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Clyfford Still part three: Beware the Commissars

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This is part three of MAN’s profile of Clyfford Still. Part one, “Clyfford Still: A cantankerous painter,” is here. Part two, “Clyfford Still: The birth of abex?” is here. The Clyfford Still Museum opens next month in Denver.

In the late spring of 1975, Clyfford Still and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art director Henry Hopkins walked through the museum’s galleries. On the walls were 28 paintings that Still had just given to the museum, the second large gift to a museum. In ‘exchange,’ Hopkins committed his museum to keeping a gallery of Still’s works on view at all times, in perpetuity. Still walked through the installation, soaking in the experience. He turned to his gallery-companion and said, “You know Hopkins, they have the power to kill.”

Still was right, sort of. The paintings are trauma painted with pigment. In the 1930s, Still painted mild abstractions of farmworkers whose arms were streaked with blood earned cutting wheat or killing chickens. Those thin red streaks would remain in his art for decades, providing a reminder of origin, of pain and maybe of intent. Throughout Still’s career, his paintings would stay rooted in the drama of the West. Sometimes Still’s paintings feel aerial in their perspective: like a skydiver managed to jump with a canvas and a palette knife, recording what he saw on the way down. Other times they seem like shards hurtling through a plain, scything a surface bare. Still’s best paintings seem to show long-term destruction, as if the paintings’ Creator had compressed millions of years of geologic process into two dimensions: Wind exfoliating land, sun leeching its color, rivers cutting through land, rocky earth, dry grass, and canyons remain. Still’s colors look like they were once bright, then scorched. [Image: Still, Untitled, 1959. Collection of SFMOMA.]

It’s one thing to paint with a sense of anthemic drama and scale, it’s quite another to, four years from the end of your life, to boast that the paintings themselves have the power they depict. Why would anyone say that?

It is not a coincidence that of all the great American abstract painters, only Still’s abstractions are violent. To Still the paintings were weapons — a connection he made in letter after letter, decade after decade.

“He had such an adversarial role that he had carved out,” said Bob Buck, who worked with Still when he was an associate director at the Albright-Knox, told me. “It was like he couldn’t stand being an insider. He was an outsider all his life. The rebel fringe.”

While there are examples of Still’s strange comportment going back to the 1940s, it was after Still made his fourth and longest-lasting move to New York in 1950 that his relations with art world peers became particularly unusual. It was during a decade of living in New York that Still established himself as a great painter — and it was where he became an equally difficult figure. [Image: Still, 1956-J, No. 1, 1956. Collection of the Modern Art Museum Fort Worth.]

There’s not time to detail all of the ways in which Still drove away anyone who might embrace him or his work, so a few examples will have to suffice. The Museum of Modern Art tried to champion Still throughout the 1950s – and to be accepted by MoMA was to be on one’s way to being A Great Artist, a sobriquet that Still craved. MoMA included Still in group shows throughout the decade. It purchased his work 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 to purchase the painting Still wanted it to purchase.) MoMA wanted to include Still in shows that would travel throughout Europe and it wanted him to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, one of art’s highest honors.

This thrilled Still less than you might think. Witness Still’s response to MoMA’s Venice invitation: “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.” He thus became only the second artist to refuse to represent his country in Venice.

In 1961 an art magazine made a routine request for permission to reproduce a few Still painting in its magazine. In a letter signed by his wife Patricia but almost certainly written by Still, he responded: “By what twist of logic you can expect Mr. Still to acquiesce to the exploitation of his painting to sell 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.” [Image: Still, Untitled, 1956. Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.]

“Sometimes he used her as a little bit of a wall, a shield,” Still’s daughter Sandra Campbell told me. “No letter went out without his reviewing it.”

In 1968, collector and historian Betty Freeman wrote a book about Still, the kind of manuscript that would help elevate him to a position of popular prestige. Still nixed it.

In 1976 SFMOMA wanted to give Still a thorough, canonizing, full retrospective. He said no. (He held out for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which surveyed Still’s career — with the artist’s heavy input — in 1979.)

Artists were also Still targets. Still regularly claimed that Barnett Newman stole his ‘zips’ from him, that Newman was not to be trusted. Still and Mark Rothko were once the best of friends. They fell out when Still decided Rothko was too commercial – Rothko was willing to sell his paintings, Still wasn’t, at least not on the terms Rothko was willing to. On the day Rothko committed suicide, Still dialed his friend Gordon Smith, the director of the Albright. When Smith answered the phone, Still quickly dispensed with the pleasantries and said: “Gordon, evil befalls those who live evil lives.” Stunned, Smith quickly ended the call and then wandered through the offices of the museum, telling his staff about it over and over again. Bob Buck told me that he was sure that Smith was trying to expunge the phone call from his memory.

In the course of the year I spent learning about Still, the only art world figure I could find that he maintained good relations with was Gordon Smith. From Still’s point-of-view, their friendship seems to have been born in Still’s (false) belief that Smith despised MoMA and what Still called the “New York gutter gangs” as much as he did. (Still believed that Smith despised MoMA because Smith once turned down a MoMA request for the loan of a Still painting.)

In 1959 Still allowed the Albright to launch a major exhibit of his work, over 80 paintings in all. Early the next year, Still thanked Smith by writing him to tell him about New York City’s response to the show: “Like roaches, they scattered at first. But the herd instinct reasserted itself and they all returned to their mother, the Great Gas Chamber of culture on 53rd Street [MoMA] – jackal-yapping the old clichés and lies to cover their retreat.” [Image: Still, 1948, 1948. Collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.]

“For Still, Gordon was almost like a board upon which he could write some things that he had to get out of himself, knowing that nothing of that would ever come back to him,” Buck told me. “That was the confidence that he had in Gordon. And he was right.”

Five years later, in 1964, Still gifted the Albright-Knox 31 pictures. (The museum re-named itself in 1962.) But in the end, Still stuck it to the Albright too. In 1966, the Albright-Knox planned a major Still retrospective, a major airing of the artist’s gift. Just as the catalogue was about to go to press Still called it off. The museum was informed of the cancellation by Patricia, who told Smith’s secretary to tell Smith. Patricia provided no explanation.

Five years later, in 1971, Still told the New York Times that he would have given more paintings to the Albright-Knox if he hadn’t heard that his paintings were lying in water in a museum storage bin. They weren’t.

***

The great irony of Still’s three decades of bizarre behavior is that  nothing mattered more to him than being considered as a painter-for-the-ages, not just in his own time, but in the long-term. (Robert Smithson and the earthworks artists wanted their work to prove itself over geologic time, a position that seems outrageously hubristic now, but which must have seemed downright reasonable in the wake of Still’s near-megalomania.) Yet it seems like nearly everything Still did was designed to push people away from him and his work. The same year he told the Times that the Albright was mistreating his work, he wrote to museum benefactor Seymour Knox to inform Knox of his plans for what would become — 40 years later — the Clyfford Still Museum. Even as Still was self-destructing, he was planning what he hoped would be a shrine to himself.

I don’t know why Still acted the way he did — and his archives, which will provide fuller hints and information, were not available to me when I researched this story in 2005-06 — but as I studied Still I noticed that his strangest behavior often succeeded a significant Cold War flare-up. In the famously liberal art world, Still stood out for being a McCarthyite. I came to wonder how much Still’s tantrums were motivated or influenced by world events. After all, to Clyfford Still the paintings were weapons. They had the power to kill. (Not dissimilarly, his breakthrough into his mature abstract style seems to have come just after Pearl Harbor.) [Image: Still, 1949 No. 1, 1949. The Clyfford Still Estate, courtesy the Clyfford Still Museum.]

There are hints in Still’s letters, which are full of carefully worded references to various evil forces. Still’s language seems to become most extreme after major national events. A letter Still wrote to Gordon Smith shortly after John F. Kennedy was assassinated is a classic of the type, complete with a reference to the Soviets. The letter was Still’s response to a negative review of Still’s late 1963 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, a show which inaugurated the then-new museum: “The motives underlying the review are calculating and sinister beyond casual credibility,”  Still said. “The killers are on the prowl with the Commissars pointing the way. It [the review] is a murderous document as it was intended to be.”

More: The case of the Hollywood blacklist. In December 1947, ten movie industry figures were censured by the House of Representatives after the a confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee. They were believed to be Communists and were blacklisted by their peers. A few weeks later, Still wrote his then-dealer Betty Parsons to explain his first ‘withdrawl’ from the art market. It was one of his strangest letters: “[T]o explain my decision in an adequate way would require a critique of our entire society and the relation of me and my work to it. The pictures themselves contain the fullest answer. And as they are so am I… whatever I do is done to keep the spirit that makes these pictures free, and the work in progress strong and vital.” [Image: Still, 1957-J No. 2, 1957. The Clyfford Still Estate, courtesy the Clyfford Still Museum.]

The next year, a few weeks after Communists seized control of Czechoslovakia, Still wrote Parsons to tell her not to show anyone his paintings.

Then, just after the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in August, 1949, Still sent Parsons another odd letter: “I know that these works contain a force which can be used against the principles which were born within them if they are left to the devices of unscrupulous of vicious men.” Remarkably, Parsons stood by Still until he left her gallery for Sidney Janis in late 1951 or early 1952. Still didnt’ last long at Janis, never showed there, and didn’t show again at a commercial gallery until Marlborough Gallery presented a Still exhibition in 1969. (Remarkably, Marlborough misspelled Still’s name in the show’s catalogue. Naturally Still found out and the catalogues were destroyed.)

Still’s pattern of strange behavior continued through the 1950s: In 1957, the USSR seemed to be winning the Cold War. In October the Soviets had won the first leg of the space race, launching the first satellite to circle the earth. In December, America attempted to launch its own satellite. It blew up on the launch pad and the Soviets owned the heavens.

A few weeks later, in January, 1958, Still, his wife Patricia and one of Still’s daughters took a train from Manhattan to East Hampton, Long Island. Then they took a taxi to the home of Alfonso Ossorio, one of the greatest collectors of abstract expressionist painting. Ossorio owned a number of Stills.

Still and Ossorio had been friends. For several years, Mr. Still had rented a summer cottage from Ossorio, who received a couple of paintings in exchange. Just about the time the USSR launched its satellite, Still turned on Ossorio. We don’t know why. (It might have been because Ossorio had sold one or two of his Stills.) Perhaps as a response, Still demanded that Ossorio return one of his paintings. Ossorio, through a series of letters, had refused.

When the Stills arrived at Ossorio’s home, Still told the taxi driver to stay at the curb. The family entered. Ossorio was in the kitchen cooking breakfast, and Patricia joined him. Clyfford walked to another part of the house. Upon finding what he was looking for — one of his own paintings — Still walked up to the painting, took a knife out of his pocket and sliced out the middle out of the canvas. He rolled it up in his coat, returned to the kitchen and told his wife that the mission was accomplished. They fled the house, jumped into a waiting taxi and caught the next train to New York. [Image: Still, 1951-T, No. 2. 1951. Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. This painting was formerly in the collection of Alfonso Ossorio.]

When Ossorio realized what had happened, he sped to the train station. There were dabs of pigment scattered along the train platform, but the Stills were gone.

“He told me that he had excised the heart out of the painting,” says Betty Freeman.

“This is patently [Ossorio’s] revenge,” Still later wrote in a letter. ‘But it is not too effective in that he can no longer personally prostitute them for his ambitions.’

***

In 1961 Still left New York to move to rural Carroll County, Maryland, about an hour northwest of Baltimore. First Still bought a 22-acre farm outside Westminster, then a big, old Victorian in nearby New Windsor.

When I visited New Windsor, I immediately understood why Still had moved there. The edge of town is perched on a hill. The landscape to the northwest fell away and my eyes followed the railroad out into broad expanses of open land that eventually ended, miles away, in the Catoctin Mountains. It’s the kind of vista  that would have been familiar to Still from his years out West. At the end of his life, Still moved back to landscape he had known before.

Still’s denials that he abstracted landscape are legendary. Had he acknowledged it, he would have destroyed some of the myth he’d created – and it would have grouped him in with the other American abstractionists, many of whom were open about how the American landscape inspired them. Still wanted to be remembered as their Moses, not as one of the Israelites. [Image: Still, 1949-G, 1949. Collection of the National Gallery of Canada.]

No matter, Still left bread crumbs. Even after Still moved to New Windsor, he kept his farm outside Westminster. He didn’t work the land — instead he tore down farm buildings so that he could better see his property and the surrounding landscape. His New Windsor house probably had a commanding view of the Catoctin Mountains. He loved to motor cross-country in his Lincoln Mark V, through open spaces, especially in the West. He took his daughters on long car trips. (Still would drive and one of his daughters would read newspapers or magazines to him.) When he visited his paintings at the Albright-Knox, he visited Niagara Falls (and tried to keep those side-trips a secret from the museum).

(Less directly, is it possible to grow up on the Canadian plains or in eastern Washington without being affected by the extremes and the expanses of those landscapes? Many of the great American abstract painters came from the West.)

Still left a final hint about how important landscape was to him. Until just a few years ago, a 1932 mural by a Italian-American regionalist named Gottardo Piazzoni hung in the San Francisco Public Library.  They were known as The Sea and The Land murals because they portrayed California’s two defining features. The five panels that make up The Land [above] are classics of California painting: California’s golden hills fill the frames. The hills burnt by the sun and creased by water that had run down them for centuries. For years — including when Still was in San Francisco — they were considered immensely important civic art treasures.

Still was loathe to admit outside influences. They were myth-destroyers. Throughout his life and at every opportunity, he denied that he was influenced by Cezanne or Rembrandt or anyone else. But in a weak moment, when Still curator Walter Hopps were walking through the San Francisco Public Library, Still stopped in front of the Piazzoni murals and told Hopps that they meant a great deal to him, that they were a key to his art. (Hopps told this to Timothy Anglin Burgard, a curator at the de Young where The Sea and The Land are now on view, who passed it on to me.)

I think what had bothered me about Still’s paintings, that one thing I couldn’t figure out until thattrip to Buffalo, was their violence. As I studied Still I began to understand that violence, both in terms of his background and in the context of his psyche and outlook. Eventually I came to understand why when I look at a Clyfford Still, I feel like I’m falling into a well.

Previously on MAN: Clyfford Still part one, part two.

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Comments

  1. [...] on MAN: Clyfford Still part one, part three. Thursday links » « Clyfford Still: A cantankerous painter Blog Home Clyfford [...]

  2. [...] on MAN: Clyfford Still part two, part three. Clyfford Still part two: The birth of abex? » « “Little Pictures Big [...]

  3. Thank goodness you don’t have to like the person to enjoy the art! I always saw AbEx as a reaction to the negativity of the 50s (McCarthyism and the Cold War) but Still seems to have had some paranoia and anger issues as well. I am happy to bury the man and wish his art a long life.

  4. I enjoyed your 3 posts on Still more than just about anything I’ve read on your blog in the past couple years. Thanks.

    P.S. I regularly enjoy the Still in the collection of The Modern in Fort Worth.

  5. Thanks! And that’s a *super* Still.

  6. [...] I’m not the only one excited here and Tyler Green is pretty amped about Still too. He has done a great three part preview; Part I and Part II and *Updated Part III. [...]

  7. [...] seems to have been a little more generous to Piazzoni. From my 2011 Still profile: Still left a final hint about how important landscape was to him. Until just a few years ago, a [...]

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