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Artists Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still Photo

Clyfford Still

American Painter

Movement: Abstract Expressionism

Born: November 30, 1904 - Grandin, North Dakota

Died: June 23, 1980 - Baltimore, Maryland

Clyfford Still Timeline


"I'm not interested in illustrating my time. A man's 'time' limits him, it does not truly liberate him. Our age - it is of science - of mechanism - of power and death. I see no virtue in adding to its mammoth arrogance the compliment of graphic homage."
Clyfford Still
"I never wanted color to be color. I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit."
Clyfford Still
"My work is not influenced by anybody."
Clyfford Still
"As before, the pictures are to be without titles of any kind. I want no allusions to interfere with or assist the spectator. Before them I want him to be on his own, and if he finds in them an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look to the state of his own soul."
Clyfford Still
"You can turn the lights out. The paintings will carry their own fire."
Clyfford Still
"It's intolerable to be stopped by a frame's edge."
Clyfford Still

"These are not paintings in the usual sense; they are life and death merging in fearful union. As for me, they kindle a fire; through them I breathe again, hold a golden cord, find my own revelation."


Although not as widely known as some of his New York School contemporaries, Clyfford Still was the first to break through to a new and radically abstract style devoid of obvious subject matter. His mature pictures employ great fields of color to evoke dramatic conflicts between man and nature taking place on a monumental scale. "These are not paintings in the usual sense," he once said, "they are life and death merging in fearful union.. they kindle a fire; through them I breathe again, hold a golden cord, find my own revelation." A believer in art's moral value in a disorienting modern world, Still would go on to influence a second generation of Color Field painters.

Key Ideas

Still's overriding theme is the existential struggle of the human spirit against the forces of nature, a notion that finds expression in the vertical forms that reach defiantly through the majority of his compositions, and a struggle he evoked in his phrase "the vertical necessity of life."
His expansive fields of color have sometimes been likened to caves or vast abysses momentarily illuminated by crackling flares of light.
Still's progression to purely abstract painting in the mid-1940s predated and influenced a similar move to non-representational art by his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries.
Still was a notoriously difficult character who often shunned the New York art world, resisted most critiques of his work and went to exceptional lengths to control how his paintings were sold, collected and exhibited.

Most Important Art

Clyfford Still Famous Art

1948-C (1948)

1948-C serves as a perfect example of Still's mature style as it appeared in the mid to late 1940s: figuration has disappeared entirely, to be replaced by nothing but a strange, crackling field of color. The work features characteristically dramatic relationships between compositional elements - foreground and background; light and dark - relationships that the artist thought of as "life and death merging in fearful union." It is also characteristic of Still's work from the late 1940s in being dominated by colors drawn from a palette at the extreme end of the spectrum - here, hot yellows.
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Clyfford Still Artworks in Focus:



Born in Grandin, North Dakota, in 1904, Clyfford Still spent his formative years in Spokane, Washington and in Alberta, Canada, where his family maintained a wheat ranch in what was then the last outpost of the North American frontier. Though he later denied its significance, the vast, flat landscape and harsh lifestyle of the Canadian prairie would exert a lasting influence on his worldview and artistic practice.

Early Training

Clyfford Still Biography

After a brief stint at the Art Students League in New York, Still returned to Washington in 1926 and enrolled in Spokane University. He studied painting, literature and philosophy throughout the next decade, graduating from Spokane in 1933 and receiving a Masters in Fine Arts from Washington State College in 1935. He would stay on to teach at Washington State for several years.

Still's paintings from this period range from brooding agrarian scenes reminiscent of American Regionalism, such as Untitled(Indian Houses, Nespelem)(1936), to more Surrealist-inspired works such as Untitled(1935) in which the human body is reduced to almost completely abstract forms. Yet the underlying theme of all these works seems to be man's attempt to survive in an unforgiving environment - a notion that is sometimes symbolized by vertical shapes rising in defiance against a horizontal landscape. During this period, we see the emergence of the color scheme (dark, earthy tones punctuated by flashes of bright colors) and technique (thick layers of paint applied with a palette knife) that would dominate the artist's entire oeuvre.

Mature Period

Still relocated several times in the early 1940s, first to California (where he befriended Mark Rothko), then to Virginia (where he taught at the Richmond Professional Institute), and finally to New York in 1945. This was the beginning of an exceptionally fruitful period for him and the paintings he exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery, in 1946, evidenced by a unique and revolutionary style on the cusp of maturity. In these monumentally scaled works, all recognizably human forms have been discarded and replaced by flame-like shapes that rise vertically through dark and expansive fields. Along with his adoption of a non-representational style, Still also began to shy from the use of referential titles for his compositions, and would eventually settle on a nomenclature composed entirely of numbers and dates. 1944 -N No.2, from 1944, is typical of both his style and titling in this period.

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Clyfford Still Biography Continues
Clyfford Still Photo

In the context of American painting, Still's paintings from this period mark a highly original advance into abstraction, and they would prove very influential on the New York artists who would later become the chief exponents of Abstract Expressionism. Yet despite his association with these artists, Still bristled at the notion that he was part of any school or movement, and he remained a self-styled outsider. In fact, despite his activity in New York, Still spent a great deal of time on the West Coast during these years. He composed much of his work there and began an influential teaching tenure at the California School of Fine Arts in 1947.

Still returned to New York in 1950 and spent the majority of the next decade in the city. He continued to explore and expand upon his signature themes, refining his motifs and introducing new elements to his work. Most notably, he began to include areas of bare canvas in his paintings and started working on increasingly horizontal compositions. However, a notoriously cantankerous character, Still grew even more disillusioned with the New York art scene. He clashed with most of his contemporaries - resulting in the termination of long friendships with Rothko, Pollock and Newman - and severed ties to his galleries. In 1957, he even turned down an invitation to exhibit his work in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Around this time, Still also began to place severe restrictions on how institutions could lend and exhibit his paintings. In many instances, he even refused to allow any other artists to be shown alongside his work.

Later Years and Death

In 1961, Still relocated to a farm in Westminster, Maryland. He continued making art until his death in 1980, but never re-entered the New York art scene, which he saw as hopelessly frivolous and decadent. Instead, he worked in seclusion, showing his paintings only when he could exert complete control over the circumstances of their exhibition.


Clyfford Still Portrait

Because of the restrictions Still imposed on the collection and exhibition of his paintings, the majority of his work remained unseen until the city of Denver was able to build a museum devoted to Still in 2011. Historically, appraisals of his oeuvre have tended to revolve as much around the discussion of his difficult personality as they have around the critique of his life's work. However, considering the influence Still exerted over his New York School contemporaries, it is clear that his paintings were hugely important for the establishment of Abstract Expressionism. It is also clear that Still, both by teaching and through example, continued to be a powerful influence on countless artists in the years that followed.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Clyfford Still
Interactive chart with Clyfford Still's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart


Paul CézannePaul Cézanne
Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso
William BlakeWilliam Blake


Jane Ellen HarrisonJane Ellen Harrison
Sir James FrazerSir James Frazer
Friedrich NietzscheFriedrich Nietzsche


American RegionalismAmerican Regionalism
Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still
Years Worked: 1933 - 1980


Barnett NewmanBarnett Newman


Mark RothkoMark Rothko
Alfonso OssorioAlfonso Ossorio
Jackson PollockJackson Pollock


Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
Bay Area PaintersBay Area Painters
Washington Color SchoolWashington Color School

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Content compiled and written by David Kupperberg

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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Useful Resources on Clyfford Still





The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.


Clyfford Still

By Katherine Kuh; Edited by John P. O'Neill

Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique Recomended resource

Edited by Ellen G. Landau
Big resource on Abstract Expressionism that includes analysis of Still's works.

The most influential artist you've probably never heard of Recomended resource

By Jim Spellman
June 9, 2012

Clyfford Still, Paul Cézanne, and Posterity

By Kent Minturn

Art Review; Why Clyfford Still's Art Stayed Hidden for 30 Years Recomended resource

December 2011

Art Review; Clyfford Still's Sublime Art Recomended resource

By Peter Plagens
December 13, 2011

More Interesting Articles about Clyfford Still
The Man in a Long Black Coat Recomended resource

Short video by the Smithsonian

Clyfford Still: A Life in Paintings Recomended resource

By ClyffordStillMuseum

Contemporary: Still Recomended resource

By SothebysTV

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