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Clyfford Still part two: The birth of abex?

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

Clyfford Elmer Still was born on November 30, 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota. He was an only child. (A sister died at birth.) A year after Clyfford was born his parents, John Elmer Still and Sarah Amelia Johnson Still, moved to eastern Washington. When Still was about seven the family moved again, this time to a homestead in Canada. For the next several years the Still family would divide its time between farming in Bow Island, Alberta, where they kept cows and chickens and grew wheat, and Spokane, Wash., where John also worked as an accountant. [Image: Hans Namuth, Clyfford Still, 1951. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.]

Young Clyfford was interested in art at an early age. At his mother’s encouragement, he rode a horse five miles to play the piano and to look at art in books. When Still was 14 his father gave him a set of paints. Perhaps he took to them too well: A few years later, when Still was away from the farm, his father destroyed his paintings. According to collector Betty Freeman, who wrote an unpublished biography of Still in 1968, Still’s parents fought furiously and Still and his father fought even more furiously. In 1979 Still told then-Hirshhorn chief curator Charles Millard that he inherited “only doubt and laziness” from his father. At about the same time Still told San Francisco Museum of Modern Art director Henry Hopkins that his father would occasionally “drop” him down a well as a sort of punishment. Still would later tuck a well into the lower-left corner of a painting that also shows the two ways out of farming country: wagon and train.

Despite the difficulty Still later described, farming and his experience of the open, often violence West had a profound impact on Still. His early work draws more on farm imagery — grain silos, farm buildings and trains — than it does on small-town Spokane. “He always said farming was about constant killing, whether it’s the wheat or the birds or the meat,” his daughter Sandra Campbell told me. Many of Still’s earliest paintings feature farm-workers, their limbs often marked by blood. A 1936 painting that is in the Still estate, painted when Still was living in Washington, shows two men picking wheat up from the ground. The horizon is low in the painting and the painter is looking up at two figures that fill almost the entire canvas. The point of view is heroic, but the arms of both men are streaked with blood. The hand of the man on the right, if blown-up to four-by-six feet, would look similar to the abstractions that Still would paint 20 years later. (Still would eventually abstract away from this kind of representation, but scything streaks of red would remain in his painting.) [Image below: Still, Untitled, 1936. The Clyfford Still Estate via the Clyfford Still Museum.]

Still escaped the family’s homes in fits and starts. After graduating from high school at the age of 20, Still visited New York and enrolled in the Art Students League twice, in 1925 and 1928. Neither trip took, and he returned to eastern Washington each time. In 1932 Still married his first wife, Lillian A. Battan, drawings of whom are in the Still estate and which may be on view when the Still Museum opens next month. Lillian was the mother of both of Still’s daughters: Diane, who was born in 1937 and Sandra, who was born in 1942. The couple was divorced in the late 1940s.

Few of the paintings Still made before the move to California have been seen in the last 40 years, though SFMOMA, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Hirshhorn all own a handful of works from that period. A few other early paintings and studies were reproduced in the Hirshhorn’s exceptional 2001 Still catalogue, including an untitled, vaguely abstracted map of Europe that the Hirshhorn curatorial team dated to 1940-41. Still’s widow Patricia, whom he married in New Jersey in 1957 — roughly a decade after Still and Lillian divorced in the late 1940s — was irate at the Hirshhorn’s 2001 publishing of the ‘map painting,’ claiming it was not a Still. (That 2001 catalogue also features the most important essay on Still’s early work. It was written by David Anfam, who will co-curate the Clyfford Still Museum’s initial installation.)

Still moved from Spokane to the San Francisco area in either 1941, perhaps to work in the area’s burgeoning war industries. The catalogue for the 1992 Albright-Knox/SFMOMA exhibition includes a timeline written by Patricia Still. It reports that Clyfford worked in the East Bay as a “steelchecker for the Navy,” from December, 1941 until 1943, and later for other military contractors in the Bay Area. (These details are not included in the 2001 Hirshhorn timeline of Still’s life.)

It was in California, that the Clyfford Still we recognize today emerged, and it was here in about 1943 that he broke through to abstraction. If Patricia’s timeline is  accurate — art historians have typically been a bit wary of Patricia’s accounts — it may offer up an explanation for one of Still’s inspirations for his move toward abstraction: Just as Still was flattening the landscape into the scything shapes that would be come his trademark, he was likely seeing similar abstract formations in the steel he inspected in the Oakland steel yards. (Art historians have long whispered questions about the dates of Still’s paintings, but Clyfford Still Museum director Dean Sobel recently told me that CSM research will put an end to all that. Expect the museum’s first scholarly publication in 2012.)

Still himself never, ever would have admitted that there was any connection between his work during the war and his painting. He hated to talk about the origins of his work. He once took collector Betty Freeman to the Metropolitan to show her what he loved about Rembrandt, only to phone her a few days later to instruct her to forget it all, to insist that he’d made it all up. When Still visited the 31 paintings he gifted to the Albright-Knox, he usually visited Niagara Falls. Former A-K associate director Bob Buck told me that an Albright guard once recognized Still at the Falls and said hello. The next day, when visiting Buck and A-K director Gordon Smith at the museum, Still denied ever having been there. He didn’t want anyone to make a connection between anything — particularly landscape — and his abstractions. [Image: Still, 1944-G, 1944. Collection of SFMOMA.]

This much is clear: Before World War II, Still was a  painter of vaguely surreal, regionalist, often figurative paintings. In 1941 he moved to San Francisco. Either the onset of war or living in and around San Francisco’s vibrant community of artists changed Still’s work.

It was in San Francisco that Still’s paintings became became stark, jagged, abstract and enormous — and that Still first became a great painter. No other American artist reacted to the changing country – and world – so quickly. (More on this tomorrow.) By 1942 or 1943 Still was making paintings were taller and often wider than a person, a scale that must have shocked his San Francisco colleagues. Former Hirshhorn director curator of the museum’s 2001 Still exhibition Jim Demetrion credited Still for being first artist of his generation both to “paint in a heroic scale,” and to “break his ties with the past by painting with no discernible subject matter.” In other words, Demetrion believes it was in San Francisco that Still pioneered the hallmarks of the style that would come to be known as abstract expressionism. Whether Still “founded” abex or not — archives that will first be made available at the Still Museum will be a key source on that point — Still was certainly the only founding member of the movement to develop his abex style outside New York.

San Franciscans certainly took note of what Still was doing: In 1943 he received a one-person exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the forerunner to what is now SFMOMA. This was the first show to demonstrate Still’s push into abstraction, but in one way it was an ignominious start: The museum wall-label misspelled Still’s name. (It would not be the last time: When Still married his second wife Patricia, the couple’s New Jersey marriage license misspells Still’s name as “Clifford.” For most of his life, when Still received mail addressed to a misspelling of his name, he would return it to the sender unopened.)

While in San Francisco, Still met and befriended Mark Rothko, his first and for many years his best artist-friend. The two discussed working together, even forming a school together. The two would remain tight into the 1950s. But by 1943 Still was ready to move east and accepted a teaching position at Richmond Professional Institute, the school now known as Virginia Commonwealth University. For whatever reason, Still didn’t last long in Richmond. At the end of the 1945 spring term he left the school and moved to New York for the third time. He didn’t stay long — just long enough to have a 1946 exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery (complete with brochure text by Mark Rothko). Still would return briefly to San Francisco to teach at the California School of Fine Arts, but by 1950 he’d be back in New York. That’s when Still emerged as the acerbic, difficult, insulting — and wildly talented — painter we know today. [Image: Still, 1944-N No. 1, 1944. The Clyfford Still Estate, courtesy of the Clyfford Still Museum. This is the painting of which Still sold an “inferior copy” to the Museum of Modern Art. The MoMA painting is here.]

Also on MAN: Clyfford Still part one, part three.

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  1. […] Nota bene: This week I’ll be publishing a profile of Clyfford Still that I wrote back in 2005. Small parts of it have been published previously on MAN, but this is the first time that I’ve published the entire story. I’ve updated it to include recent information whenever possible. Today’s post will be the first of three parts. Part two is here. […]

  2. I love his stark enormous paintings ever since I saw his exhibit in San francisco in the 1970 is.

  3. […] 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 […]

  4. […] 2011 I published a long-form, three-part, posthumous profile of Still: Part one, part two, part […]

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