Clyfford Still’s Unyielding Will

This month, the Clyfford Still Museum opens downtown, a shrine to one of the greatest—and least-known—painters of the 20th century. Why Denver? The answer lies in the artist’s irascible life.

November 2011

The man with the deep-set hazel eyes and an unkempt wave of white hair sat in a taxicab, bound for a sprawling estate in East Hampton, New York, called the Creeks. A heavily wooded 57 acres, the Creeks is bordered on three sides by a coastal lagoon. Just beyond the southern edge of the lagoon, the waves of the Atlantic crash on one of the most exclusive beaches in the United States. In the cab with the man, Clyfford Still, were his wife and one of their two daughters. It remains unclear whether Still’s family was aware that he was carrying a knife.

It was December 1957. Still had been to this secluded place before; he had lived on the land during two previous summers in a small cottage that he rented from the Creeks’ wealthy owner: artist, gallery owner, and patron Alfonso Ossorio. The two had become friends in the early part of the decade when abstract expressionism, and its creators—men with names like Pollock and Rothko and de Kooning and Still—were transforming the postwar American art scene. It was here, at the Creeks, at the far eastern edge of the country, that Still had isolated himself in a barn and created work that would resonate far beyond the cloistered world of Manhattan’s museums and galleries. They were massive abstract paintings, streaks of color cutting across bleak backdrops, seemingly carved into thick skins of paint. It was work that would buttress his reputation as a master of abstract expressionism—one who was highlighted in Life magazine and singled out as one of the most important figures in 20th-century art by the pre-eminent art critic of the era.

When the taxi arrived at the Mediterranean-style villa after the short drive from the Montauk Highway, Still made his way from the car to the home’s front door and was let in by a servant, who informed Still that Ossorio was busy. Really, Ossorio was of little concern to Still; he brushed by the servant into the house and searched until he found what he was looking for: a massive dark blue and Indian red painting. Still had given Ossorio the painting years earlier, but recently the two had had a disagreement. Still appears to have thought that Ossorio caved in to the unsavory political and commercial pressures of the contemporary art world, which, in Still’s mind, was unforgivable. Still had asked for the painting back. Ossorio refused.

Having found his painting, Still considered the piece for a few moments, locked the room’s door, and punctured the canvas with the blade of his knife. He then slid the knife across one side of the painting, to the next, and then the next, until finally he’d cut the center—the heart, as he would say—out of the work of art.

Whether creating art or destroying it, Still always acted with extraordinary precision: He hadn’t slashed the painting haphazardly, although there was a brutal violence in the act. Instead, when he was done, all that was left was an even border of canvas inside the frame. Still rolled up the excised portion of the painting, tucked it under his arm, and walked out of the room, out of the house, and back to the waiting cab.

As the taxi pulled away, Still’s wife and daughter could see Ossorio, Still’s onetime friend, as he looked out the window of his home, his face pale, his neck outstretched in terror. Still’s words were in Ossorio’s head: “When I give you an order about my work,” Still had said on his way out, “you obey me!”