Clyfford Still’s daughter curated his latest exhibit, and she has a lot of opinions on how to remember him

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To hear Sandra Still Campbell tell it, there are both ups and downs to being the daughter of one of the most revered painters in American art. And both are enduring.

Sure, she got to know her father, Clyfford Still, in a way that few people could have, and yes, she did have a front-row seat to his history-making efforts as a pioneer of abstract expressionism. Perhaps best of all, she is fortunate to have some of Still’s paintings hanging about her house, a rarity since so few of his works are in private collections; they’re probably worth millions.

But, she readily acknowledges, he wasn’t the best parent around, especially in her younger years. He put his art before his children, disappearing frequently and for long periods of time, showing up “just about when we were ready to put him aside and forget him,” she says in the podcast that accompanies “A Daughter’s Eye/A Daughter’s Voice,” the exhibit she curated at the Clyfford Still Museum.

“We just learned not to expect what kids want and needed,” she said. “We just weren’t gonna get it.”

The relationship improved as Campbell got older and Still made peace with his personal life and grew closer to his family. Her memories of neglect are mixed with keen observations of his love for Beethoven, his dedication to painting, and, for better and worse, his unrelenting belief in the genius of his own work. Still believed in his talent so much that he held on to 95 percent of his lifetime output, fearing it would fall into the hands of people who didn’t appreciate its importance. He trusted no one.

Campbell inherited that reverence for Still’s giant canvases when the painter died in 1980 and today, at 76 years old, she has dutifully accepted a familial obligation to protect it just as he did. The paintings may be held now by Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum, but Campbell keeps an eye on things.

She backs the bulk of the management team’s efforts to expand knowledge about Still’s life and enhance his legacy. But there are times, she says, when she disagrees with what they are doing and is compelled to say so in direct terms.

“I’ve had my confrontations,” said Campbell, who sits on the museum’s board where she has no special standing as a member — other than the fact that she is Still’s daughter and the other 18 directors aren’t.

“I’ve been hard on them a little bit.”

There’s no bad blood. In fact, the museum has recognized her unique role as a guardian of the work, and as a crucial resource to understanding the life and intentions of an artist who purposefully kept himself and his paintings as enigmas.

“A Daughter’s Eye/A Daughter’s Voice” is an important part of that distinct relationship. The museum asked Campbell to assemble a sampling of Still’s paintings that reflect her exclusive view into his talents.

Campbell seized the opportunity as both a way of honoring her father’s legacy and as a method for filling in the blanks she believes the museum had overlooked in previous exhibitions.

“A Daughter’s Voice” certainly looks different than any of the shows the museum has organized since it opened in 2011 and it succeeds in showing a side of Still that is mostly unrecognized by the public.

Campbell’s choices are overwhelmingly earthy. While the museum’s visitors are used to seeing a lot of big, manufactured blues, reds and yellows, Campbell’s show is marked by warm golds and organic browns. It is surprisingly ochre — not a shade most people associate with Still.

Campbell also chose paintings that showcase Still’s penchant for black, a color he saw as warm and organic, rather than dark and mysterious. Still grew up in rural Alberta, Canada. His palette was inspired, at its core, by “the earth and big skies,” she believes.

In addition, Campbell focuses on Still’s habit of leaving large portions of canvas unpainted. It’s not unusual to see these blank spaces featured at the Still Museum, but this show takes it to extremes, remarkable in its attention to sparse surfaces.

“Just because those spaces aren’t covered in paint, it doesn’t mean they’re not important,” she said in an interview last week. “They are.”

Underlying Campbell’s selections is an attempt to show how her father repeated similar shapes and patterns during the years he focused on abstraction. Some of those elements — the jagged fields of color, the crisp edges, his “lifelines,” as they are referred to, that seem to erupt like lava from the bottom of his canvases — might seem repetitive to some, a cheat pulled out of his bag of painterly tricks.

But Campbell wants us to see them as a language Still developed over time, symbols that he defined and employed to tell his stories.

What do those stories say? Well, she isn’t exactly sure. She is his daughter, but Still never told her precisely what his paintings were about. She’s inherently in touch with his skills, but as much in the dark as the scholars, curators, spectators and fans who will never truly know why Still put colors where he did.

Campbell pushed the museum hard when she made her choices. The museum still has not unraveled and stretched all of the rolled paintings and drawings it officially assumed from the Still family in 2005. Campbell’s selections, pulled often from her memory of seeing them new, include several works that were in the vaults; two-thirds of the paintings in the show have never been exhibited and some have not been stretched since Still painted them.

For Campbell, “A Daughter’s Eye/A Daughter’s Voice” is one more way of inserting herself into her father’s legacy, of pushing her personal belief in the way he should be remembered into the dialogue.

It’s an extension of her advocacy into the actions of the museum. She knows she can come off as a “cranky grandmother” offering her opinions on how the works are shown, but feels a particular accountability.

Still didn’t want his paintings exhibited alongside other painters and he expressly wanted them kept together as a body of work with an essential, inter-related narrative. With few exceptions — she backed the brief loan of nine Still works to London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 2016 — Campbell opposes loaning the works to other institutions, an idea that comes up naturally as the museum looks for new ways of introducing Still to a broader public.

It’s not what her father wanted — or what the city of Denver agreed to, at least in spirit, when it accepted the collection with severe restrictions. It’s also not in the best interest of the precious objects themselves, she believes. “They’re not blocks of granite or bronze. They are fragile and vulnerable to the environment,” she said.

She disagrees with the idea that Still’s legacy is best served if the paintings travel. If people want to see them, they can come to Denver. “Let them hop on a bus,” she said. It’s not that difficult.

She’s not radical in her defense of Still’s legacy or his physical works. But she plans to remain protector-in-chief for as long as she’s around.

“When I’m gone I’m not going to have a say in any of this,” she said.

“A Daughter’s Eye/A Daughter’s Voice,” continues through Jan 13 at the Clyfford Still Museum, 1250 Bannock St. Info at 720-354-4880 or clyffordstillmuseum.org.