Clyfford Still - Biography and Legacy
Grandin, North Dakota
Biography of Clyfford Still
Born in Grandin, North Dakota, in 1904, Clyfford Still spent his formative years in Spokane, Washington and in Alberta, Canada, where his family maintained a wheat ranch in what was then the last outpost of the North American frontier. Though he later denied its significance, the vast, flat landscape and harsh lifestyle of the Canadian prairie would exert a lasting influence on his worldview and artistic practice.
After a brief stint at the Art Students League in New York, Still returned to Washington in 1926 and enrolled in Spokane University. He studied painting, literature and philosophy throughout the next decade, graduating from Spokane in 1933 and receiving a Masters in Fine Arts from Washington State College in 1935. He would stay on to teach at Washington State for several years.
Still's paintings from this period range from brooding agrarian scenes reminiscent of American Regionalism, such as Untitled(Indian Houses, Nespelem)(1936), to more Surrealist-inspired works such as Untitled(1935) in which the human body is reduced to almost completely abstract forms. Yet the underlying theme of all these works seems to be man's attempt to survive in an unforgiving environment - a notion that is sometimes symbolized by vertical shapes rising in defiance against a horizontal landscape. During this period, we see the emergence of the color scheme (dark, earthy tones punctuated by flashes of bright colors) and technique (thick layers of paint applied with a palette knife) that would dominate the artist's entire oeuvre.
Still relocated several times in the early 1940s, first to California (where he befriended Mark Rothko), then to Virginia (where he taught at the Richmond Professional Institute), and finally to New York in 1945. This was the beginning of an exceptionally fruitful period for him and the paintings he exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery, in 1946, evidenced by a unique and revolutionary style on the cusp of maturity. In these monumentally scaled works, all recognizably human forms have been discarded and replaced by flame-like shapes that rise vertically through dark and expansive fields. Along with his adoption of a non-representational style, Still also began to shy from the use of referential titles for his compositions, and would eventually settle on a nomenclature composed entirely of numbers and dates. 1944 -N No.2, from 1944, is typical of both his style and titling in this period.
In the context of American painting, Still's paintings from this period mark a highly original advance into abstraction, and they would prove very influential on the New York artists who would later become the chief exponents of Abstract Expressionism. Yet despite his association with these artists, Still bristled at the notion that he was part of any school or movement, and he remained a self-styled outsider. In fact, despite his activity in New York, Still spent a great deal of time on the West Coast during these years. He composed much of his work there and began an influential teaching tenure at the California School of Fine Arts in 1947.
Still returned to New York in 1950 and spent the majority of the next decade in the city. He continued to explore and expand upon his signature themes, refining his motifs and introducing new elements to his work. Most notably, he began to include areas of bare canvas in his paintings and started working on increasingly horizontal compositions. However, a notoriously cantankerous character, Still grew even more disillusioned with the New York art scene. He clashed with most of his contemporaries - resulting in the termination of long friendships with Rothko, Pollock and Newman - and severed ties to his galleries. In 1957, he even turned down an invitation to exhibit his work in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Around this time, Still also began to place severe restrictions on how institutions could lend and exhibit his paintings. In many instances, he even refused to allow any other artists to be shown alongside his work.
Later Years and Death
In 1961, Still relocated to a farm in Westminster, Maryland. He continued making art until his death in 1980, but never re-entered the New York art scene, which he saw as hopelessly frivolous and decadent. Instead, he worked in seclusion, showing his paintings only when he could exert complete control over the circumstances of their exhibition.
The Legacy of Clyfford Still
Because of the restrictions Still imposed on the collection and exhibition of his paintings, the majority of his work remained unseen until the city of Denver was able to build a museum devoted to Still in 2011. Historically, appraisals of his oeuvre have tended to revolve as much around the discussion of his difficult personality as they have around the critique of his life's work. However, considering the influence Still exerted over his New York School contemporaries, it is clear that his paintings were hugely important for the establishment of Abstract Expressionism. It is also clear that Still, both by teaching and through example, continued to be a powerful influence on countless artists in the years that followed.