Clyfford Still Biography

From the representational landscapes and portrait paintings of his earlier years to later canvases populated by jagged stripes of colour, Clyfford Still pioneered a new approach to the medium of painting, and is considered one of the great American painters.

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Still's turn to abstraction around 1938 precedes the abstract painting of his contemporaries by a few years and, although the artist rejected categorisation during his lifetime, he is today associated with the first generation of artists exploring Abstract Expressionism.

Academia and Abstraction

Graduating from Washington's Spokane University in 1933, Clyfford Still developed simultaneous careers as an artist and educator. In 1937, while teaching at Washington State College, he helped to establish the State College Summer Art Colony on Washington's Colville Reservation. Still's sketches and drawings of Indigenous Americans living on the reservation show his engagement with representational painting, while the elongated forms of the human faces mark the beginnings of his shift towards abstraction.

During World War II, Clyfford Still moved to work at defense factories in California in 1941. The artist continued to paint, holding his first solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) in 1943. That same year, he met Mark Rothko as a fellow teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute—then the California School of Fine Arts—who became an early advocate of Still's work.

Jamais (1944), an artwork from the war years, features a semi-abstract human figure and a dramatic contrast of light and dark that Still would continue to explore in his later paintings. The title, which in French translates to 'never', is also one of the few works that Still named. Generally, he left them untitled to avoid straightforward interpretation.

Following his 1946 exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's legendary gallery, Art of This Century, New York, Clyfford Still presented his works with leading New York gallery Batty Parsons throughout the remainder of the decade. By 1950, Still had become an influential teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute, when he left California for New York upon Rothko's encouragement.

Jagged Colour Fields

Clyfford Still is often associated with Rothko and Barnett Newman, with whom he shared a common interest in using large fields of colour to convey a transcendental visual experience. Unlike Rothko or Newman's preference for flat planes of colour, however, Still painted colour fields with jagged edges, applying paint with a palette knife to create a thick impasto. In 1948 (1948), for example, energetic forms of crimson and brown appear to extend beyond the canvas, with streaks of white, yellow, red, and blue accentuating the dynamic flow of the work.

Move to Maryland

Growing increasingly discontent with the New York art world, Clyfford Still began to distance himself from commercial galleries in the early 1950s and moved to Maryland in 1961. Nevertheless, he continued to exhibit actively and held his final exhibitions at Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York (1969); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) (1976); and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1979), which presented the largest retrospective exhibition of the artist's oeuvre to date.

Clyfford Still Museum and Legacy

Following the artist's death in 1980, Clyfford Still Estate withdrew the artworks in its collection from public view in search of an American city to establish a museum dedicated to his work, in accordance with Still's will. In 2005, the Estate bestowed its vast collection of Still's painting, sculpture, and works on paper to Denver, Colorado.

Clyfford Still Museum, which opened in 2011, currently houses over 3,000 artworks and preserves the artist's legacy through its online collection, educational programmes, and physical and virtual exhibitions. Selected presentations of Clyfford Still's work at the museum include The Early Years: Clyfford Still in Canada, 1920–33 and The Late Works: Clyfford Still in Maryland (both 2020).

Still's paintings continue to attract critical attention in the wider art world. In 2019, art collector and film producer Dennis Scholl directed Lifeline: Clyfford Still, a documentary weaving together the artist's audio recordings and interviews with his family, as well as with younger generations of artists—such as Julian Schnabel and Mark Bradford—who were influenced by him. In 2021, Still's paintings claimed more than $12.9 million at a Sotheby's Hong Kong auction.

Still's work is held in the collections of major American art institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, as well as SFMOMA, San Francisco, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2021

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