Clyfford Still

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Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still (1904-1980) was one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism, although throughout his life he chose isolation from other styles and most other artists.

Clyfford Still was born in 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota. During his childhood he was interested in music, literature, and poetry, as well as art. A graduate of Spokane University, Still received an M.A. from Washington State College, where he later taught from 1933 to 1941. He lived for a time in Alberta, Canada, and also taught briefly at the College of William and Mary (1943-1945) and at the California School of Fine Arts.

Being something of a renegade from the art establishment, Still rarely exhibited his work. In 1943 he showed 22 canvasses at the San Francisco Museum of Art; in 1946 he had a one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim's New York gallery; and in 1959 he had a major retrospective exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. He also had major one-man shows at the San Francisco Museum in 1976 and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979.

Still always saw himself as a visionary artist, rather than as one who belonged to a movement. He criticized European modernism for its "sterility" and denied all artistic influences upon his work. Although his style of the 1930s bears some resemblance to Picasso's and his canvasses of the 1940s relate to the satanic, grotesque imagery of some forms of Surrealism, Still consistently rejected all such associations. He also rejected the Classical heritage which forms the basis of Western art and disaffiliated himself from the traditional values of the art world, all of which he saw as decadent and profane. In fact, between 1952 and 1967 Still refused to exhibit in New York because he felt the city was too corrupt for his work. In spite of his having gained an early reputation as a "difficult artist," Still enjoyed a long and successful career.

Philosophically, Still is most often associated with artistic loners such as William Blake and Albert Pinkham Ryder. On a deeper level, his obsession with the theme of the dualism of good and evil is symbolized through his use of light and dark. Critics have drawn parallels between Still's art and Manichaeanism, a heretic faith which originated in Persia in the third century A.D. and which taught the release of the spirit from matter through asceticism. The philosophy is based on separate, but opposing, realms of darkness and light which symbolize the elements of evil and good. Still vehemently rejected any such associations, always negating any attempts to "explain" his works. The fact that his canvasses are untitled, being identified only by dates and letters, helped to create an aura of ambiguity around his art.

In spite of an overall sense of unity in his work, Still's style changed and evolved over the years. His figurative work of the 1930s, rich with interpenetrating forms, gave way in the 1940s to primitive and satanic images. Later in the 1940s, working in a monochromatic palette and using heavy impasto, Still began creating non-representational paintings filled with ragged, flame-like forms. His work of the late 1940s and early 1950s seems to echo the earth tones and open spaces of the Western plains where he grew up, although the artist refused to acknowledge any connections between his paintings and the natural landscape. Often aggressive in mood, the canvasses are rough in texture like the earth itself and are very expressionistic.

During the 1950s Still's paintings became larger in scale and lighter and brighter in color. Sometimes areas of the canvas were left unpainted. By this point in his career the artist seemed free of the dark imagery of the underworld. A mood of spiritual aspiration, reflected in the vertical application of the paint, pervades the work. His friendship with the color-field painter Mark Rothko may have been influential in this move towards an emphasis on size and color. Yet Still retained his textured, tactile surface in contrast to Rothko's color staining. The justapositions of light and dark and the dematerialization of forms remained constant.

Still's work from the 1960s is soft, sensuous, and lyrical in comparison with that of two decades earlier. This shift in his style came at a time when he personally withdrew even further from society, leaving New York to live and work in rural Maryland near Westminster, where he stayed until his death in 1980. However, in 1964 Still gave a group of 31 paintings to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, and in 1976 he made a similar presentation of 28 works to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Clyfford Still's career focused on human aspiration, the personal search for identity, and the liberation of the spirit. Although his jealously guarded privacy kept him from becoming known to the general public, he was, nevertheless, one of the early pioneers of Abstract Expressionism, and he greatly influenced such better known painters as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.

Still had a wife, Patricia, and two daughters, Diane and Sandra.

Further Reading

Several journal articles provide useful information about Clyfford Still: Hubert Crehan, "Clyfford Still: Black Angel in Buffalo," Art News 58 (December 1959); Robert Rosenblum, "Abstract Sublime," Art News 59 (February 1961); and J. B. Townsend, "interview with Clyfford Still," Albright-Knox Gallery Notes 24 (Summer 1961). The following exhibition catalogues are also helpful: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Paintings of Clyfford Still (1959); Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Clyfford Still, Thirty-three Paintings in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (1966); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Clyfford Still (1976); and Metropolitan Museum of Art, Clyfford Still (1979). Still's work is also discussed in Peter Selz, Art in Our Times (1981). □