Feature

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

They were called the “Irascibles.” There were 15 of them, all prominent abstract artists who had recently lodged a protest against the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the high temple of American visual arts, in Manhattan. They’d written and signed an open letter that argued the Met was “notoriously hostile to advanced art,” which in this case meant contemporary, and particularly abstract, art. The New York Times wrote about the letter on its front page. Then, in January 1951, Life magazine published a photo of the group. The imprimatur of Life, and the assemblage of these avant-garde artists in one place, demonstrated the growing acceptance (and more accurately, the gravitas) of the group, the members of which were variously referred to as the “abstract expressionists” or “the New York School.”

Still’s closest friend in the image was Rothko. They’d met in 1943 in Berkeley, California, and two years later, Rothko introduced Still to the influential contemporary art collector Peggy Guggenheim, who owned a gallery called Art of This Century on West 57th Street. In Rothko: A Biography, James E. B. Breslin quotes a friend of the two men who described Rothko as “the epitome of the New York Jewish intellectual artist/painter [who] exuded an entirely different kind of energy, urbane, deep intent,” while Still had an “austere puritan almost Calvinist manner.” There were other differences, too. Chief among them: Still was supremely confident in himself and his vision of a solitary life devoted to art. Rothko was insecure, needed constant approval, and longed for the trappings of the upper-middle-class bourgeoisie.

Despite their personalities, they became close and encouraged each other in their respective developments as artists. In the summer of 1947, Still and Rothko began discussing the founding of an art school, which eventually became known as the Subjects of the Artist. The school opened in the fall of 1948 in downtown Manhattan, but earlier that year Still had backed out of the project because of philosophical differences with the other artists involved.

Jackson Pollock was the unrivaled star of the group in the photo. He’d been featured, solo, in an earlier Life magazine feature in August 1949, titled “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” which described the Wyoming native, who was 37 at the time, as “the shining new phenomenon of American art.” Still surely took a dim view of Life’s provocative pronouncement on Pollock, given Still’s ample self-regard and his views on criticism and mass culture: He called critics “the butchers who make hamburger of us for the public gut.” (Still did cooperate with the “Irascibles” photo shoot; he may have been condescending toward the media, but he was also not above manipulating the press if it served a purpose—in this case, sticking it to the stuffy, elitist Met.)

Yet Still also maintained a friendly, if not overly close, relationship with Pollock. Once, Pollock, who often became belligerent when drinking, challenged Still. “One night somewhere along the line, Dad went drink for drink with him, and then took him home,” Still’s youngest daughter, Sandra Still Campbell, says. “Dad was not a drinker, but he was a man of intellect and control, and I think it was kind of a mind-over-matter thing. So, after drinking him under the table, he put Jackson to bed, walked it off, and that was it.” Of Pollock’s paintings, Still once wrote in a letter to the artist: “What each work said, and what its position, what each achieved you must know.… It was that here a man had been at work, at the profoundest work a man can do, facing up to what he is and aspires to.”

 

Still’s carefully chosen words could exalt, but more often he constructed prose to eviscerate. Dealers, galleries, collectors, academics, and museums: No individual or institution was spared his sharp, often angry, wit. Galleries were “brothels.” Museums were “gas chambers.” With a brush or trowel or palette knife in his hand, Still created transcendent works of emotional depth and artistic vision. With a pen in his hand, Still created discord, baited friends and enemies alike, and left a permanent record of vitriol that stands out even among a group of people—that is, visual artists—that are known for their dissatisfaction with the world.

He was not cynical, though. He was not intellectually lazy or dishonest. He was not mean for the sake of being mean. Still instead lived by a rigid code that was borne of his study of Romanticism and the notion that art could not only change how we perceive and make sense of life, but also could indeed change the world. And with that messianic belief came the need to defend a worldview that was inscrutable to some, off-putting to others, but which was remarkably consistent at a time—the post-World War II era—in which moral relativism had reached a new low. He was binary: You were right or you were wrong; or, more precisely, he was right and you were wrong. In the context of the postwar art world, the result of his unyielding morality and his unwillingness to kowtow to social convention meant Still became an outsider by his own doing.

He was born on November 30, 1904, in Grandin, North Dakota, but before his first birthday, the family moved to a small bungalow in Spokane, Washington. It was the first of countless moves that would mark Still’s itinerant life. His father, Elmer, had a college degree and worked as an accountant in Spokane before he moved the family again in 1910, this time to a 160-acre homestead in Alberta, about four hours southeast of Calgary.

For years, the family would work the land during the summers in Canada. Elmer would hire Swedish men to do the labor on the farm, and his son was obligated to help. Of the work, Still once said, “My arms have been bloody to the elbows shucking wheat.” One time, the family was building a well on the farm; to discern the progress of the project, a rope was fastened around their only child’s ankles, and the boy was lowered upside down into the well. Each autumn, with the harvest over, the family would go back to Spokane, where Elmer would return to his accounting business.

It was a difficult, solitary childhood: the austere landscape of the prairie; the lonely mother, Sarah, isolated on the homestead; the taciturn Scottish father. Young Still’s relationship with his father was tumultuous at best. Weeks, at times months, would pass during which Elmer would not speak to Sarah or their child, yet it was Elmer who bought Still his first set of oil paints and canvases when the boy was about 15 years old. Not long after that, when Still left the farm, it was also Elmer who destroyed more than 30 paintings made with that set of paints. Years later, Still said the only traits he’d inherited from Elmer were “doubt and laziness.”

He attended Edison Grammar School in Spokane, but Still immersed himself in library books as a child and later said that these tomes were his true education. He studied books like Masters Everyone Should Know, read the John L. Stoddard Lectures about Stoddard’s world travels, and he and his mother once found a collection of magazines that had color reproductions of classic art works. “He was so isolated that he had to fill that free time,” says Sandra Still Campbell. “He filled it with these books and good music, and that was his universe. He traveled the world through those books.”

When he was 12, he saw reproductions of several paintings that had a lasting influence on him, one of which was Rembrandt’s “Portrait of his Son, Titus.” The portrait is remarkable in its delicate depiction of the boy: soft, alabaster cheeks and dark, sleepy eyes that avert the gaze of the viewer. What did the young Still see in this painting? He saw a master technician, yes, but there was more: the thick paint, the texture, the raw emotion that comes through in the brushstrokes. In this work, did Still see something of himself? In Titus’ tender face, rendered by a clearly adoring father, did Still see a love and paternal affection that he could only imagine? Had the isolated farm boy, an only child, finally connected with someone, or something, that triggered something profound and life-altering not only in his mind, but also in his restless soul?

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