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Artists Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still

American Painter

Movements: Abstract Expressionism

Born: November 30, 1904 - Grandin, North Dakota

Died: June 23, 1980 - Baltimore, Maryland

Quotes

"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
"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."
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

Synopsis

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

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.
Oil on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
More Art Works


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Biography

Childhood

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.

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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.

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.

Legacy

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.

Influnces 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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Artists

Paul Cézanne
Pablo Picasso
William Blake

Friends

Jane Ellen Harrison
Sir James Frazer
Friedrich Nietzsche

Movements

Cubism
Surrealism
American Regionalism
Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still
Years Worked: 1933 - 1980

Artists

Barnett Newman

Friends

Mark Rothko
Alfonso Ossorio
Jackson Pollock

Movements

Abstract Expressionism
Bay Area Painters
Washington Color School

Original content written by David Kupperberg

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

. [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org website. Available from:
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Useful Resources on Clyfford Still

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

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

Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique

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

By Jim Spellman
CNN
June 9, 2012

Clyfford Still, Paul Cézanne, and Posterity

By Kent Minturn
2012

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

Phaidon.com
December 2011

Art Review; Clyfford Still's Sublime Art

By Peter Plagens
Smithsonian
December 13, 2011

The Man in a Long Black Coat

Short video by the Smithsonian

Clyfford Still: A Life in Paintings

By ClyffordStillMuseum

Contemporary: Still

By SothebysTV

The New York School and Abstract Expressionism
The New York School and Abstract Expressionism
The New York School and Abstract Expressionism
The New York School is a reference to Abstract Expressionism movement, which was the tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and 1950s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraces the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: The New York School and Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
Art Students League of New York
Art Students League of New York
Art Students League of New York
The League is an artist-founded institution that arose in the post-Civil War years, when many art students became dissatisfied with the lack of quality instruction in the basics of portraiture, sculpture and composition offered by New York art schools. During the Depression years, many young artists who would eventually define the Abstract Expressionist movement spent their formative years studying and teaching at the League.
ArtStory: Art Students League of New York
American Regionalism
American Regionalism
American Regionalism
Regionalism emerged in 1930s as an alternative to the abstract and avant-garde veins of modern art. Executed in a realist style, it often depicted scenes of everyday rural life, and frequently featured allegories about land, labor, and American history.
American Regionalism
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
ArtStory: Mark Rothko
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim, the neice of Solomon R. Guggenheim, was a collector, patron, and eclectic personality deeply connected to modern art. She gave important exhibitions to many Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist artists at her Art of This Century gallery in New York in the 1940s.
ArtStory: Peggy Guggenheim
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
ArtStory: Jackson Pollock
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman was an Abstract Expressonist painter in New York who painted large-scale fields of solid color, interrupted by vertical lines or "zips." His sometimes narrow or boxy canvases, part painting and part sculpture, were influential for Minimalism.
ArtStory: Barnett Newman
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne was an influential French Post-Impressionist painter whose depictions of the natural world, based on internal geometric planes, paved the way for Cubism and later modern art movements.
ArtStory: Paul Cézanne
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
ArtStory: Pablo Picasso
William Blake
William Blake
William Blake
William Blake was an English painter and poet who was very influential during the late-eighteenth-century Romantic Age of poetry and the visual arts. His experiments with relief etchings are considered a seminal moment for the artistic medium. He was also outspoken in his support of the American and French Revolutions.
William Blake
Jane Ellen Harrison
Jane Ellen Harrison
Jane Ellen Harrison
Jane Ellen Harrison was a British academic and classical scholar, and a pioneer in the modern-day studies of Greek myhology. Harrison was also a prominent figure in the early-twentieth-century movement toward women's suffrage.
Jane Ellen Harrison
Sir James Frazer
Sir James Frazer
Sir James Frazer
Sir James George Frazer was a Scottish anthropologist in the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century. He specialized in the modern studies of mythology, comparative religion, and contributed to a modern reinterpretation of Plato's Theory of Forms.
Sir James Frazer
Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche was a nineteenth-century German philosopher and an early pioneer in the ideas of existentialism. Nietzsche examined the human condition through the lenses of culture, religion, science and morality. He is one the most celebrated thinkers of the modern era.
Friedrich Nietzsche
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
ArtStory: Cubism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
ArtStory: Surrealism
Alfonso Ossorio
Alfonso Ossorio
Alfonso Ossorio
Alfonso Ossorio was a Manila-born Abstract Expressionist artist who worked in Paris and the United States. His early work, gestural paintings tinged with Surrealist squiggles, gave way later to encrusted assemblages of shells, jewelry, plastic parts, broken mirrors, and sculpture-thick paint.
Alfonso Ossorio
Bay Area Painters
Bay Area Painters
Bay Area Painters
The Bay Area Painters emerged in the 1950s and 60s around the San Francisco Bay. Heavily influenced by the color fields and painterly brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, they later moved away from abstraction in a more figurative direction.
Bay Area Painters
Washington Color School
Washington Color School
Washington Color School
The Washington Color School refers to a group of Color-field painters who exhibited together at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1965. Their work is marked by the presence of color areas and washes, geometric designs, and even surfaces.
Washington Color School