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

At first, all you see is black. The work is like a six-foot-by-five-foot black hole sucking you and everything else nearby into it. You cannot escape its pull, and so you step a bit closer, and you see the texture of the black pigment, raw lavalike hunks of paint coming off the canvas. It’s as if the paint itself is fighting the laws of physics—this piece, this painting, is not two dimensional. It’s three dimensional. Now, step even closer and you see that the painting isn’t really black after all. It’s mostly black, but there’s a narrow, red, vertical ribbon or cord or cable of paint ever so slightly off center.

Your eyes drift until they reach the lower left of the painting, and, again—red. Here, the bright paint moves from the lower left edge of the canvas to the corner, and then along the bottom until it fades to black. It’s like a little frame, like the rest of the piece somehow, almost magically, is being held up by this red, truncated border.

Why red? Why place the red in these seemingly random spots on this black monolith? (You know the placement isn’t random, but, still, you wonder....) Is the red on top of the black, or is the black on top of the red with the red pushing through the darkness, fighting to be seen? There are no clues from the creator, because, as with his other works, this one is untitled. And, yet, you want to know: What is Clyfford Still saying to us here? What are we to feel looking at this work? It’s difficult to feel joy in the presence of this dark, heavy canvas. But you know, too, that it’s at least possible that sadness was not what he was conveying either; Still didn’t buy into the stereotypical connotations associated with the color black. What you’re left with is a feeling that’s neither joyful nor melancholy, but rather pure, awe-inspiring willfulness, power, and energy.

It was works like this 1951 painting, now in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, that led the art critic Clement Greenberg to publish an essay in the Partisan Review, “American-Type Painting,” in 1955 that crowned Still as the king of the abstract expressionists. Greenberg, who’d previously championed Pollock, wrote that Still was “one of the most important and original painters of our time—perhaps the most original of all painters under 55, if not the best.”

It was a pointed reversal of Life’s histrionics six years earlier with the Pollock feature, and although the Partisan Review did not have the popular reach of Life, among those in the hothouse of the Manhattan art world, it was a much more important assessment. Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, felt betrayed. And whether it was coincidence or not, Still wasn’t invited to Pollock’s solo show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan. Pollock, finally, found himself on the receiving end of one of Still’s biting letters:

Dear Jack,

I did not receive an invitation to your show. This makes me somewhat curious. Is it that you are ashamed of it? Or are you ashamed of what you are willing to take from those who know how to use you to express their contempt for the artist as a man? It’s a hell of a price to pay, isn’t it?

Yours most sincerely, Clyff

Pollock kept the letter in a drawer in his kitchen and read it over and over. In Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, Steven Naifeh writes that “[t]o be alone with this letter, it was clear, was more than he could bear,” and Pollock’s friend, Nick Carone, said: “This touched his core…I never saw such weeping.”

Despite the scathing letter, the men remained in touch. Still had even gone to Pollock’s house on Long Island in 1956. That night, like so many during that time, Pollock was drunk. Whereas Still’s status in the art world had changed primarily because of the vicious letters he sent to museums, gallery owners, and artists, Pollock’s star was dimming because of a creative stasis and his alcoholism. About a year after he’d written Pollock the infamous letter, Still suggested Pollock join him on a road trip. The plan was to drive their own cars from New York, meet in Pennsylvania, and then, together, head to the West that had shaped both of them indelibly.

Still waited on the designated day in Pennsylvania at the designated time when the two men were to meet to begin their journey. Maybe Pollock had gotten lost. Maybe he’d been so drunk he had forgotten the plan. It didn’t matter—he wasn’t there, and Still hopped back into his Jag and continued westward. Several days later, by the time he’d made it to Wisconsin, Still opened up a newspaper and learned that Pollock had died in a car accident not far from his home in the Hamptons. He’d been drunk and drove his car into a tree. “If he’d come, he might still be alive today,” Still said 20 years after Pollock’s death. “He could have had a fresh start.”

By the time Pollock had died, Still and Rothko’s close friendship had dissolved. In Still’s view, Rothko had become aggressively commercial and Still disavowed Rothko’s body of work. “His need for sycophants and flattery, and his resentment of everyone, or every truth, that might stand in his path to bourgeois success, could no longer be ignored,” Still wrote to Sidney Janis in 1955. After their split, Rothko, in part confirming Still’s analysis, wanted to know what Still said about him privately; in one instance, a mutual friend relayed to Rothko that Still had said he believed Rothko was “living an evil, untrue life.” Years later, in February 1970, Rothko was found dead in his Manhattan apartment. He’d slashed his arms just below the elbows and bled to death.