His absence haunts the first three-quarters of MoMA’s survey of New York abstract expressionist painting, which opens on Sunday. From the beginning the show is filled with his rivals and friends from the 1940s: Jackson Pollock whom he befriended and later told friends that he believed he could have saved, Mark Rothko, with whom he was best friends for two years before an unknown dispute turned them into “enemies” (his word) and Barnett Newman, whom he believed had stolen everything from him and resented him for it.
The missing painter is Clyfford Still, one of the major early figures of New York abstract expressionism, and probably the only there-at-the-dawn abstract expressionist who developed his abex style outside New York. Inexplicably, Clyfford Still isn’t in the first couple galleries of MoMA’s exhibition where the other paintings from 1944 and 1945 are, his work is near the end, tucked awkwardly into an out-of-place gallery along with sculptures by Louise Nevelson and David Smith and paintings by Franz Kline.
MoMA owns one fantastic Still,1944-N No. 2 (1944, above). Had the painting been installed where it might have been, amongst other paintings from that year, it would have been a thunderbolt, a painting that showed how intense Still’s canvases were even at the beginning of his mature period. (For example: In 1943 Pollock was still working through representational elements.)
Other Stills from about this time are just as forceful: 1944-G (1944) at SFMOMA is a haunting vertical abstraction. Untitled (formerly Self-Portrait) (1945, right) may be the most mysterious ’self-portrait’ of the 20th century. (Peggy Guggenheim purchased it and gave it to SFMOMA in 1947.) Meanwhile, back in MoMA’s opening galleries, Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Mark Rothko and Pollock begin their sometimes timid journeys away from figuration and representation. By 1944 Still’s timidity was gone, never to return to his canvases — or his dealings with others.
MoMA curator Ann Temkin’s failure to include Still where he belongs — in the first gallery of the installation, with the other ‘founders’ of the movement — is a perpetuation of an art historical oversight and may even be the institutional continuing of a grudge-match.
MoMA’s dislocation of Still begs the question: Why did Temkin toss Still off into an awkward gallery of ‘others?’ There are probably two reasons. First: Still didn’t develop his mature abex style in New York. MoMA’s best Still (it has only two Still paintings) was made outside the rubric of this installation. Still moved to New York in late spring 1945. The Still above is dated 1944. It was likely painted in Richmond, Va., while Still briefly taught at what is now called Virginia Commonwealth University. Still moved from Richmond to New York after the spring term ended in 1945. (On the other hand, MoMA seems to have wandered from its exhibition premise and title — ‘Abstract Expressionist New York’ — in at least one other instance: Included here is Sam Francis’ magnificent Big Red (1953). Francis lived in Paris in 1953 and his only New York sojourn was a brief spell in 1959 when he was working on a commission for a bank.)
The other reason that Still isn’t in the exhibition’s ‘founders gallery’ is that Clyfford Still was a paranoid, insulting, mean-spirited, grandiose, pompous, officious, self-important jerk. He treated MoMA and its curators badly and made it difficult for the museum to exhibit — let alone own! — his work. In many ways, Still has no one but himself to blame for MoMA’s disinterest in him and the museum’s apparent disinterest in properly contextualizing his work. Throughout today and tomorrow I’ll share some examples here of the kind of behavior that has likely resulted in MoMA pushing Still out of his proper place in this kind of exhibition.
The first example involves Still’s response to Mark Rothko’s suicide. For several years Rothko and Still were compatriots, brothers-in-arms. Then they split. Why is not clear. But when Still split with you, he really split with you.
This story came to me from Bob Buck, a former deputy director at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. (The A-K had a long association with Still, who eventually gave the museum 31 paintings in 1964.) Buck, later director of the Brooklyn Museum, worked at the A-K under Gordon Smith, who for many years was the art world administrator with whom Still got along best. The two often conversed on the phone, conversations in which Still said such hateful things about curators, museums and other directors that Smith used to leave his office, walk down to Buck’s, and tell him about the conversation. Buck told me that Smith seemed to feel the need to purge himself of the intense dislikes that Still unloaded upon him. From my 2005 conversation with Buck:
“When Rothko died, this is how I remember it: Gordon received a call from Still… I think Still was kind of enraged about there being such a laudatory, wonderful obituary in the New York Times that morning. He went on vituperating this dead man, and ended up by saying to Gordon on the phone, ‘Evil befalls those who live evil lives.’ Then he hung up.”