Enig­matic en­counter

Artist Roni Horn, a puz­zle her­self, cu­rates a show by the mys­te­ri­ous Clyf­ford Still

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ray Mark Ri­naldi

The Clyf­ford Still Mu­seum has done an ad­mirable job of work­ing within the un­usual con­straints im­posed upon its cu­ra­tors. Ac­cord­ing to the mu­seum’s char­ter — based on the wishes of its very par­tic­u­lar name­sake who died in 1980 — the in­sti­tu­tion can­not show any­thing but the work of Clyf­ford Still. No mix­ing and match­ing with other painters of his era to demon­strate his place in 20th-cen­tury art. No side-by-side com­par­isons be­tween the out­put of Still and artists work­ing to­day to give vis­i­tors his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive.

All Still. All the time. For­ever.

But the mu­seum has man­aged to keep things in­ter­est­ing in the five years it has been around, com­ing up with a va­ri­ety of log­i­cal ways to show off the 825, city-owned paint­ings in its col­lec­tion. Ex­hibits have told of Still’s ca­reer chrono­log­i­cally. They have been based on his color pal­ettes and cre­ative ideas. There was even a show, quite con­vinc­ing, that con­nected Still to Vin­cent van Gogh.

The mu­seum’s lat­est at­tempt to keep things in­ter­est­ing in­volves some star power. Its Artists Se­lect se­ries in­vites well-known liv­ing artists to flip through the in-house cat­a­log and cu­rate a show of their choos­ing. The first two par­tic­i­pants this sea­son were su­per­stars: painters Ju­lian Schn­abel and Mark Bradford.

The lat­est is some­what lesser-known out­side of

the con­tem­po­rary art field, but equally re­spected: Roni Horn, an artist known for mak­ing a lot of every­thing — sculp­tures, draw­ings, pho­to­graphs, writ­ings. The 61-year-old New Yorker has had a stel­lar ca­reer, in­clud­ing a well-re­ceived 2009 ret­ro­spec­tive at Lon­don’s supremely re­garded Tate Mod­ern, which fea­tured such di­verse ob­jects as large-scale, pink glass cubes and 100, tight, close-up pho­to­graphs of the same woman’s face as she’s sit­ting in geother­mic pools in Ice­land. Crit­ics are known to de­scribe her work as “in­scrutable,” which in the art world is a com­pli­ment. It’s just fine for an artist’s work to be enig­matic, a chal­lenge to un­der­stand, a lit­tle self-ab­sorbed.

And it makes her a good choice to cu­rate Still, who was all of those things him­self. Schn­abel and Bradford are painters, re­ally, and their choices had to do with the way Still used his brush. Horn dives into his mys­tery, try­ing to sort out what Still, paint­ing af­ter paint­ing, was at­tempt­ing to ac­com­plish over his long ca­reer.

In her artist’s state­ment, Horn writes of how “Clyf­ford Still’s daugh­ters, San­dra and Diane, re­call hear­ing the sounds of the palette knife scrap­ing and scratch­ing the can­vas in the night as they lay in bed.” So, in some ways, this ex­hibit aims to bring that noise back to life, to make Still’s act of “slid­ing, push­ing, wip­ing, scrap­ing, trow­el­ing thick masses of paint against and across the can­vas” a sound­track for vis­i­tors walk­ing through the mu­seum.

And you do hear it. Es­pe­cially in works like “PH-605” from 1950, which is nearly all black and piled on with thick paint, or 1949’s “PH-385,” where Still has globbed on mounds of reds. Still’s fa­mous trowel is au­di­ble in the scores of long lines, in orange, red, yel­low and blue, that give form to the 24 works on the ex­hibit’s check­list.

But she also man­aged to quiet Still down, which is a nearly im­pos­si­ble task with an artist known for large, loud ges­tures. Still’s paint­ings came in var­i­ous sizes, but the show­stop­pers stretch on hor­i­zon­tally for 16 feet and be­yond. Horn went de­cid­edly small.

One gallery fea­tures five paint­ings where noth­ing is over 6 feet long or wide. It feels in­ti­mate, al­most mute in com­par­i­son to the way we are used to ex­pe­ri­enc­ing Still.

And it shows a gen­tler side of him. “PH105,” from 1952, is nearly all gray and has a rather dap­pled ap­pear­ance to it, while 1949’s “PH-140” has mostly soft blacks and muted whites, which come to­gether peace­fully. No one would de­scribe Still as serene or tran­quil, but these five paint­ings, con­sid­ered to­gether, slow him down in a way that may sur­prise mu­seum reg­u­lars.

As an artist, Horn is known for sub­tle jux­ta­po­si­tions, for pair­ing things that are sim­i­lar and ask­ing view­ers to rec­og­nize sub­tle dif­fer­ences and, while do­ing so, gain a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the small things that in­form our vis­ual per­cep­tions.

Horn does that through­out this show, putting side-by-side paint­ings whose forms, col­ors or size com­ple­ment one an­other. In dis­cussing the ex­hibit, Still Mu­seum di­rec­tor Dean So­bel notes that some of the paired paint­ings are sep­a­rated by more dis­tance than is cus­tom­ary in art gal­leries which, he be­lieves, “gives them au­ton­omy, but also, by virtue of be­ing on the same wall, forces a kind of com­par­i­son.”

There is also, and quite no­tice­ably, a lot of blank spa­ces. One of Still’s trade­marks was to sim­ply not paint por­tions of his can­vas, al­low­ing craggy fields of gold or brown to ex­ist as is­lands or penin­su­las of color against starkly plain back­drops.

Horn fa­vors this work at its ex­treme, se­lect­ing pieces such as 1957’s “PH-1139,” which fea­tures just a few ver­ti­cal lines of black and red on a can­vas that goes on for nearly 10 feet. There’s a pal­pa­ble, vis­ual depth to these paint­ings that make them log­i­cal choices for an artist who works eas­ily in three di­men­sions her­self and who came to age at a time when min­i­mal­ism was in fash­ion.

Of course, there is a lot of guess­ing go­ing on when­ever Still’s work is as­sem­bled in group­ings. You can see Horn do­ing that, mak­ing as­sump­tions, build­ing con­clu­sions, con­jec­tur­ing. He was an enigma, just as she is, and there is some sweet jus­tice in the fact that she was tasked with solv­ing the same kind of puz­zle she puts out there for the rest of us.

But there’s also an ease to it, and this show feels dif­fer­ent, un­con­strained, en­joy­able.

Ray Mark Ri­naldi (me­dia@rayri­naldi.com) is a vet­eran arts writer and critic based in Den­ver.

New York artist Roni Horn is the new­est con­trib­u­tor to the Clyf­ford Still Mu­seum’s Artists Se­lect se­ries.

Clyf­ford Still Mu­seum Pho­tos by Justin Wam­bold,

Roni Horn stud­ies a se­ries of paint­ings at the Clyf­ford Still Mu­seum.

Justin Wam­bold, Pro­vided by the Clyf­ford Still Mu­seum

Roni Horn, right, dis­cusses a paint­ing with em­ploy­ees of the Clyf­ford Still Mu­seum.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.