Just how formative the frontier landscape was for Still is apparent in the galleries of works from the late 1920s and 1930s. Paintings of grain elevators and freight trains set against harsh prairie and farm scenes may come as a surprise to many viewers. (While some pieces sold from early shows, in 1948 Still requested the return of all pre-1946 work from his dealers in his effort to conceal any evidence of having depicted clear subject matter, thereby controlling even the historical perception of his work.)
Most revelatory are his figurative works, done after Still graduated from Spokane University and received his masters in 1935 from Washington State College in Pullman, where he continued teaching until 1941. Groups of ghoulish figures holding farm tools hover in ambiguous space, loosely evocative of Grant Wood’s frontally presented farmers, yet nightmarishly distorted with drooping heads, elongated arms, and bodies stripped of clothes and eventually skin. Through the late 1930s, Still progressively deconstructed his figures into parts—an eye, an armpit streaming with blood, a shovel-like hand jammed together with what’s left of gears or threshing machines—until he was left with just the idea of these shredded parts. “These figures I don’t think are even human anymore,” says Sobel. “They’re suggestions of landscape and bone and totem and shamanistic imagery, all starting to brew into a very interesting mixture.”
In the early 1940s, Still worked in war industry jobs while living in San Francisco, where he had a solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Art (“modern” wasn’t added until 1975). By 1944, his signature style had gelled—the “figure” compressed into jagged vertical lines, the distillation of vitality, done with a palette knife. Sobel argues that 1944-N No. 1 from that year, the first version of the well-known canvas at MoMA titled 1944-N No. 2, with a red jolt through a brownish black field, is the first pure Abstract Expressionist canvas by Still or any of his peers. “That’s really where he finds the enormous scale, roughly 9 by 7½ feet, and the texture and density with which he applies his paint,” says Sobel. Anfam concurs and attributes Still’s epic scale to his interest in old masters, Courbet and salon painting. “Still was very much ahead of the pack and very much an independent, being on the West Coast and in Virginia [where he taught in 1944-45],” says Anfam. “He did things bigger, sooner, than anyone.”
Still lived in New York while showing with Peggy Guggenheim, taught at the California School of Fine Arts in the late 1940s and returned to New York in 1950. He made many of his greatest canvases during these years, working at the enormous scale of 9 by 13 feet, at which the paintings read as primordial environments that the viewer almost becomes a part of. “We have about 200 paintings of that scale,” says Sobel. He’s excited to show Still’s brilliant palette—fiery oranges, yellows, pinks—colors that many viewers may not associate with the artist. The late work, after Still left New York in 1961 to live in rural Maryland for the rest of his life, has seldom been seen anywhere. These paintings show a lightening up of his densities and forms. By the 1970s, whatever remained of figure and ground opened up to create expansive areas of ethereal, bare canvas.
Sobel and Anfam, who had seen just one pastel by Still in person before unearthing the works on paper from the boxes in storage, have only begun to assess these works’ place in the artist’s oeuvre. “He’s quite academic and had a deft touch in the very early figurative works on paper,” observes Anfam, who notes how Still made studies of other works and developed ideas on paper in a very methodical way, much like Rembrandt. “To a greater extent than any of the other Abstract Expressionists, with the exception of Gorky, Still valued draftsmanship,” says Anfam, adding, “even his classic paintings are about drawing in paint with a palette knife, the tailoring of contours and edges.”
To Anfam, one of the most fascinating discoveries in the trove of works on paper were beautifully sensitive studies of Native American Indians done when Still visited reservations near Pullman in Washington State in the late 1930s, at the same time that he was making grotesque abstractions of the human form in his studio. “There was a lot of talk about the influence of Native American art on Abstract Expressionism, but you don’t ever see any actual depictions of Native Americans,” says Anfam. Still’s direct contact with shamanistic culture influenced how he expressed spirituality through primitive and abstracted forms.
Still’s late works on paper, done in Maryland, bear a stronger relationship in structure and touch to the contemporaneous paintings than those from any other period of his career. The number of drawings and pastels he made also increased dramatically, with approximately two-thirds of the total 1,575 done in those last 19 years. That may have been due in part to his environment; on winter days when he couldn’t paint in his unheated barn studio, he sat at the kitchen table painting small-scale on paper. Works on paper did not accompany the 31 paintings he gave to the Albright-Knox in 1964, the 28 he gave to SFMOMA in 1975, or the 10 canvases his widow gave to the Metropolitan in 1986. One can only speculate as to the reason, but Anfam suggests: “I’m tempted to say he kept them back because he saw them as more intimate. They were much closer to his intuitive ideas and practice.”
If Still made a career of holding things back, now is the moment when every piece is being put forward for scholars and the public to evaluate as Still wished—“in the full context” of his work. Sobel comments that much of the writing on Still has focused on landscape as a departure point for his canvases, but he thinks that will change after people view the earlier work. “Still said in the 1960s, ‘Behind all my work lies the figure,’ and he describes those verticals, particularly when they become just lines, as ‘lifelines’,” says Sobel. “You’ll see shafts of wheat, but these really aren’t about landscapes. They’re about that energy, that force, that keeps plants growing vertically. The Abstract Expressionists refused to tell us what they were intending in their paintings and then complained when everyone got it wrong. But in weak moments, Still actually told us a great deal.”
Hilarie Sheets is a New York-based art writer.