Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Clyfford Still’s dysfunctional relationship with MoMA

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This morning I posted about Clyfford Still’s relegation to an out-of-the-way gallery in the Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Abstract Expressionist New York,’ which opens on Sunday. I posited that one reason Still is substantially excluded from MoMA’s New York abex timeline is that he did not play well with others, particularly with MoMA. Here’s more…

It’s not completely clear where the relationship between Clyfford Still and the Museum of Modern Art went wrong. It may have something to do with some slight Still perceived receiving from MoMA curator Dorothy Miller. (And by “perceived” I mean, “‘manufactured.”) It may be because MoMA wanted to include Still’s works in MoMA-organized exhibitions that traveled internationally, exhibitions that Still considered politically-motivated and not art-focused. (In a letter to Albright-Knox director Gordon Smith, Still called these traveling exhibitions, “perennial circuses abroad.”) It may be that MoMA expressed interest in Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, and to Still the friends of his “enemies” — his word — were his enemies.

Clyfford Still did not dislike MoMA, he hated it. Still hated MoMA so much that he spewed vitriol about the institution to anyone who would listen. Aside from his servile wife Patricia, no one involved in art listened more to Still than did Gordon Smith. The two men regularly corresponded by letter and often talked on the phone as well. Smith disliked these exchanges, but kept them up — and saved the letters in the A-K’s archive — because he knew that they were historically valuable and because he knew that they would reveal the vengeful man behind the paintings.

How much did Still detest MoMA? In his letters to Smith — and in his conversations with others, including the late, great collector and patron Betty Freeman — Still called MoMA “the Great Gas Chamber of culture on 53rd Street.” [Image below: Clyfford Still, 1951, Hans Namuth. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.]

Still’s most bombastic comment to Smith about the Museum of Modern Art was in reference to a Still painting that MoMA purchased. The letter doesn’t identify the painting to which Still referred, but it’s pretty easy to figure out.  As I noted earlier, MoMA has just two Still paintings: the magnificent 1944-N No. 2 (1944) which came to the museum from Sidney and Harriet Janis and 1951-T No. 3 (1951), a much less-great painting that MoMA purchased in 1954. (This does not necessarily mean that several decades of MoMA curators have chosen to avoid Still. During his lifetime, Still sold only about 150 paintings. He also gave 31 to the Albright-Knox and 28 to SFMOMA. Ninety-four percent of his output — 825 paintings and 1,575 works on paper — was in his control when he died and is now in the collection of the Clyfford Still Museum. As a result, MoMA hasn’t really had the opportunity to develop the depth in Still that it has in Kline, Pollock, Rothko or other abexers.)

In that letter to Smith, Still claimed that he had intentionally sold the Museum of Modern Art a painting other than the one the museum thought it was buying — and that MoMA didn’t know enough to catch his switcheroo:

“Since they were only after my name, I deliberately made the replica very slight and willfully of indifferent quality. In other words, I was willing to stab myself to defy and teach this monster my contempt of it.”

That painting, the alleged ‘replica’, is now on view in MoMA’s “Abstract Expressionist New York.” The ‘original’ was presumably part of the Still estate, and may now be in the collection of the Clyfford Still Museum. (It was not unusual for Still to paint multiple versions of the same painting, but I know of no other example of Still keeping the ‘replica’ from the collector or institution that had acquired the ‘original.’)

Related: Part one on MoMA’s ‘Abstract Expressionist New York’ and the (almost) missing abexer. Part three with some more Still venom. Dorothy Miller discusses Still in an oral history interview conducted by Avis Berman for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Betty Freeman and Clyfford Still, from a remembrance I published on the occasion of Freeman’s death.

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Comments

  1. very interesting insight into stills. definitely learned a few things about one of my favorites!

  2. [...] see them lived with, though. (I clearly need more rich friends.) And Still did hate museums (esp MoMA), but until the Still Museum opens in Denver, I have few other [...]

  3. [...] in 1951. Unhappy when the Museum of Modern Art didn’t buy the painting he wanted it to buy, he sold it an “inferior” version of another work and nicknamed it the “great gas chamber on 53rd Street.” When Mark Rothko committed [...]

  4. [...] for its permanent collection. (Still thought he had the last laugh on that one: He sold the museum what he called “deliberately inferior” copy of the painting the museum thought it was buying, apparently as punishment for MoMA’s failure [...]

  5. [...] Still, why you such a hater? Tags: abstract expressionism, abstraction, Clement Greenberg, color field, Metaphysical, push [...]

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