and prints on view give us the opportunity to finally understand Still’s work in all its breadth and context. Even given my familiarity with the artist, I found the Denver collection to be a revelation. Much of the artist’s early, figurative work reflects his roots in North Dakota and Spokane, Washington, with their wide-open spaces and American rural culture. Those portraits of farm workers bent over their fields and worn-down Depression-era townspeople play like a Western counterpart to Hopper’s jaded New Yorkers, capturing both the grit and the ennui of their subjects. And the museum’s physical space enhances this quintessential American quality: long, spacious galleries and plain wooden siding are reminiscent of a Wright aesthetic.

While the inaugural exhibitions play out at the Still Museum, the Denver Art Museum has a complementary show: “Robert Motherwell,” a choice selection of paintings by Still’s better-known contemporary. Together, the shows provide a rare and heady dose of the 1950s New York School. Afterward, take a “side-trip” to Paris at the museum’s current blockbuster: “Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective,” a comprehensive look at the satin-laced glamour of that French couturier, on view through July.

If you’re in town during the coming month, you can mingle with live Colorado artists at the Downtown Denver Arts Festival, held over Memorial Day weekend. More than 125 sculptors, craftspeople, painters and weavers gather for the first of Denver’s many outdoor summer festivals.

The following weekend brings out the quirkier side of Denver art: the Denver Chalk Art Festival. That’s when pastel-wielding locals take to Larimer Square, painting the asphalt in vivid shades of pink, blue and yellow.

The Mizel Arts and Culture Center is a nexus of arts activity for the Jewish community, which in Denver is notable for its many festivals and public events. The MACC is home to the Wolf Theatre Academy, an art academy, the Denver Children’s Theatre and the Singer Art Gallery; every year the latter hosts five exhibits that focus on local Jewish artists.

The annual Denver Jewish Film Festival, held in springtime, attracted nearly 7,000 spectators this year — an attendance record all the more impressive in these lean times.

Coming up at the Mizel is fall’s Jewish Arts, Authors, Movies and Music Festival, which is so popular that tickets are already selling fast. The event involves two weeks of film screenings, concerts, author talks and theater. It’s a lively departure from the prevalent single-discipline festivals, and a great way to take in the breadth of contemporary Jewish culture from a Western bent.