In 1958, artist, collector, and sugar-fortune heir Alfonso Ossorio received an unannounced visit from Clyfford Still. The men had been arguing over Ossorio’s refusal to return one of Still’s paintings: a large black-and-purple abstraction. The disagreement came to a head when Still, a notoriously cantankerous member of the New York School, decided to take action. With his wife and daughter, Still took a taxi to Ossorio’s East Hampton mansion, burst onto the property, located the canvas, knifed it roughly off the stretcher, folded it up, and brought it home.
Still was famously protective of his work and legacy, and could be combative in defending both. The quintessential Abstract Expressionist, Still filled huge canvases with impastoed fields of color, sometimes divided by jagged linear marks he called lifelines. Still was a major presence on the postwar New York scene—often credited with being the first prominent American to abandon figuration—but he nonetheless had little patience for the city’s art world establishment, decamping for rural Maryland at the height of his success. For decades, Still remained an enigmatic figure with a low profile, at least as compared to peers like Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko. Outside the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, which opened in 2011, there have been few opportunities to see a comprehensive selection of Still’s best work since a 1979 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which opened the year before his death. The tight restrictions on reproductions of his paintings that his widow, Patricia Garske, maintained until her death in 2005 further contributed to Still’s relative obscurity.
Lifeline: Clyfford Still (2019), a new documentary directed by Dennis Scholl that begins streaming this month on Kino Now, provides an overdue corrective. The film offers an intimate portrait of the artist, making use of thirty-four hours of Still’s occasional diaristic audio recordings. Scholl also interviewed Still’s two daughters, museum professionals who care for his work, and contemporary artists inspired by his example. The film relays in vivid detail revealing moments like the Ossorio dispute. But Lifeline’s relevance has less to do with filling in the artist’s private motivations than with highlighting his public stances. At a moment when the American art market was just taking off, Still refused to sell out and abhorred compromises, whether with dealers, gallerists, or critics. His rejection of art world gamesmanship can seem alien today, when individual artists face few repercussions for bending to market pressures, and big cultural institutions court donors with dodgy sources of wealth despite public outcry. Still’s unyielding commitment to a rigorous vision for his own art sometimes resulted in actions that can only be described as career sabotage, but his example might offer a model for artists seeking to work on their own terms.
Born in Grandin, North Dakota, in 1904, Still had a tough early life: he grew up essentially a free laborer to his father, who farmed inhospitable land in Canada. According to David Anfam, director of the Still Museum’s research center, the painter said, “Where I come from, you either stood up and lived or laid down and died.” After a brief sojourn in New York to study at the Art Students League in 1925, Still settled on the West Coast. He received his MFA from Washington State College Pullman (now Washington State University) and taught there until 1941, when he moved to San Francisco to work in a defense industry shipyard while continuing to paint. The war years were formative for Still, as he moved away from the figurative Regionalist style he had pursued during the Depression and developed his signature abstract vocabulary. He eventually landed a job at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) teaching alongside Mark Rothko; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art presented his first solo exhibition in 1943.
Rothko encouraged Still to move to New York, and early on the two men were supportive of each other. Rothko introduced Still to Peggy Guggenheim, wrote about his work, and even helped de-install his show at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in 1946. Their early friendship, however, turned into harsh rivalry by the time of their mutual inclusion in “15 Americans,” a 1952 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that played a large role in defining the public perception of abstract art. But if “15 Americans” marked a high point in Still’s career in New York, it was also the nadir of his interest in being part of a “New York School.” By the time the show opened, Still had made the decision to take a break from public exhibitions, which lasted through the rest of the decade.
“I think he felt that audiences weren’t ‘ready’ for such avant-garde painting,” Still Museum director Dean Sobel, who appears in the documentary, wrote in an email. “He felt the art world was full of self-serving professionals who had become nothing but a drain on his creative energies.” After three successful solo shows at Betty Parsons Gallery, Still wrote a letter to the dealer in September 1951 forbidding her from including his art in public exhibitions (though she could continue to sell his work).
Parsons famously compared Still, along with Pollock, Rothko, and Newman to “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Scholl’s film asserts that, unlike the others, Still did not seek public acclaim or commercial success. In fact, he frequently balked at opportunities most other artists would have cherished. When MoMA decided to buy one of his works in 1954, Still was disappointed that the museum chose what he considered a lesser painting. He gave the institution a dashed-off copy of the work they wanted. In the film, his daughter Sandra Still Campbell describes how he “emotionally painted it with his left hand.” Still turned down invitations to exhibit at the Venice Biennale at least three times, dismissing the occasion as a distracting roadshow. According to Campbell, Still held art critics like Clement Greenberg “in the highest contempt.” While Greenberg lauded Still as a “highly influential maverick and an independent genius,” the painter was less generous. In Lifeline, critic Jerry Saltz reads aloud a letter from Still deriding Greenberg as a “small and lecherous man.”
Still could be particularly acerbic toward other artists in the circle, many of whom he considered to be followers of his example. On the audio recordings featured in Lifeline, Still rips into Newman, alleging that the painter’s iconic “zips” were derivative of Still’s signature lines:
“There’s always been much imitation, but the record is still a history of a very few individuals. I see Barney, for all his energy, as a man of almost pathetic impotence. With a good mind, he is incapable of transcending ambition. Only in the total destruction of this drive, or an escape therefrom, will he ever be in a position of creating more than a pathetic act.”
As Lifeline notes, Newman’s 1948 breakthrough Onement, I, which introduced the vertical zip as the artist’s signature compositional motif postdates works like Still’s July 1945-R, a vertical composition featuring an isolated line in its center that was shown in a 1946 exhibition, which Newman attended, at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery.
But the degeneration of Still’s friendship with Rothko is one of Lifeline’s central narratives. On his Revere-brand tape recorder Still expressed his increasing contempt for his rival’s output:
“I told Rothko on several occasions that he should abandon such nonsense, forget this myth thing, which he was tying up with the Greeks, . . . and his fuzzy Bauhaus cultural associations. [He] was very happy to leave the rigor I set with the creative act for his steady manufacture of varieties of rectangles.”
Rothko’s commercial and critical success, buoyed by major commissions from Seagrams, Harvard University, and the de Menils, only seemed to increase Still’s disdain, leading him to brand Rothko a sell-out. Despite his success, Rothko descended deeper into depression, lapsed into heavy drinking and smoking, separated from his second wife in 1969, and died by suicide in his studio the following year. When Still found out, he was dismissive; in the film Sobel describes rumors that the artist said something like: “Evil falls to those who live evil lives.”
At a time when art and liquor could be inseparable, Still, who according to Sobel had the ability to drink almost anyone under the table, rarely partook and didn’t smoke. He also cultivated a relatively stable home life, according to his children, who, when interviewed in Lifeline, share photographs, home movies, and the artist’s portrait of his first wife and their mother, Lillian August Battan. The documentary recounts the collapse of the painter’s relationship with Lillian, his childhood sweetheart. He began seeing Patricia Garske, one of his former art students from Washington State College, sixteen years his junior. In the 1940s, Garske followed the married, itinerant artist to San Francisco; then, in 1950, after Still had grown estranged from his wife, Garske trailed him to New York. In the film, older daughter Diane Still Knox describes the shift as an “inevitability”:
“Lillian was no competition, not that she wasn’t beautiful, but she was unhappy. [When] Patricia came, she was one of the students who came to the apartment, and waited [with] bated breath for everything he said. Lillian had to produce the cookies, and she felt [like] nothing but a waitress by then.”
Campbell attests to Garske’s central role in fostering her father’s career through her frugality, orderliness, and record-keeping skills. She worked eight hours a day for him, often staying up late for a social hour he would host with fellow artists. Garske, who made everyone call the artist “Mr. Still,” was key to Still’s productivity in his later years: he made about 375 paintings in the last twenty years of his life, more than he completed in his prior forty.
Still’s prolific years may come as a surprise to viewers who have seen only a handful of his paintings. Indeed, Lifeline helps dispel the myth that the painter’s break from the art world was permanent. Still and Garske carefully managed his career from their farm, then, starting in 1961, from their New Windsor, Maryland, house, keeping distance from the New York art world. Still began presenting his work in one-person shows across the country: the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1959; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia in 1963; Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York, 1969–70; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which opened a permanent installation of his paintings in 1975, upon receiving twenty-eight of them from the artist. He often asserted tight control over these presentations by curating the show, writing the catalogue essay, or both. The culmination of Still’s career was his survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1979—to date the biggest presentation given by the museum to the work of a living artist.
For all the film’s revelations, Scholl, an award-winning documentarian who has made films about artists Theaster Gates and Tracey Emin, is no art historian. The filmmaker quotes Robert Motherwell’s description of his colleague as “fiercely independent,” and Gerald Norland, SFMOMA’s former director, says that Richard Diebenkorn described Still’s work as “very American” and “rejecting influence.” But recent scholarship on Still, including the catalogue for “Clyfford Still: The Colville Reservation and Beyond, 1934–1939,” curated by scholar Patricia Failing at the Clyfford Still Museum in 2015, offers a more nuanced account of Still’s roots in American Regionalist traditions and the inspiration he found in Native American cultures. While Still was working with the Washington State College Summer Art Colony in the late 1930s, for example, he and his students created an extensive visual record of the northwestern state’s Interior Salish culture, whose visual traditions suggest strong precedents for Still’s work.
Lifeline also looks forward, assessing Still’s legacy by including interviews with contemporary artists who acknowledge his influence, including Mark Bradford and Julian Schnabel. Painter Julie Mehretu notes Still’s ability to showcase the “slowed-down experience that goes past life,” transcending quotidian concerns. Though Still himself might have perceived the irony of having art market stars like Schnabel speak on his behalf, their voices are a testament to the strength of Still’s artistic achievements, which have profoundly affected American art despite—or perhaps because of—their inherent difficulty. The barriers that Still and his widow erected around his work mean that anyone seeking to engage seriously with this artist had to be deliberate and determined. And to see his work the way he wanted, one must still travel to Buffalo, San Francisco, or Denver. Lifeline signals that a trip would be well worth it.
This article appears under the title “Still and Moving Images” in the March 2020 issue, pp. 38–45.
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