DENVER, CO.- The Clyfford Still Museum
will open Abstract Expressions, a new sound and garden installation on the Museums terraces envisioned by composer and artist Nathan Hall in collaboration with Denver Botanic Gardens horticulture outreach in May. Kevin Philip Williams, assistant curator and horticulturist, designed and will install the landscapes. It is the first time the Museum has reconceptualized the terraces since opening in 2011.
This multi-year collaboration between CSM and our communities highlights the connections that exist between Stills art, life, the natural world, and Denvers creative ecosystem, said Bailey Placzek, CSM curator of collections, catalogue raisonné research and project manager. Were incredibly excited to have such a special place to bring the work of interdisciplinary and local creatives to the forefront in a way that will grow and evolve with the seasons. We will install the sound works, plants, and signage during the last few weeks of April and into early May. Museum visitors will experience quite a transformation on the terraces during this time and over the course of the summer as the plants begin to establish themselves in the space.
At a public program at CSM in 2016, Hall showed visitors images of Stills works on paper and prompted them to imagine what those images would sound like if performed as music scores. He recorded their interpretations with chamber musicians and hoped the public could hear the recordings somewhere in the building. After doing a few music programs at CSM, Hall considered ways the works he created might have a life beyond initial performances. I thought about having the music out on the terraces, which needed a kind of revamp after several years of just growing older, said Hall. I thought this would be a great place to have sound for visitors to experience, connecting Stills work with the music pieces Ive made and renovated, revamped garden spaces as a multisensory experience.
During his Land Line Artist Residency at Denver Botanic Gardens, Hall contemplated connecting sound, plants, and growing. Williams spent a day taking Hall behind the scenes at the Gardens, showing him sounds he couldnt access from the public side, like doors opening and closing and switches flipping. Hall and Williams each recognized what the other was doing. When Hall asked Williams what his dream project would be, Williams responded that it would be to redo the landscaping around the Golden Triangle Creative District, specifically at CSM, because he loves the building and the artwork. Hall later contacted Williams and asked if he would be interested in collaborating on garden designs at CSM. I wanted to create a collaborative piece that would be more than the sum of its parts, with a horticulturist who could make their own connections between plants and Stills work, said Hall. Williams immediately jumped on board. Williams previously led garden collaborations at the Denver Art Museum and Meow Wolf Convergence Station.
Planning, design, and plant sourcing began when the Museum approved the project in 2022. A central guide for the entire design was the idea of bioregionalism, said Williams. Understanding that where we live in Denver, the steppes, the prairies, transfer all the way up to Alberta, Canada, and out to Washington and North Dakota. I wanted to use that to anchor Stills life in Denver, even though he never lived in Denver. Williams created a botanical Venn diagram to connect the four places and found that about 300 species of plants exist in all these steppe areas. Of those species, Williams chose a dozen for the east terrace and three dozen for the west terrace based on cultural requirements and availability.
Stills PH-417, 1946, and PH-160, 1957 inspired Williams terraces designs. However, Williams said that these paintings were merely jumping-off points and that the designs are not meant to replicate the artworks themselves. Instead, the designs follow the paintings energy and mood.
When visitors step out onto the terraces, their presence will cue Halls original sound compositions. Each terrace will have different sound installations with ten to fifteen minutes of looping musical works. One terrace includes The Soft Side of Still, made from archival recordings of Still playing the piano and his voice captured by a handheld recorder. The other terrace features Notes from Clyfford Still, in which musicians from the Playground Ensemble read Stills diary notes aloud and perform an original musical score. Both terraces also feature parts of 20 Works in 20 Minutes.
The sounds you might experience vary from traditional classical music to narration, spoken wordtheres also electronic music that might be less familiar, like sounds from Stills Dictaphone recordings and experimental sounds too, said Hall. Because each terrace has its own sounds, I wanted the west terrace, which is closer to our city sounds and borders Bannock, to have louder, more percussive sounds. Whereas the east terrace is sheltered and is closer to the Denver Art Museum; that one has softer sounds, and its a more intimate space, so the music out there reflects that too.
Williams will return regularly for the next two years to guide and monitor the plants on the terraces as they mature. I really want people to feel surprised when they find these spaces not only that these gardens are here but by the style of the garden. Williams adds, Repeat visitors will notice how the gardens change across time and seasons. The design is never static.