Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Clyfford Still: A sampling of further venom

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Yesterday I published two posts noting the odd placement of Clyfford Still within the Museum of Modern Art’s “Abstract Expressionist New York” collection installation and revealing Still’s accusation that he had essentially sold MoMA an inferior copy of a painting that it thought it had purchased from him. I thought readers might enjoy a few more glimpses of Still’s peculiarities…

  • In 1963, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia held a solo exhibition of Still’s work. It was the first Still exhibition since a major roll-out of 70-plus Stills at the Albright Art Gallery in 1959, and one of only two solo shows Still had between 1951 and 1963. The show was reviewed in The Nation and something in that review set off Still. In 1964 he wrote to Albright-Knox director Gordon Smith: “The motives underlying the review are calculating and sinister beyond casual credibility. The killers are on the prowl with the Commissars pointing the way. It is a murderous document as it was intended to be.” Smith must have been appropriately sympathetic: Three months later Still made his 31-painting gift to the A-K.
  • Still professed to be unconcerned whether or not critics saw that 1959 Albright show. He wrote to Smith: “The absence of [critic Clement] Greenberg and all his kind – whether artists or writers, can only increase my satisfaction, for they will get no invitation from me to cock their legs like wandering mongrels against that which they can only approach with resentment.”
  • In 1961, Art in America magazine asked Still for routine permission to use an image of his work, possibly in association with a review of a significant show of abstract expressionism at the Guggenheim. Still did not deign to respond personally, so his wife Patricia signed what was almost certainly her husband’s response to the magazine’s request: “A reply must express amazement. By what twist of logic you can expect Mr. Still to acquiesce to the exploitation of his painting [to illustrate] an apocryphal magazine article is indeed curious. When one considers in addition that not only has the substance of the article not been seen, but is, or is to be, written by a man whose antics and ambitions in the art world Mr. Still holds in utter contempt, and who obviously has not the slightest knowledge of what Mr. Still’s work has been about or what it means, one can only conclude the desire borders on insolence.”
  • In 1971 Still told the New York Times’ David L. Shirey that he’d have given more paintings to the Albright-Knox if  he hadn’t heard that his 31-paintings gift wasn’t  “lying in water in a storage bin.” Still told Shirey: “No one kicks my work in the shins.” (The entire NYT story is available here as a PDF.)
  • MoMA asked Still to be part of an exhibition that would represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. Still replied to his dealer: “I would not permit agents of the Museum of Modern Art to enter my hallway much less see my work or to exploit it if avoidable. You may use my name in refusal. I know them to be arrogant, malevolent, and deceitful in all their machinations.” Still thus became only the second artist in U.S. history to refuse to represent his country in Venice.
  • Clyfford Still’s epic, epic 1952 letter to Harold Rosenberg. Click here, then click on document No. 2. Remarkable.
  • Better known is this, also from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art: Still did not like a review of his work by Emily Genauer. So he sent her this.

Related: Part one: On the occasion of MoMA’s ‘Abstract Expressionist New York,’ remembering Clyfford Still, MoMA’s almost-missing abexer. Part two: Still’s dysfunctional relationship with MoMA.

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  1. Clifford Still’s “gift” of all his unsold artwork in his estate to the establishment of a Still Museum was, in and of itself, a churlish act, a white elephant if ever there was one. My understanding is that his estate would only give the artworks to an establishment which would dedicate an entire museum to it. Given the general public’s unfamiliarity with his work, the future of the Still Museum is dicey at best.

    Few artists have ever damaged their posterity to the extant Still did (Nolde comes quickly to mind, however).

  2. Oh, I wish to clarify my last comment, because I don’t want it to seem like I consider Still’s work to be undesireable.

    It’s hard to imagine that a stand-alone Still Museum (in Colorado!) will attract either visitors or supporters in any great numbers. By “white elephant,” I mean the classic meaning of the phrase: a gift which costs the recipient more to maintain than it’s worth.

  3. suddenly cezanne says:

    I know what you’re talking about: the estate should count their losses and donate him to the wildlife reserve.

  4. pensum says:

    brilliant artist, churlish s.o.b., and quite a witty reply to Emily Genauer

  5. […] — whether artists or writers, can only increase my satisfaction,” painter Clyfford Still wrote in 1959, concerning attendance at his exhibition at the Albright-Knox. “They will get no […]

  6. […] of which, presumably, is in Still’s estate and will be available to scholars soon), are among the most carefully caustic letters I’ve ever read. “Regards to all those who are still speaking with me,” he signed a letter in 1951. […]

  7. john says:

    hey is it just me or is the link to still’s letter to rosenberg incorrect? would like to read. thanks for compiling all this. amazing.

  8. Tyler Green says:

    AAA must have changed something, which is not unusual. I’d guess it’s still on the AAA website though, so maybe take a look through the Pollock finding aid?

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