Clyfford Still

Eyridiki Sellou | Feb 8, 2023

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Clyfford Elmer Still is an American painter of the mid-twentieth century. He is one of the founding members of abstract expressionism in the United States. He was born on November 30, 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota, and died on June 23, 1980 in New York. A museum is dedicated to him in Denver (Colorado) since 2011.

Clyfford Still belongs to the small original group of Abstract Expressionism with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb. He was close to Pollock in the first generation of Abstract Expressionism, and had developed a new approach to painting through abstraction early on, beginning in 1944 with large-scale works (including 1944-N No. 2, also known as Red Flash on Black Field, oil on canvas, 264.8 × 221.6 cm, MoMA, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, 1967). Throughout his life he rarely exhibited or sold his paintings.

Still was born in 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota and spent his childhood in the northwestern United States, Spokane, Washington D.C. and Bow Island, southern Alberta, Canada. In 1925 he visited New York City and studied briefly at the Art Students League. He attended Spokane University from 1926 to 1927 and returned in 1931 on a scholarship, graduating in 1933. In the fall of 1933 he was a teaching fellow and later a faculty member at Washington State College (now Washington State University), where he received his Master of Fine Arts degree in 1935. He taught there until 1941.

He spent the summers of 1934 and 1935 at the Trask (now Yaddo) Foundation in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1937, with his Washington colleague Worth Griffin, Still co-founded the Nespelem Art Colony (including Untitled (Indian Houses, Nespelem) (1936)) which produced hundreds of portraits and landscapes depicting Native American life on the Colville Indian Reservation (Washington State) during the four summers of '37-'40. In a documentary style he noticed the colors of the Indians' clothing), and produced freer studies in a palette that he would remember for many years.

In 1941, he still moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where he worked in various war industries while pursuing his painting. He had his first solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) in 1943. He taught at the Richmond Professional Institute (RPI), now Virginia Commonwealth University, from 1943 to 1945, and then in New York City.

In 1944, he made two paintings that have very similar formalities 1944-N No. 1 and 1944-N No. 2: large formats (for the first 266 × 233 cm), abstraction, and with a palette knife in a thick impasto that creates an irregular texture: large effects of black paint

1946: Mark Rothko, whom Still had met in California in 1943, introduced him to Peggy Guggenheim, and she gave Still his first solo exhibition in her gallery, The Art of This Century Gallery, in early 1946. The following year, Peggy Guggenheim closed her gallery and Still, along with Rothko and other abstract expressionists, joined the Betty Parsons Gallery. He had three exhibitions there (1947, 1950, 1951). He returned to San Francisco, where he became a very influential teacher at the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute), teaching there from 1946 to 1950. He had an exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco (1947). In 48, with Rothko, he laid the foundations of what would become the Subjects of the Artist academy, a place of collective reflection and an artists' club that invites speakers to give talks that are discussed and debated. Clyfford Still moved back to San Francisco for two years before returning to New York.

1950s: In 1950, he moved to New York and stayed there for most of the decade. This was the height of Abstract Expressionism, but he avoided any association with the New York School of Abstractionism. It was during this period that he became increasingly critical of the art world. He was one of a group of "irascibles" (almost all abstract expressionists) who protested in 1950 (during a meeting at Subjects of the Artist) against the contempt in which they were held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was preparing its first exhibition of American art with a jury that displayed its disdain for American abstraction. The photo of the "irascibles", later published in Life, made them universally famous by publicizing Abstract Expressionism. At this time, more than all the others of the group, Still insists on the single character of its own work within the group, it marks besides contempt for some of its colleagues, and finally its increasing requirements of recognition excluded it from the world of the art in New York. At the beginning of the years 1950, Still breaks its bonds with the commercial galleries. A retrospective of Still nevertheless took place at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in Buffalo (New York) in 1959.

1961: He moved to a 22-acre farm near Westminster, Maryland, retiring from the art world and where he could work in solitude. He always used a barn as a studio on the property during the warmer months. In 1966, Still and his second wife purchased a quarter-square-foot house at 312 Church Street in New Windsor, Maryland, about eight miles from their farm, where he lived until his death.

In the 1960s he had several solo exhibitions (Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (1963), and Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York (1969-70)). In 1972 he received the Award of Merit for Painting from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he became a member, then the Skowhegan Medal for Painting in 1975. In 1975, a group of his paintings was permanently exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Finally, he had an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1980.

Among the first abstract expressionist paintings, July 1945-R (for a time called Quicksilver) precisely evokes a flash of lightning, a vertical erratic line of white on a dark or black background. In a letter from 1950, he speaks of a flash of lightning that provoked a "revelation" in him, without knowing what kind of revelation it was.

Still considered one of the most prominent painters in the Color Field painting movement, his non-figurative paintings are also non-objective and largely concerned with the juxtaposition of different colors and surfaces in various configurations. Unlike Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman, who organized their colors in relatively simple ways (Rothko as nebulous rectangles, Newman as thin lines on vast flat fields of color), Still's arrangements are less regular. His jagged bursts of color give the impression that a layer of color has been "torn" from the painting, revealing the colors beneath. Another point of difference with Newman and Rothko is the way the paint is laid down on the canvas; while Rothko and Newman use fairly flat colors and relatively thin paint, Still uses thick impasto, producing a wide variety of subtle thicknesses and shimmering hues that catch the actual light. By 1947, he had begun working in the large format that he would expand and adjust throughout his career - a large format color field applied with palette knives that would create effects of light and textured matter.

By these effects of matter, with a strong proportion of oil or with a matter with the very visible dry grain, Still creates with his palette knives of the "tectonic" surfaces which, sometimes, collect the light, and elsewhere absorb it completely, like black holes.

Unlike most visual artists of the time, Still grinds and prepares his own pigments, with which he creates particular colors that he applies to his immense paintings.

The Denver museum, which is entirely dedicated to him, has made it possible to highlight certain aspects of the creative process, through a comparative study of variants, or replicas of more than 50 paintings. Thus it appears that this work can be seen as a "gestural painting", since the artist's gestures are perfectly visible when looking at the painting, and with great force if only because of the size of the applications of paint with a palette knife. On the other hand, the comparisons evoke a progressive process and not a totally spontaneous, immediate emergence. While there are only a few paintings that have been completely re-invented, in most cases the changes are more subtle; a change in the medium, a different method of applying the paint, or a different texture, or it is the play of light on the surface of the paint that is no longer the same, by manipulating the reflective properties of the paint. Thus, there are many adjustments, in significantly different formats, with a desire to surpass, in the next painting, what had been built in the first version: "Although the few replicas I make are generally close to the original or an extension, each has its own life and is not a copy. The current work has clarified certain factors and, paradoxically in this case, is closer to my original concept than the first, which bears the marks of the forces that clashed."

The proximity between Pollock and Still has been studied by David Anfam. Still discovered Pollock's painting The Moon Woman (1942) during the exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery The Art of This Century (en), in November 43. And three paintings of Still would be "meditations", including PH-242, from 1943-44. This friendship was particularly evident in 1943, when Pollock painted Mural for Peggy Guggenheim in a corridor of her apartment. The immense canvas, by its space and its horror vacui seems, indeed to evoke the American West, if one takes into account a sentence of Pollock of 1944. The friendship between Still and Pollock lasted until 1955, even if Still's irascible character reached a particularly acute peak in the 1950s.

Both had this idea that painting is above all the work of a "man". Referring with obvious pleasure to Pollock's last exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1955, he sent a note to Pollock containing the phrase "It was that here a man had been at work, at the deepest work a man can do, facing up to what he is and aspires to". And conversely Pollock says in 1955 "Still makes the rest of us look academic". Elsewhere Pollock states that "both of them (Still and he, in some versions "all three" - with Rothko), changed the nature of painting. According to David Anfam, the 1953 painting The Deep (Centre Georges Pompidou) is, "unmistakable" (without the slightest possible error), a tribute to Still.

While Still never agreed to share an exhibition room with others, nine months before the opening of his major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in 1979, he chose to hang his huge painting PH-929 (1974) next to Pollock's Automn Rythmn (1950).

Critics have praised the pure materiality of his painting, the monumental and dynamic presence, the sublime spirit of his abstract images. His attitude towards his peers and painting has been considered provocative and uncompromising, as has that of David Smith, a friend of Still and Pollock.

David Anfam, a specialist in Abstract Expressionism, had these words: "His work has a visceral impact, the paintings stare back at me and the viewer. I don't know many other artists who induce quite the same kind of electric charge - a true frisson. Yet it's not just this kind of high voltage drama that grabs me, what I also find remarkable is that Still managed to combine this intensity with a rare degree of subtlety and delicacy." (His work produces a visceral shock, the paintings stare at me and any viewer. I don't know of many other artists who induce the same kind of electric shock - a real thrill. Yet it's not only this kind of high-voltage drama that draws me in, but what I also find remarkable is that Still has managed to combine this intensity with subtlety and delicacy to a degree rarely achieved).

A museum dedicated entirely to him opened in Denver in November 2011, bringing together the 94% of his unsold and unexhibited production that had been removed from the public arena for 30 years - 825 paintings and 1,575 works on paper. It was he and his wife Patricia who conceived the idea of a museum that would be entirely dedicated to him. In accordance with the artist's wishes, the entire donation is kept in one place, in a city and not in a museum, and no attraction disturbs the relationship with the work, neither cafeteria nor bookshop.


  1. Clyfford Still
  2. Clyfford Still
  3. « I have a definite feeling for the West : the vast horizontality of the land, for instance ; here only the Atlantic ocean gives you that. » (J'ai une affection essentielle pour l'Ouest: la vaste horizontalité du pays, par exemple; ici seulement l'océan Atlantique vous donne ça) : David Anfam , 2015, p. 18
  4. ^ "Clyfford Still". The Phillips Collection. Archived from the original on January 22, 2010. Retrieved 21 October 2014.
  5. Patricia Still, p. 156 (Brief aan een vriend, mei 1951)
  6. a b c Dominic van den Boogerd, p. 40
  7. a b Patricia Still, p. 146
  8. [1]
  9. Guggenheim Collection online; Clyfford Still (Memento des Originals vom 20. April 2016 im Internet Archive)  Info: Der Archivlink wurde automatisch eingesetzt und noch nicht geprüft. Bitte prüfe Original- und Archivlink gemäß Anleitung und entferne dann diesen Hinweis.@1@2Vorlage:Webachiv/IABot/ abgerufen am 4. Mai 2015

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