finding the reclusive clyfford still

20130520-074951.jpgThere are unknown artists and there are legendary masters. Rarely could one man be described as both. Abstract expressionist Clyfford Still, however, was one and the same. After a retreat from the art world in the 1940’s, he controlled who got to see his canvases – and how. But his influence on Pollack, Newman, and Rothko was profound. An eponymous museum in Denver maintains some 2,500 of his works – everything in Still’s possession at the time of his death. Seen collectively they give rise to the idea that Still was not merely a painter of individual artworks but the architect of a grand symphonic vision.

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the busy world is hushed

Conceived and founded by those fabulous de Menils, Rothko Chapel was dedicated in 1971 as an ecumenical non-denominational sanctuary. The tranquil grounds contain an unprepossessing octagonal brick Chapel and a public plaza where artist Barnett Newman’s colossal Broken Obelisk sculpture rises from a large, rectangular reflecting pool. Recognized as one of the great artistic achievements of the latter twentieth century, as a work of religious art it is firmly on a par with Matisse’s Chapel of the Rosary or the Notre Dame du Haut Chapel by Le Corbusier. Widely known for his color field paintings, Mark Rothko had long yearned for the opportunity to create a total art space, to shape a complete environment where his paintings would be seamlessly integrated into the structure and purpose of the space that housed them. The Chapel commission granted the artist the unique freedom to create such an environment. Working closely with architect Philip Johnson, Rothko designed a sunlit octagonal space to hold a suite of fourteen majestic paintings in deep velvety blacks and purples, cultivating a spiritual quality of reverence and intimacy. As a non-believer the power of the Chapel as a sacred space is a bit difficult for me to grasp at first. Fitted with little more than a handful of benches, it’s a place to meditate, worship, pray, or experience the transformative power of art. Call it what you will, it’s a rare bird: a place where at least briefly the busy world can be hushed in abeyance of something larger.

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