June 23, 2020 — Artist Clyfford Still died in Baltimore, MD, on this date in 1980. He was born November 30, 1904, in Grandin, ND. While his name is certainly not a household one, he is possibly the most highly regarded artist the state has ever produced. Unfortunately, most of us know little about him, because he so intensely guarded his work. Over his lifetime, Still created nearly a thousand oil paintings and some 13,000 works on paper, but only 225 pieces ever escaped from his private collection.

In December 2004, reporter Robert Weller wrote, “By most accounts, the late Clyfford Still was a difficult customer – a grumpy, self-imposed isolationist who hoarded his paintings, told collectors which works they would be buying and once took back one of his paintings from a patron by slashing it out of its frame. One reviewer dubbed him the Unabomber of abstract expressionism.”

Still got his degree from Spokane University in Washington in 1933, and over the years he taught and studied in different locations around the country. His first solo show was at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1943. He met the great Mark Rothko during this time, and a couple years later, Rothko introduced Still to Peggy Guggenheim; she saw his work and promptly gave him a solo exhibition at her prestigious “Art of This Century” gallery.

Clyfford Still’s paintings are best described as “color fields” – intense areas of color built up on the canvas in thick jagged formations. “To be stopped by a frame’s edge is intolerable,” he once said. “A great free joy surges through me when I work . . . with tense slashes and a few thrusts the beautiful white fields receive their color and the work is finished in a few minutes. . . Only they are complete too soon, and I must quickly move on to another to keep the spirit alive and unburdened by the labor my Puritan reflexes tell me must be the cost of my joy.”

Abstract artist Jackson Pollock once said, “Still makes the rest of us look academic.” Indeed, Still’s vision was so vast he wouldn’t allow his pieces to be shown separately. “Each painting is an episode in a personal history, an entry in a journal,” he said. “My work in its entirety is like a symphony in which each painting has its part.”

Over time, Still developed a deep distrust of the art world and began rejecting purchase offers, awards, honors, and invitations to exhibit his work. The director of the Albright Art Gallery, Gordon Smith, and his patron, Seymour Knox, worked for years to gain Still’s trust. Finally, in 1959, Still allowed them to buy two paintings and agreed to let the Gallery hang a rare retrospective of his work. When it turned out to be a positive experience, Still donated 31 paintings to the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the gallery’s parent organization. But, he stipulated, the work had to be shown permanently as a group, and the pieces could never be loaned out, sold or exchanged.

Still also refused to exhibit in New York City, because it was “too corrupt.” He finally agreed to exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1980, but he insisted on hanging the show himself. Lewis Sharp, who then worked at the Met, said, “I can’t think of another time that has been done.”

Clyfford Still died a short time later. In his will, he bequeathed his private collection to an American city that would create and maintain a museum devoted exclusively to his art. For more than two decades, cities have competed for the collection, but it wasn’t until August 2004 that a deal was struck. The winner is Denver, whose mayor has said, “It will be one of the few opportunities to commune with a true genius.”

(See a photo of Clyfford Still at http://www.clyffordstill.net/)Sources: Robert Weller, Isolationist’s Art to See Light of Day. Associated Press, December 26, 2004.

Mariann Smith, Clyfford Still, American, 1904-1980. Albright-Knox Art Gallery. http://www.denver8.org/Mayor/1688press1456.asp.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.

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