Clyfford Still, Unpacked


Clyfford Still: 1957-J No. 2 (PH-401), 1957, oil on canvas, 113 by 155 inches. All works © Still Estate.


It’s hard to talk about Clyfford Still without discussing his notorious exercise of control, both in life and in death. Arguably the first among his peers, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman, to hone a mature, monumentally scaled abstract style devoid of recognizable subject matter in the mid-1940s, the Abstract Expressionist painter chose to engage with the art world strictly on his own terms. He cut off commercial ties with Betty Parsons after his third successful show at her gallery in 1951 and insisted (as did Rothko) on a separate room for his work in the seminal 1952 exhibition “Fifteen Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art. Still came out of his subsequent reclusiveness periodically for major solo exhibitions at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo (1959), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1975) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1979), all of which he essentially selected and installed himself. These were followed by generous gifts of paintings to the same institutions, which came with unbending restrictions dictating how the works could be exhibited and prohibiting loans and reproductions.

Still’s ultimate act of control came after his death in 1980 from cancer. His will stipulated that his estate, amounting to 94 percent of his lifetime output—825 canvases, 1,575 works on paper and 3 sculptures—be bequeathed to an “American city that will agree to build or assign and maintain permanent quarters exclusively for these works of art . . . with the explicit requirement that none . . . will be sold, given, or exchanged.” Over the next two decades, his widow, Patricia Still, turned away 19 suitors—including the Whitney, MASS MoCA and the Denver Art Museum, and the municipalities of Baltimore and Atlanta—before then-mayor of Denver John Hickenlooper (now governor of Colorado) convinced her in 2004 that Denver would create a single-artist museum exactly as she and her husband had always envisioned.

On Nov. 18, the Clyfford Still Museum opens, and the public will decide for itself whether the artist’s stringent directives were worth the negative impact they’ve had on his legacy for the past three decades. Still’s status
was commanding enough in 1979 to persuade the Metropolitan to yield more space than it ever had to the exhibition of a living artist, but his reputation languished after his death. Following what she took to be his wishes, his widow, who died in 2005, would not allow scholars access to anything, not even reproductions, while the heirs of other Abstract Expressionists were active in lending to exhibitions and selling works in the marketplace at record-setting prices. Dean Sobel, director since 2005 of the Clyfford Still Museum and former head of the Aspen Art Museum, viewed Still’s placement after Larry Rivers in the chronological flow of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Abstract Expressionist New York” exhibition earlier this year as evidence of his dwindling status in the narrative of the New York School. Sobel points to oft-cited comments made early on by Still’s contemporaries as indication of his true stature in the movement. Robert Motherwell said, “Of all of us at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, Still was the most original, a bolt out of the blue.” Pollock said, “Clyfford Still makes the rest of us look academic.”

Still felt that every artist’s voice should ring clear and true, according to Sobel, who doesn’t favor the word “control,” perhaps in an attempt to soften his subject’s image. “That is embodied in the museum,” he says. “It wasn’t that Still necessarily felt he was better than the other artists,” he offers. “He thought they should all be writing the rules of their own careers. Pollock and Rothko didn’t disagree with that; they just didn’t play it as hard as Still.” Still’s first solo show in New York was in 1946 at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, which had artists—Pollock among them—give over their entire output for a salary drawn against future sales. Still considered this to be a form of indentured servitude and grew to resent the rising power of galleries, curators and critics, who he felt had very little to do with nurturing his creativity. As he began to withdraw from the art world in the early 1950s, Still—by all accounts a difficult personality—also broke off with his peers. Close in the 1940s to Rothko, who wrote the catalogue text for Still’s Art of This Century show, Still became most disappointed with him for what he perceived as Rothko selling out to commercial interests.

If Still’s uncompromising attitudes have long undermined his legacy, today he has ultimately prevailed. At a time when the Barnes Foundation has overridden the stipulations in Albert Barnes’s will to keep his collection, untouched, in his home in Merion, Penn., the Still Museum argues that it has made every effort to comply with the artist’s wishes. However, a controversy was sparked in August when Denver announced that four paintings from the estate of Patricia Still—containing artworks and the artist’s entire archive, bequeathed to the city—would be sold to raise funds for the museum’s endowment before ownership was transferred to the museum. Critics saw the move as an attempt to sidestep regulations set forth by the American Association of Museum Directors prohibiting deaccessions for such costs. Even though Patricia’s will states that “none of such works of art are ever to be sold, given, exchanged, loaned, circulated and/or otherwise disposed of at any time, for any length of time and/or for any use and/or purpose,” the city received court approval to sell the paintings, citing the fact that she herself set a precedent by selling some works in the years after her husband’s death. Denver’s move surely would have been decried by the artist but has not been blocked by representatives of the widow’s estate.

Denver awarded the consignment to Sotheby’s in mid-August, which led to a brief legal scuffle with Christie’s, which argued that it had made the better proposal. According to the terms of the Sotheby’s contract, the auction house would attempt to sell the works privately, to a public institution, by Sept. 19. If that failed, as it did, they would go on the block in a public sale this month. Their Nov. 9 auction will, for better or worse, certainly bring more attention to the museum in advance of its Nov. 18 opening.

Designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, the 28,500-square-foot, two-story Clyfford Still Museum, in textured cast concrete, was built at a cost of $29 million, all raised privately. Top donors include the Anschutz Foundation, the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and philanthropists Lanny and Sharon Martin. The building offers intimate galleries with filtered daylight on the upper level, where visitors can contemplate Still’s enormous canvases with brooding fields of color clashing in craggy masses or shot through with vertical bolts, which Still called his “lifelines.” On the first floor, the conservation studio and collection storage area are visible to the public instead of tucked away in the basement, as with most museums. Each morning, different racks in the central painting storage vault will be pulled out to show the collection in more depth.

Also on the first floor and open to visitors are the library and archive with rotating displays of items from Still’s personal papers—including a 1969 letter from the artist to William Rubin, then head of painting and sculpture at MoMA, rejecting his request for an installation shot of an exhibition because Still wanted even archival material to be considered only in the full context of his work. “We can already tell he had hatched the idea for some sort of single-artist presentation,” says Sobel. The museum has dealt with Still’s prohibition of hanging loans of works by other artists alongside his own—a routine practice at such one-person museums as those devoted to Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol and Isamu Noguchi—by planting itself in the shadow of the Denver Art Museum. There, complementary exhibitions—including a current show, on view through May 27, 2012, of Motherwell works drawn from its collection—are intended to provide art historical context for the works at the Still Museum over the long term. Proximity to the DAM also gives visitors ease of access to a café, bookstore and other amenities forbidden by the artist.

The inaugural installation at the museum—some 60 paintings, 45 works on paper and 3 sculptures, dating from 1925 to the late 1970s—was put together by Sobel and adjunct curator David Anfam, the British-born art historian who wrote his dissertation on Still in the 1970s and has published extensively on the Abstract Expressionists, including the catalogue raisonné of Rothko’s canvases. “You couldn’t ask for a tougher subject,” says Anfam, who as a graduate student wrote to Still asking for a meeting but received nothing in response. “It was entirely characteristic of him,” says Anfam. “He was a singular person and an outsider and he wasn’t going to cooperate.” Over the last four years, Sobel and Anfam have traveled to a state-of-the-art Maryland facility where all the work—with an estimated value of more than $1 billion—has been stored (for many years prior to 2004, they had been kept in Still’s barn studio without climate control). They’ve spent many marathon sessions plumbing a dizzying amount of work that only the artist and his family had ever laid eyes on. Only 200 of the paintings were stretched; some 600 others were rolled, up to three on a stovepipe, sometimes shortly after Still completed them. “We could smell the oil wafting up from the canvases,” says Sobel, who was relieved to find the paintings had withstood the less-than-ideal conservation conditions as well as they did. The works on paper offer even more uncharted territory. Fewer than 10 are in public or private collections. Yet given their copious number in the estate, they were clearly a significant part of Still’s practice.

“Now more than ever, I see that Still comes out of the West—far more so even than Pollock,” says Anfam. Still was born in 1904 in North Dakota and moved the following year with his parents, both Canadian immigrants, to Spokane, Wash. Although his Western upbringing “has become a kind of corny, mythic thing,” Anfam observes, it does merit mention. “He’s painting from the age of 15, at least a thousand miles away even from the heartland, already doing his own thing out there with not a lot to look at. It’s not as though he’s got the Metropolitan Museum on his doorstep.” In 1911, Still’s father, an accountant, received a grant from the Canadian government giving him land on the prairies of Alberta. Still grew up watching his father struggle to establish a wheat farm there, even in the face of periodic droughts, from 1917 to 1926. Still, who studied poetry and the old masters in art books as a teenager, was always reticent to reveal his early biography. But Henry Hopkins, director of SFMOMA when Still exhibited there in 1975, and one of the few people in the art world trusted by Still late in life, once recounted a rare personal tidbit: “Still’s father was locked in mortal combat with the forces of nature. . . . The battle was lost.”

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.