RA Magazine Winter 2012
Issue Number: 117
Review and Comment: Clyfford Still: The Artist’s Museum
A book on the new Clyfford Still Museum, dedicated entirely to the Abstract Expressionist painter, is a timely reminder of his contribution to 20th-century art. By Edmund Fawcett
The American painter Clyfford Still (1904-80) was once to be seen on equal terms among his Ab-Ex peers. There he is, next to Jackson Pollock, just behind Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko in a famous Life magazine photograph from 1951 showing the 15 best-known ‘Irascibles’ – 14 men and one woman – of Abstract Expressionism. Lost to view in the 1970s and then almost forgotten, Still is for various reasons back with a bang.
To use a monetary standard he professed to scorn, in 2011 at Sotheby’s in New York, four of Still’s abstract paintings sold for a total of $114 million.
Though in life Still hid from the world behind his work, it is hard not to start with the man. The first image in this handsome, sympathetic book is Still’s Self-Portrait of 1940. Its tense pride says a lot. The painted Still looks suspiciously down at us from behind a protective raised shoulder. The huge dark triangle of his studio coat, which might be taken for a charred rock or totem, hints at another thing. Still powerfully identified with the western land and its myths. One look, then, and you see you are dealing with prickly self-belief and a formidable sense of grandeur.
Still was from North Dakota but grew up in western Canada, where his father struggled to farm. Opting instead for the rigours of art, Still left at 21 for New York. At the Art Students League it took him 45 minutes, he said, to decide he was not a big-city artist. He lived and worked in many places, but the West was in a sense his lifelong subject: a vast elsewhere, almost wholly imaginary, but neither innocent nor sentimentalised.
Like many of abstraction’s practitioners, Still came to it through figuration. It takes a moment or two to realise that the dominating wedge in the picture of a wintry scene put together like a Cézanne, is a snowplough on the nose of a train. In another earlyish work of a cargo train on the horizon, he focuses not on the train but on a tall, vertical wisp of smoke running all the way up the picture plane. Form was not everything. Still played back the hardships of the time in cartoon-like oils of hungry, long-jawed farmers. As Still could paint ‘nice’ if he wanted, the coarse ugliness of these works was presumably created to shock. Native American art and shamanism also intrigued him. While on the bridge between figurative and abstract, his works brimmed with silhouetted shapes that could be eagle heads, bear-claws or tree trunks left from a forest fire.
One of the galleries in the Clyfford Still Museum, which opened in 2011 in Denver, Colorado, showing paintings by Still from the early 1950s. photo raul j. garcia/image courtesy clyfford still museum.
In a fine essay on the work and its sources, David Anfam, who probably knows more about Still than anyone living, tells us to pay attention to those early and transitional works. They are ‘key’, he thinks, to the content of the big abstractions of the 1940s-60s.
It makes sense. That upright form returns again and again as a flickering, electric flash or a thin fluid jet. As if competing with geological energies, Still forced on layer after layer of paint with a big palette knife, creating a sort of all-over armoured crust.
The ragged edge was another formal motif, suggesting stripped tree bark, flame or the wings of not very friendly birds. There was a lot of fear and anger here. Later, the work lightened up. You could see the grounds, there was more air and he gave colours their play.
In Still’s day, uncomprehending critics of formalist bent found him literal, over-emotional and folksy-populist in his preoccupation with the West and its myths. Too much expression, in other words, and not enough abstraction.
A second error is to judge Still by present markers of artistic success: shrewdness, irony and play. Still was withdrawn, thin-skinned, hopeless at selling himself and deadly serious. By the 1960s he had vanished into rural Maryland, where he kept to himself and sent nothing for sale. Macho, oppressive and preoccupied with personal meanings? Or powerfully driven by a vision of America? Before deciding, you need to look for yourself.
Still’s Self-Portrait is also the first work to greet visitors at the exquisite new Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado, that opened in late 2011. And there hangs a fascinating tale, well described by Dean Sobel, the museum’s director, in a historical note that complements Anfam’s essay.
In 1978 Still wrote a one-page will leaving over 2,400 works on canvas and paper to any American city that agreed to keep and house ‘in permanent quarters’ the entire collection, selling nothing and showing only Still. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no city agreed. Rolled like rugs in a furniture store, the paintings stood out of sight in an isolated Maryland barn. In Anfam’s nice phrase, the Still bequest became Ab-Ex’s ‘white whale’.
Then in 2003, Denver, Colorado, keen to raise its cultural profile, suddenly agreed to honour Still’s terms. A go-ahead mayor, John Hickenlooper, talked up private money for a Still museum. Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture in Portland, Oregon, designed an ideal small building that serves Still’s work well. Sculpted ceiling grids filter the Rocky Mountain light. The warm grey concrete walls outside are grooved with a ragged pinstripe – those verticals again.
To run the museum, more money was needed. As a condition of taking the bequest, the city had declined to guarantee upkeep. So the terms of the will were re-interpreted to permit a one-off de-accession, and accordingly in November 2011 four prized works went under the Sotheby’s hammer. After commission and lawyers, the city of Denver had plenty left over from the $114m sale proceeds to run the museum for a good while to come. Maybe Still was not so terrible at self-promotion after all.
Still’s reputation has gone up and down over the years. It is unlikely to settle until curators finish sifting and restoring his huge bequest of 825 paintings, including 300 Ab-Ex works plus work on paper. As they do, the hang will rotate. Plenty of Still questions remain open. It is hard to picture a better setting in which to answer them.
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