Clyfford Still
Biography of American Abstract Expressionist Painter.

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Clyfford Still (1904-1980)


Early Life
World War II and aftermath
1950s: Abstract Expressionism
Colour Field Painting

See: Greatest 20th Century Paintings.


A pioneer of abstract art, the North Dakota-born American painter Clyfford Still was one of the leading figures in the New York School of avant-garde Abstract Expressionism, which took root in the 1940s and became the predominant style of painting until its replacement by Pop art during the mid-1960s. Associated in particular with the school of Colour Field Painting, which he co-founded with Mark Rothko (1903-70), and Barnett Newman (1905-70), Clyfford Still typically worked on a very large scale, his signature style being a jagged form, in heavy impasto, silhouetted in dramatic contrast against a broad, even plane of colour. In simple terms, he was the only painter to combine the luminosity of Colour Field painting with the dynamic gesturalism of Action Painting (compare Mark Rothko's Paintings).

A pioneer of the Abstract Expressionist style, Still was arguably the most anti-traditional of modern artists in New York, who also included Philip Guston (1913-80), Franz Kline (1910-62), Willem De Kooning (1904-97), Josef Albers (1888-1976), Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74), William Baziotes (1912-63), Robert Motherwell (1915-91), Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and his wife Lee Krasner (1908-84). Clyfford Still is considered a major figure of modern art in America and one of the great abstract painters. (See American Art:1750-present).



Early Life

Clyfford Still was born in Grandin, North Dakota and grew up in Spokane, Washington and in southern Alberta, Canada. In 1933, he graduated from Spokane University in Washington, and two years later received a Masters in Fine Arts from Washington State College, where he accepted a post as a teacher (1935-41). His formative works of this period show an expressive figurative style, while his subjects are mainly drawn from rural farm life, and include the people, buildings, tools and machinery typical of the environment. (In 1937, in company with Worth Griffin, he founded the Nespelem Art Colony, producing a large number of portraits and landscapes about life on the Colville Indian Reservation.)

Towards the end of the 1930s, Still began to simplify his forms as his style of painting moved away from representational forms and he was drawn towards the ever more fashionable abstract art movements.


World War II and aftermath

In 1941 Clyfford Still moved to San Francisco where, after working in various war industries (1941-3), he taught for two years at the Richmond Professional Institute (part of Virginia Commonwealth University). After this, he lived briefly in New York where, in 1946, he had a solo exhibition at The Art of This Century gallery, owned by Peggy Guggenheim. Although he was somewhat detached from the other Abstract Expressionists, he became firm friends with Mark Rothko, sharing a similar fervour for colour-based abstraction.

From 1946 to 1950, Still returned to teach in San Francisco, becoming an influential professor at the California School of Fine Arts - now the San Francisco Art Institute. It was during this period that he achieved his mature style, at the same time establishing a growing reputation with New York's two major venues of modern art - Peggy Guggenheim's The Art of This Century Gallery and the Betty Parsons gallery. The influential art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-94) later wrote that when he first saw a 1948 painting of Still's, he was struck by how estranging and upsetting genuine originality in art was.

1950s: Abstract Expressionism

Clyfford Still spent most of the 1950s in New York, where, despite his new-found stature as a leading Abstract Expressionist, he was becoming less and less tolerant of the arts establishment. In 1961, he moved to Maryland, severing ties with many dealers, art critics and commercial galleries. Seeing himself as a loner, who needed privacy and quiet to pursue his unique artistic vision, he gained something of a reputation for pretentiousness, in the process. In any event, he was to remain in Maryland with his second wife, Patricia, for the rest of his life. In 1979, he was awarded a major retropective exhibition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Still died in 1980, after which all paintings of his not already in the public domain were formed into a special archive and removed from view. In August 2004, it was announced that the City of Denver had been selected by the trustees for the Clyfford Still Estate to receive all paintings by the artist, a total of over 800 paintings on canvas and 1500 drawings and limited-edition fine-art prints, amounting to some 95 percent of Still's entire output. The proposed Clyfford Still museum, due to open in 2010 will also act as the repository for the complete artistic archive of Still's sketchbooks, journals, and other materials.

Clyfford Still's Colour Field Painting

Still's abstract paintings are non-objective (that is, contain no "objects"), and mostly involve the juxtapositioning of different colours and surfaces in a variety of arrangements, often suggestive of ancient stalagmites, caverns, or foliage. In contrast to contemporaries like Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman whose abstract expressionist painting contained patterns of colours arranged in a relatively straightforward manner (eg. Rothko's rectangles, Newman's immense fields of colour with their thin dividing lines), Still's arrangements are less regular. His jagged shapes of colour give the impression that one layer of colour has been "torn" off the surface of the painting, to reveal the colours below. In addition, while Rothko and Newman employed flat unmodulated hues of relatively thin paint, Still used heavily loaded and expressively modulated impasto, crudely applied with palette knife and trowel, which gave his works noticeable variety of depth and tone.


Works by Clyfford Still can be seen in several of the world's best art museums, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Guggenheim Museum New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Now regarded as one of the great 20th century painters of America, his commercial value remains high, boosted no doubt by the relative scarcity of his work. The most expensive painting by Clyfford Still was sold at Christie's in 2006 for just over $21 million.

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