THE PRAIRIE CORIOLANUS: Clyfford Still

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The firmly held and frequently articulated convictions of Clyfford Still (American, 1904-1980) concerning the expressive power and transcendent purpose of advanced art (or his art, the two terms being synonymous in his personal lexicon), are indicative of the high seriousness of Abstract Expressionism in general, and emblematic of the existential heroics of one particular strain:

I hold it imperative to evolve an instrument of thought which will aid in cutting through all cultural opiates, past and present, so that a direct, immediate, and truly free vision can be revealed with clarity. … Therefore, let no man undervalue the implications of this work or its power for life;—or for death, if it is misused (Albright-Knox Art Gallery Exhibition Catalogue,1959).

He also felt that his work was “engaged in that which exalts the spirit of man.” Even the most vain and self-promoting of artists working today would hesitate to make such claims for their work.

The imperious mode of address, scriptural cadences, lofty abstractions and verbosity of Still’s pronouncements bring to mind the fatuous voice-over narrations of government propaganda films and 150-page speeches made by Ayn Rand characters. After 15 years of listening to self-congratulatory, delusional artists like Still issuing solemn screeds composed of platitudes, one readily understands why the laconic, know-nothing, disengaged irony of Pop Art was so quickly accepted as the new dominant paradigm in the early 1960s.

I had made it clear that a single stroke of paint, backed by work and a mind that understood its potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for subjugation. (Letter to the Editor, Artforum, December, 1963.)

Still is the Charlton Heston of Abstract Expressionism, a rugged, individualistic and uncompromising trailblazer, entirely unencumbered by self-awareness. Born in North Dakota in 1904, a place where “you either stood up and lived or laid down and died,” as he put it, he was one generation away from pioneers, covered wagons and the Sioux wars, and his authentic, frontier roots became a conspicuous feature of his self-mythologizing (Robert Hughes called him the “prairie Coriolanus”). If, however, Still is to be understood in terms of pop culture clichés about “the west,” he risks the comparison of his gigantic, dramatic, craggy, topographical paintings, executed in a painted desert palette, to imitation cowhide and souvenir-stand Indian blankets.

To be stopped by a frame’s edge is intolerable, a Euclidian prison, it had to be annihilated, its authoritarian implications repudiated without dissolving one’s individual integrity and idea in material and mannerism. (Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art Exhibition Catalogue, 1963)

Still thought very few people were worthy of owning his creations and over the course of his career sold only 150 paintings—about 6% of his entire output—to carefully vetted collectors and museums. Museums permitted to buy his work were contractually forbidden from displaying works by other artists in galleries where his pictures hung. To secure loans from the artist’s collection, the curators of the retrospective exhibition of Still’s work mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979 were forced to cede all control over the show to Still, who dictated the number (79) of paintings to be included, how and where they would be hung, and who wrote the entire catalogue himself. After agreeing in 1967 to sell his painting. 1944-N to the Museum of Modern Art, the institution he most loathed and tastelessly referred to as “the great gas chamber of culture on 53rd Street,” in an unconscionable and actionable act of malice, Still painted and shipped a mediocre copy of the painting to MoMA and kept the original, all of which he gleefully recounted at the time, to his friend, Gordon Smith, the director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

These are not paintings in the usual sense, they are life and death, merging in fearful union.

Still’s estate consisted of the 94% of his oeuvre —825 paintings and 1,500 drawings—he had refused to sell in his lifetime, the majority of which had never been seen. Still’s epic will dictated that those works be could only be displayed in a newly- created museum dedicated exclusively to his art. His will also gave detailed instructions concerning every aspect of the proposed monument to his own greatness, including gallery size and layout, the placement of works, wall labels, and lighting. The terms of the bequest forbade museum from displaying works by other artists, loaning any of Still’s works to other institutions, and selling any of them.

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.

Visitors to the museum would only be tolerated only if they swore to look at and think about only Still’s art, and nothing but Still’s art while on the premises. Gift shop, café and auditorium were expressly proscribed.

Given the nightmarish restrictions, stipulations and requirements imposed the sociopathically-self-regarding artist, the hoard of paintings languished in storage at an undisclosed Maryland location for 30 years, until the city of Denver was designated by Still’s widow as the recipient of the bequest. The sealing of his work for so many years killed off all memory of the artist, placing the administrators of the new Clyfford Still Museum in the awkward position of having to explain to the public who Clyfford Still was, when his museum was opened to the public in 2011. On display are 116 works, including the original, conspicuously more finished, version of 1944-N.

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