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.
The young man sat in the rigid seats of a transcontinental train as it rattled its way from the endless horizon of southeast Alberta, Canada, toward New York City. It was November 1925. Still would turn 21 in just a few days, and for the first time, he was going to New York to study art and, he wrote, “to visit the Metropolitan Museum and see at first hand the paintings I had learned to love through my study of their reproductions.”
Once he’d arrived in the city, Still sat on the steps of the Met and waited for the museum to open to see the work of the Old World masters, including Rembrandt’s “Portrait of his Son, Titus.” “He left disappointed,” Sandra Still Campbell says today. “The paintings were stacked two and three above each other. It was a suffocating building, a very oppressive environment.” Still himself said he did not like how the museum organized the art (by similar artists) and objected to its canonization of works that would “glorify popes and kings or decorate the walls of rich men.”
Even at 21, the opinionated, talented, ambitious, and self-assured Still had begun to cut a path for himself that was at odds with the status quo. That same year he enrolled in classes at the Art Students League in Manhattan. Forty-five minutes later he quit. “The exercises and results I observed I had already explored for myself some years before,” he said, “and had rejected most of them as a waste of time.” He left New York and returned to the West.
By then, Still had become close with a woman from Spokane named Lillian August Battan. The Battan and Still families knew each other, and Clyfford and Lillian, who had light-blue eyes and curly red-auburn hair and high cheekbones, had been friends for years. Lillian studied piano; her mother’s ambition was for her to be a concert pianist, but Lillian wanted to be a librarian. They were a perfect pair, the painter and the aspiring archivist. When they were in their early 20s, Clyfford proposed to Lillian on a bridge that crossed the Spokane River. The couple married around 1930.
Lillian was the eldest of four children and growing up had acted as a surrogate mother for her siblings when her mother, a devout Methodist, was attending to church business. Clyfford and Lillian never planned to have children. Clyfford had painting, which was all-encompassing, and Lillian felt as if she’d already raised three kids. She was more than happy to forego having children of her own and instead looked forward to supporting Still’s artistic labors.
Between 1933 and 1941, Still painted and taught at Washington State College, where he was awarded a master’s degree (he did not do any coursework for the degree, but he did write a master’s thesis on Paul Cézanne) and achieved the position of assistant professor of fine arts, while Lillian taught piano when she could find a student. The summers of 1934 and ’35, which Still spent as a resident at Yaddo, an artists’ retreat established by the Trask Foundation in Saratoga Springs, New York, were seminal in Still’s development as an artist. “These months provided the first absolute free time of his life,” according to a biography that accompanies the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art catalog from 1976. “Even during childhood the demands of helping his father with farm work and of school were an ever-present drudgery and responsibility. Here he could dream, think, paint or converse with others at the Foundation.”
The freedom afforded him was monumental. His paintings from this time became increasingly abstract and Still honed the philosophy that served as a foundation for his work; he began to describe painting “as an instrument of inner comprehension.” In other words, instead of illustrating external life as we know it—portraits, for example, or still lifes or landscapes—he wanted to push deeper. As far as Still was concerned he was painting nothing less than the landscape of the human soul. Rembrandt painted what made him feel; Still painted feeling itself. “What makes it work is what isn’t there,” he said. “It is what we feel in Rembrandt beyond the physical. I wanted to strip everything away. Every canon of art I wanted to cut through. I am trying to do the impossible, to point out potentials, to clear the way, to break the boundaries.”
Despite their ambivalence about having children, the Stills had two daughters by 1942. Diane Still was born in 1939; Sandra was born three years later. “He never planned to have a family, so there was always a tug-of-war,” Sandra Still Campbell says. “We might go a year and a half, two years, without seeing him. And then we’d look out the window and Dad’s Jaguar was parked outside. Dad’s in town! It was always a surprise, but he had to paint.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Still was not wired to be a father. Elmer had shown Still how not to be a dad, but Still fell into similar traps. Often, he simply wasn’t there. When he was, Still was remote, imperious, superior. Children and their needs were mundane: They sapped his energy, energy that could be used in the hard work of creating art.
The few moments the girls did share with their father, then, were all the more meaningful. They look back on those times as sepia photographs in their minds’ eye: seeing the Jaguar Mark IV pull up. Taking the car to the Auto Works shop with their dad and watching the mechanics work on the engine. Lunch trips the family would make to the wharf in San Francisco for crab sandwiches and clam chowder. “I can remember the day I was still in grade school, seventh or eighth grade,” Sandra Still Campbell says. “Dad came to Spokane and he got us up before sunrise and drove us to Lake Coeur D’Alene. We watched the sun come up; we snoozed in the car until the diner opened up for pancakes. And I don’t know how he did it, because this was the man who was always on the move and contemplating, and he sat on the edge of a picnic table and watched us splash in the water for hours.”
By 1941, Still, Lillian, and the two girls had moved to San Francisco, where Still taught at the California School of Fine Arts and worked in the shipyards for the Navy as the United States ramped up its war efforts. With Still absent from home much of the time, Lillian found herself reliving her earlier years as a de facto single parent. If Still wasn’t much of a father, he was also not much of a husband. He had neither the patience nor the inclination to take care of the prosaic day-to-day responsibilities that make a functioning family life possible; Lillian handled virtually everything. After long days, Still would have students over to his family’s San Francisco apartment in the evenings, and Lillian, who had become resentful of so much burden and so little assistance, was expected to serve cookies and coffee.
Into this domestic dysfunction wandered Patricia Alice Garske, a graceful, blond-haired artist who first met Still in 1937 or 1938, when she was one of his students at Washington State. Garske, who was 16 years Still’s junior, eventually followed Still to the Bay Area, and they embarked on a romantic relationship that was a point of contention in the Garske family—and especially angered Patricia’s mother.
Still and Lillian began living even more separate lives and finally separated in the late 1940s. Throughout that decade, Still moved back and forth between San Francisco, Canada, and New York, while Lillian and the girls shuttled between San Francisco and Washington state.
Still and Garske left California for good in 1950 and settled in New York, although Clyfford and Lillian were still married. (The couple formalized their divorce in 1954.) Whereas Lillian had become bitter over the family’s domestic arrangements, Patricia turned her life over to support Still’s painting. She gave up her own ambitions as an artist and in New York took a job as an accountant for Standard Oil Company. She would take dictation from Still; she managed the couple’s finances and logistics—if the couple were on a road trip, Patricia would make the hotel arrangements—and cooked meals on a hot plate for Still at his studio on West 23rd Street. They were married in 1957.
Lillian and Still remained friendly until her death in 1977, but the marriage had taken an emotional toll on her. Even after their split, the cult of Still’s singular personality continued to influence her: He had told her he didn’t want his daughters around another male figure, and after the divorce Lillian never remarried, or even dated other men.