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.
This is a story about a great painter and a difficult man, and it begins with the art. The painter, Clyfford Still, was among the most influential American artists of the post-World War II generation. He created canvases that merged the 19th-century American fascination with the enormity of the country’s landscape with the 20th-century ideal of abstraction — and he did it on canvases that were bigger than the canvases anyone else was painting on at the time, at a scale that was as hubristic as the man himself.
Until a few years ago I did not like Still’s paintings. They seemed too macho, too self-consciously heroic. They are often taller than a person and wider than his wingspan. Mr. Still – he insisted that dealers, curators, museum directors call him Mr. Still, a sobriquet that even his wife Patricia adapted in the company of others – spread paint onto canvas as you might shmear cream cheese onto a bagel. Sometimes he used a brush, but often he just attacked the canvas with a palette knife loaded up with pigment that he’d mixed up with oil. I recognized the paintings’ importance, but I did not particularly like looking at them.
Then, a few years ago, I started re-living a scene in museum after museum: I would stop in front of a Still, turn to a friend, and say: “You know, that’s not half-bad.”
My friend: “I thought you didn’t like Still?”
Me: “Right. I don’t. I just mean that it’s good. For a Still.”
I finally accepted my newfound fascination with Still’s work during a 2005 visit to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. The Albright has one of the top modern art collections in America and, until recently, the largest collection of Stills. On this day I walked out of a series of narrow galleries into the museum’s cavernous main hall, and found a bench near Still’s 1957-D, No. 1 (above, right). Just then, three high school kids skipped in, volume personified. I was ready to shoot them a stern look. But when the kids entered the hall, they stopped. They had each seen Still’s painting at the same time. They fell quiet.
Finally: “Let’s go sit in front of it,” one said.
“Yeah, I bet we can feel it,” came the reply.
Like monks approaching an apse, they fell silent and walked slowly, deliberately toward the painting. When they were six feet away, as if guided by an invisible force, they sat on the floor in unison. For several minutes none of them said a word. As the kids were being baptized, I was being converted. I saw things I’d missed for years. [Image: Still, Untitled, 1947. Estate of Clyfford Still.]
The painting felt like this: When I was in college, two friends and I drove to the Grand Canyon. We found a lonely place on the South Rim and looked at the massive gash in the earth. Feeling a little bolder, we walked out onto a rock that jutted into the canyon. Under the rock, there was nothing for 1,000 feet. A little beyond that there was nothing for 4,000 feet. As my eyes moved down into the canyon, my stomach moved up into my throat. The Still made me feel a little like that.
Soon thereafter I noticed that when my eyes focused on a curled, Cape Cod-like hook of pigment on the far right of a 1951 Still at the National Gallery of Art, the rest of the painting seemed to fall into the wall behind it. I started feeling these ‘falling moments’ as I lost myself in Still after Still.
How had I never noticed? After all, I grew up in San Francisco, where the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has one of the three great troves of Still’s work and is contractually obligated to keep a gallery of it on permanent display. I live in Washington, where the impressive Still holdings at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (eight paintings) and the National Gallery of Art (two more) include two of the painter’s masterpieces. The Smithsonian American Art Museum (two paintings) and the Kreeger Museum also own Stills, as does the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
No matter, somehow I had missed Still. So has most of the art establishment that canonizes painters. Sure: Still is considered a significant American painter, but few critics consider him to be as important, as great, as his peers such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko or Willem de Kooning. All three of those artists have been the subject of numerous major, reputation-creating museum retrospectives after they died. So too other great mid-20th century painters such as Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky and Adolph Gottlieb. Lesser ab-exers such as Robert Motherwell, James Brooks and Hans Hofmann have been similarly honored. [Image: Still, 1948-C, 1948. Collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.]
But not Still, whose last full-career-length survey was a 1979 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an exhibition that wasn’t so much an independent curatorial examination as a project the museum undertook with the artist. (In 1992 the Albright-Knox and SFMOMA put their Stills together in an exhibition and in 2001 the Hirshhorn put together a show of paintings Still made from 1944-1960. The Still estate made no loans to either show.) If I wanted to evaluate Still’s career I was going to have to book some flights. So in 2005 and 2006 I traveled to see almost every Clyfford Still in an American museum or public collection. I talked to the people who knew him, collected him and who curated exhibitions of his work. My journey took me to San Francisco, New York, Washington, and Buffalo, the homes of the major Clyfford Still holdings and archives. What was I missing? Had Still been miscast as a second-rate painter?
Yes. At least as much as Gorky or Pollock or Kline or any of the other great American painters of the 1940s, Still is the progenitor of abstract expressionism. Still was the first abexer to voluntarily explode the size of his canvases, to use enormity as strategy by which the painter attempts to bowl over the viewer, to give American abstraction the overwhelming scale for which it became famous. (This was first noted by Hirshhorn director Jim Demetrion, who curated the museum’s 2001 show.)
“Of all the abstract expressionist painters, it’s Still’s paintings that have the most physicality,” former Albright-Knox associate director and later Brooklyn Museum director Bob Buck told me. Buck worked closely with Still after Still gave the A-K 31 paintings in 1964. “Still’s canvases are always a foot or two taller than any other ab-ex painting. When they’re in the galleries, they just stand out like nobody’s buisiness. Still liked to see them installed in a way that emphasized that. He was always hanging them over the molding at the base of the wall.”
Still, even more than Pollock or de Kooning, was the hermit-hero who irked – or outraged – seemingly everyone in his path. To New York Herald Tribune art critic Emily Genauer, whose review he did not appreciate, he sent rubber baby pants along with a note that said, “Hoping this will aid in concealing your Sunday afflictions.” [Image above courtesy of the Archives of American Art.] Still was a stinker and he was proud of it: “I can be cantankerous. I haven’t got my reputation for nothing,” he once wrote. His correspondence, snippets of which have long been accessible via the archives of the Albright-Knox and the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (and much more 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. 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 suicide, Still called a trusted museum-director friend to gloat.
Still didn’t just dislike people, he considered people he disliked to be enemies. For much of Still’s career, to deal with him – to buy one of his paintings – a prospective collector had to share Still’s feelings for Still’s enemies. When pioneering collector Betty Freeman expressed interest in buying a canvas, the first thing Still did was tell her to go look at the paintings he had just given to the Albright-Knox. She did and told Still that she still wanted to buy one. That wasn’t enough. Next, Still told Freeman that next she’d have to meet Mrs. Still. Freeman did, at Child’s Coffee Shop in Manhattan. Mrs. Still asked Freeman two questions: “What do you think of Mark Rothko?” and “What do you think of Barnett Newman?”
These were loaded questions. Still had once been friends with Rothko and Newman, but he had recently terminated the friendships. Still was irate that Rothko was willing to show with a dealer of whom Still did not approve and that Rothko (or his dealer) had increased the price of his paintings to $15,000. As for Newman, he felt that he had visited Still’s studio and stolen from him the idea for Newman’s trademark ‘zip’ paintings, paintings which featured flat fields of color, broken up by occasional thin vertical lines. Still believed he had pioneered this technique in in the 1930s. [Image: Still, Untitled, 1957. Collection of SFMOMA.]
Freeman knew that there was a right answer and a wrong answer to Mrs. Still’s questions, but she didn’t know what they were. Freeman answered honestly: She told Mrs. Still that she didn’t like the work of either. Mrs. Still reported Freeman’s answers back to her husband, who approved of them. The Stills then invited Freeman over to the Still apartment, where the vetting continued. Many conversations later Still sold Freeman a painting for $15,000, $10,000 over the initial price. Still had raised the price to match Rothko’s. Freeman’s Still is now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the only Still canvas in a Los Angeles museum collection.
So no wonder Still’s paintings are hard to find. Only about 150 Clyfford Still paintings are in museums, most of them in New York, Washington, San Francisco and Buffalo. There are probably about 40 in private collections. Until recently, if you wanted to see enough Clyfford Still paintings to understand the artist’s oeuvre, you had to work. That’s about to change: Next month, the Clyfford Still Museum will open in Denver.
When Still died in 1980, his will specified that all of the art work in his estate be held until a city stepped forward and offered to build him a museum-as-shrine. For 25 years a number of cities, including art centers such as New York and San Francisco, held discussions with Still’s widow Patricia, but no deals got done. Finally, late in 2004, Mrs. Still and the city of Denver came to an agreement that created the new museum. (There’s no real reason why Denver makes sense as The Place. Yes, Still probably drove through Denver many times – he loved to make cross-country car trips in his beloved Lincoln Mark V – but the closest he came to spending any time in Denver was a summer he spent teaching at the University of Colorado, in Boulder. Most likely: As Patricia Still realized she was nearing the end of her life and that she had to get the deal done, Denver was the city on the phone.)
The Clyfford Still Museum [at left] will control the vast majority of Clyfford Still’s output, a trove that until recently was unseen – even by experts in the field – since Still’s death in 1980. In fact, with the exception of a handful of works that were included in the Metropolitan’s 1980 show and a couple of other works shown in gallery exhibitions that were not sold, the works in the Still estate have never been seen by anyone.
Until their arrival in Denver, Still’s Stills were kept in a secret Maryland storage facility, probably somewhere between Baltimore and New Windsor, where Still spent the last 18 years of his life. The new museum’s collection includes almost 900 paintings that Still stored by rolling them around metal pipes in groups of six or seven canvases each. An equal number of miniature paintings was affixed to each roll, copies of the Stills therein. (These copies, usually watercolors, were painted by Patricia, a skilled painter who gave up her own budding career to serve as Still’s wife and trusted comrade-in-arms.) Still’s Stills also include about 1,600 works on paper, 99 percent of all the works on paper he made. Most are pastels or oil drawings, a few are lithographs based on paintings.
An initial selection from the estate, along with some archival material and some ephemera culled from the collections of Clyfford and Patricia Still and Clyfford’s daughters Diane and Sandra will go on view when the museum opens on November 16. The initial exhibition has been curated by Still Museum director Dean Sobel and art historian David Anfam (who wrote his 1984 Ph.D. dissertation on Still).
Next month’s opening of the Clyfford Still Museum isn’t just the opening of a new art facility, it’s the unveiling of a mostly unknown oeuvre. It’s also a long-dead artist’s long-planned, self-conscious bid for immortality. In insisting on this facility 31 years ago, Still must have believed that the museum he envisioned would elevate him into the pantheon that included peers he detested, painters such as Newman and Rothko. I can’t help but wonder if Still knew that his best shot at the pantheon would come long after he was dead. That way his work would speak for itself, without its creator getting in its way.