When I was a teenager in Buffalo NY in the late 50’s, we would go into the city to the Albright Knox Museum where I would stand transfixed by huge splashy colorful canvasses. These were from the ‘new’ movement in art, Abstract Expressionism. I knew nothing of art history or art movements, or indeed even painting back then, but I did know I loved art class. There had to be ‘something’ to these paintings that had such an emotional effect on me.
This was my first introduction to Clyfford Still. I had almost forgotten about until I saw the article in the New York Times, ‘Unfurling the Hidden Work of a Lifetime’ by Steven Henry Madoff (Art Section, March 18, 2007). I went on a hunt for more information and found many websites mentioning him, but few giving any in depth information. In fact most of the websites seem to be copied from clyffordstill.net or the essay on the Albright Knox site. I have compiled the following information, primarily from these sources.
Clyfford Still, an American painter, was a leading figures in Abstract Expressionist movement, one of the foremost “color field” painters. His paintings are non-objective and largely concerned with arranging a variety of colors in different formations. He was among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists who developed a new and powerful approach to painting in the years immediately following World War II. Still’s contemporaries include Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, though his arrangements are less regular than his contemporaries. While the styles and approaches of these artists varied considerably, Abstract Expressionism is marked by abstract forms, expressive brushwork, and monumental scale, all of which were used to convey universal themes about creation, life, struggle, and death (“the human condition”), themes that took on a considerable relevance during and after World War II.
Described by many as the most anti-traditional of the Abstract Expressionists, Still is credited with laying the groundwork for the movement. Still’s shift from representational painting to abstraction occurred between 1938 and 1942, earlier than his colleagues, who continued to paint in figurative-surrealist styles well into the 1940s. His jagged flashes of color give the impression that one layer of color has been “torn” off the painting, revealing the colors underneath. Still describes his own work:
“A great free joy surges through me when I work . . . with tense slashes and a few thrusts the beautiful white fields receive their color and the work is finished in a few minutes. (Like Belmonte weaving the pattern of his being by twisting the powerful bulls around him, I seem to achieve a comparable ecstasy in bringing forth the flaming life through these large areas of canvas. And as the blues or reds or blacks leap and quiver in their tenuous ambience or rise in austere thrusts to carry their power infinitely beyond the bounds of the limiting field, I move with them and find a resurrection from the moribund oppressions that held me only hours ago.) Only they are complete too soon, and I must quickly move on to another to keep the spirit alive and unburdened by the labor my Puritan reflexes tell me must be the cost of my joy.”
Still was something of a maverick in the art world. In many cases, he disdained or was infuriated by anyone who tried to interpret his work, including art critics, art historians, patrons, and museum curators. His attitude about art and artmaking was romantic and passionate, and he did not believe that most people understood or properly appreciated his work.
Still was born November 30, 1904, in Grandin, North Dakota. He attended Spokane University in Washington for a year in 1926 and again from 1931 to 1933. After graduation, he taught at Washington State College in Pullman until 1941. Still spent the summers of 1934 and 1935 at the Trask Foundation (now Yaddo) in Saratoga Springs, New York. From 1941 to 1943, he worked in defense factories in California. In 1943, his first solo show took place at the San Francisco Museum of Art, and he met Mark Rothko in Berkeley at this time. The same year, Still moved to Richmond, where he taught at the Richmond Professional Institute.
Still painted large abstract canvases with much impasto (thick, textural paint) and vertical, jagged bolts of colors. The flame-like patches of color are often cut off at the canvas edges, making viewers think that the forms continue beyond what they can see.
“To be stopped by a frame’s edge is intolerable.”
Although his early work includes figurative paintings and landscapes, Still has denied that these have any connection or relevance to his mature, signature images. Instead, he has said, “Each painting is an episode in a personal history, an entry in a journal,” and “My work in its entirety is like a symphony in which each painting has its part.” The titles of his paintings, which contain dates, letters, and numbers that signify the order in which they were created, support this explanation.
When Still was in New York in 1945, Rothko introduced him to Peggy Guggenheim, who gave him a solo exhibition at her Art of This Century gallery in early 1946. Robert Motherwell described Still’s solo New York show as a ‘bolt out of the blue” Later that year, the artist returned to San Francisco, where he taught for the next four years at the California School of Fine Arts. Solo exhibitions of his work were held at the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, in 1947, 1950, and 1951 and at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, in 1947. In New York in 1948, Still worked with Rothko and others on developing the concept of the school that became known as the Subjects of the Artist. He resettled in San Francisco for two years before returning again to New York. A Still retrospective took place at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, in 1959. In 1961, he settled on his farm near Westminster, Maryland to live and work.
Still wanted his paintings to be under his own personal control, and did not like them separated from one another or exhibited with other artists’ work. He felt that his paintings could only be understood as part of a whole, with the whole being the evolution of his entire life’s work. This obsession with maintaining absolute control resulted in his rejection of offers to buy his paintings, refusing awards and honors, and declining invitations to exhibit both in individual and group shows. In so doing, with contempt, he rejected the politics of the New York art scene, which for the first time in history had become the international center of the art world.
In his words: “I hold it imperative to evolve an instrument of thought which will aid in cutting through all cultural opiates, past and present, so that a direct, immediate, and truly free vision can be achieved. . .and I affirm my profound concern to achieve a purpose beyond vanity, ambition, or remembrance.”
Solo exhibitions of Still’s paintings were presented by the Institute of Contemporary Art of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1963 and at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York, in 1969-70. He received the Award of Merit for Painting in 1972 from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he became a member in 1978, and the Skowhegan Medal for Painting in 1975. Also in 1975, a permanent installation of a group of his works opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gave him an exhibition in 1980 died June 23 of that same year in Baltimore. Since that time, there have been only had three large survey exhibitions in the past 30 years.
Currently paintings on view at the Guggenheim Museum, New York City
Clyfford Still at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.1951-N, 1951
Peggy Guggenheim Collection, VeniceJamais, 1944 (http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_works_149_0.html)
The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
1957-D, No. 1 (http://www.albrightknox.org/ArtStart/Still.html)
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
1950-M No. 1, 1950 (http://hirshhorn.si.edu/collection/search.asp?Artist=Clyfford+Still&hasImage=1)
Harry Cooper, writing in the Summer 2001 ArtForum, says “Which brings us to the present exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, the first museum show to focus on Still’s great period, 1944-60. The curator, James Demetrion, admits the show is “flawed” since the estate apparently refused to cooperate, and the gifts cannot be lent according to the terms of the donations, but he goes on to claim that the selection was for once “not made by the artist or influenced by him.” Fond hope! To choose the 39 works in the show, Demetrion had to select from the 150 or so that Still sold (which presumably means that, if they were not Still’s favorites, he liked them well enough), and this pool must have been further limited by the fact that some of the paintings were not available, while others fell outside the 1944-60 range.
Studied at Spokane University in Washington.
Studied at Spokane University in Washington, where he later became an art teacher himself. His pupils at colleges and universities in California, Virginia and New York included Tobey and Rothko and many other Abstract Expressionist painters.
In the 30s, inspired by the works of Cezanne and van Gogh, he painted abstract figures and landscapes, while his works of the 40s are more Surrealist in character, being based on mythological themes and the workings of the subconscious.
First solo-exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art.
Around 1947 he developed his last painting style: large canvases, usually covered in a thick, monochrome-black layer of paint and framed by bright contrasting colours.
In the early 1950s, when Clyfford Still ended his relationship with the prestigious Betty Parsons and Sidney Janis galleries in New York, his relationship with commercial galleries was virtually finished. From that time forward, Still represented himself and, as a result, very few paintings entered the art market. Around 750 paintings and well over 10,000 works on paper have been held in storage in Maryland since his death owing to a stipulation in his will that they may only be shown in a gallery built to his own specifications and under his own terms.
The Clyfford Still Estate includes at least 80 paintings dating from 1920 – 1943: Still’s student years, Depression-era works, Surrealist-inspired works, and first forays into abstraction. Also, 300 paintings dating from 1944 – 1960: Still’s “breakthrough period” and the years of “high” Abstract Expressionism. Many canvases span over ten-by-fourteen feet. 370 paintings dating from 1961 – 1979: later works, most of which have never been exhibited. And 1400 works on paper spanning all aspects of Still’s career in such media as pastel, crayon, charcoal, gouache, tempera, graphite, and pen and ink. Few of these have ever been exhibited, rivaling only Picasso’s estate for sheer numbers of work.
1955: Clement Greenberg, who led the formalist charge, sealed Still’s reputation overnight in 1955 with his announcement that the artist was “one of the most important and original painters of our time.” Harry Cooper, in ArtForum, summer 2001. continues: “Greenberg’s remarks on Still are indispensable reading, both for the memorable epithets–‘slack, willful silhouettes’ for the pre-1945 work, ‘frayed dead-leaf edges’ for the next decade–and for the insight that Still’s ungainly palette knifing brought him to the verge, but only the verge, of semischooled or ‘buckeye’ painting, that is, kitsch. But Greenberg quickly pulled Still back onto the high-formalist plain: ‘Still’s service was to show us how the contours of a shape could be made less conspicuous, and therefore less dangerous to the ‘integrity’ of the flat surface, by narrowing the value contrast its color made with that of the shapes or areas adjacent to it.’
Still, in response to Greenberg, said: “I prefer the innocent reaction of those who might think they see cloud shapes in my paintings to what Clement Greenberg says that he sees in them”
This quote reflects more than just a stubborn lack of savvy. The critic had pushed two of the artist’s many buttons–his hatred of formalism (“I never wanted color to be color. I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit”) and his hatred of kitsch (once, when asked if he was concerned with communication, he sneered that that was “what the comic strip does”).
Participated in documenta 2 in Kassel and in the exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo (NY). Still was very particular about the way his works should be shown. Following the positive reception of the Buffalo retrospective in 1959, he donated 31 paintings to the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy on the condition that they must be shown permanently in their own room, never to be loaned out. Gordon Smith, who was the director from 1955-1973 of the Albright Art Gallery (renamed the Albright-Knox Art Gallery when the 1962 addition was completed) along with the Gallery’s patron Seymour H. Knox, worked hard to win Still’s trust and finally convinced him of their sincere interest in his work. Still allowed them to purchase two paintings and agreed to a rare retrospective exhibition that opened at the Gallery in 1959. Pleased with Buffalo’s reception of his work, in 1964 Still donated thirty-one paintings to The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the parent organization, of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
According to the terms of the gift, the paintings must be shown in their own room, all of the time, and never loaned to other museums. (This latter condition was set aside on one occasion by Still’s widow.) The Clyfford Still Room at the Gallery is an awe-inspiring experience that foreshadows the art form known as installation, where the artist creates an environment for the viewer to enter.There are currently a number of his works on view at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York; and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the largest survey of Still’s art to date and the largest presentation afforded by this institution to the work of a living artist. Following his death, all works that had not entered the public domain were sealed off from both public and scholarly view, closing off access to one of the most significant American painters of the 20th century.
Retrospective at the Kunsthalle Basel.
In ArtForum, summer 2001, Harry Cooper said: “Here’s a Thought Experiment. Imagine a bunch of painters roughly the same age and working in the same place. After considerable struggle, each develops a distinctive style. They are celebrated by a few influential critics and start to show their work regularly. Soon they rise to the top of the art world, gathering students and followers. Now let one of these artists begin to act oddly. He refuses invitations to exhibit; excoriates and threatens the press, museums, and universities; retreats to a remote hideout; and insists on writing his own catalogues and curating his own shows. In short, he tries to exert total control over the dissemination of his work and its meanings. His paintings are arguably as good as those of his peers, but they can only be seen in any numbers at a couple of institutions off the beaten track. He keeps the vast majority to himself, stipulating that on his death they be released only to that city willing to dedicate a museum to him alone and forever.
Now let twenty years pass. The estate remains virtually closed to scholars, curators, and conservators. No city steps forward. What happens to the reputation of this artist? Does it endure on the strength of the few works that are known? Is it fed by the mystique surrounding the unseen works? Or does it deteriorate because of their inaccessibility and the still-wounded feelings of important players snubbed along the way?
Perhaps it’s no great surprise that Still’s stock has dropped while that of his Abstract Expressionist peers has soared, but his history is elegant confirmation that the art world is indeed a world, a public space that thrives on publicity. Or to put it more simply and less cynically, paintings are made to be seen. Pollock understood this, allowing himself to be covered by mass-market glossies. Still said that Pollock had “sold out to the housewives.”
Harry Cooper continues: “Still was the Unabomber of Abstract Expressionism…. Let no man under-value.., this work or its power for life: or for death, if it is misused,” he wrote. And: “The figure stands behind all until … it explodes across the whole canvas.” Though Still made paintings, not bombs, one almost feels it could have gone the other way. The Unabomber’s thirst for publicity proved to be his undoing; Still’s hatred of publicity may turn out to be his.
In August 2004, the City of Denver announced it had been chosen to receive the artworks contained within the Clyfford Still Estate, created in 1980 upon Still’s death. This highly sought-after body of work contains over 2,150 artworks representing all periods of the American artist’s distinguished career and nearly 90% of the artist’s total output. Estimates to the worth of the paintings that have been in his private collection are estimated bring upwards of 1 billion dollars.
November 2006- “1947-R-NO 1” sold through Christie’s for $21.29 million, seven times his previous high from 3 years earlier. Note- there are over 30 works from the same year that are still in private collection. Harry Cooper was apparently a bit off target.
2009 or early 2010
“Removed from public view for over twenty-five years, these works will finally be revealed at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado, planned to open to the public in 2009.”
Sandy Donabed is an occasional contributor to the Ragged Cloth Cafe. Her work and thoughts can be found at
[Note: while editing Sandy’s work, I was also reading Art & Perception, where Steve Durbin posted photos and a comment that connected Still’s art and Steve’s photograph. Here’s one of Steve’s photos; you can read more of this discussion at Art & Perception.]