Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still was something of a maverick in the art world. In many cases, he disdained or was infuriated by anyone who tried to interpret his work, including art critics, art historians, patrons, and museum curators. His attitude about art and artmaking was romantic and passionate, and he did not believe that most people understood or properly appreciated his work.

Clyfford Still, No. 1 

Born in North Dakota in 1904, Still spent time in California and New York before settling in Maryland to live and work. In so doing, he rejected the politics of the New York art scene, which for the first time in history had become the international center of the art world.

Still painted large abstract canvases with much impasto (thick, textural paint) and vertical, jagged bolts of colors. The flame-like patches of color are often cut off at the canvas edges, making viewers think that the forms continue beyond what they can see. Although his early work includes figurative paintings and landscapes, Still has denied that these have any connection or relevance to his mature, signature images. Instead, he has said, “Each painting is an episode in a personal history, an entry in a journal,” and “My work in its entirety is like a symphony in which each painting has its part.” The titles of his paintings, which contain dates, letters, and numbers that signify the order in which they were created, support this explanation.

Still wanted his paintings to be under his own personal control, and did not like them separated from one another or exhibited with other artists’ work. He felt that his paintings could only be understood as part of a whole, with the whole being the evolution of his entire life’s work. This obsession with maintaining absolute control resulted in his rejection of offers to buy his paintings, refusing awards and honors, and declining invitations to exhibit both in individual and group shows.

Clyfford Still, 1947-J 

Gordon Smith, who was the director of the Albright Art Gallery (renamed the Albright-Knox Art Gallery when the 1962 addition was completed) from 1955-1973, along with the Gallery’s important patron Seymour H. Knox, worked hard to win Still’s trust and finally convinced him of their sincere interest in his work. Still allowed them to purchase two paintings, and agreed to a rare retrospective exhibition that opened at the Gallery in 1959. Pleased with Buffalo’s reception of his work, in 1964 Still donated thirty-one paintings to The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the parent organization of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. According to the terms of the gift, the paintings must be shown in their own room, all of the time, and never loaned to other museums. (This latter condition was set aside on one occasion by Still’s widow.) The Clyfford Still Room at the Gallery is an awe-inspiring experience that foreshadows the art form known as installation, where the artist creates an environment for the viewer to enter.

Currently, 750 oil paintings and more than 13,000 works on paper by Clyfford Still are in storage in Maryland, awaiting an individual or institution to fulfill the terms of his will. It stipulated that they be installed in a museum built to his specifications and exhibited under his terms, never to be “sold, given, or exchanged.”


SUGGESTIONS FOR HANDS-ON AND RELATED ACTIVITIES

  • Make a diary without using words–use only colors and abstract shapes. Draw the way you feel today or something you did today. On the back of each drawing, write about what you were feeling or experiencing that day. Do the same thing for a whole week, or a whole month. Put the drawings together in a book.
  • Hang up the drawings from the above activity and have each student select one and write what it means to him or her or how it makes him or her feel. Come up with a system so that every picture is chosen by somebody. Compare what’s written by the artist on the back to the viewer’s interpretation. Do the two ever match? Which writing is “right”? (This is a question with no right answer, but students may discover some of the issues that artists face when confronting their critics.)
  • Clyfford Still often used dark colors in his work. Sometimes he used two, three, or more different looking blacks, or dark blues. Have the students collect markers, pencils, paints, and crayons–anything that can make a black or dark blue mark (even a charcoal briquet!). Then have them use a large sheet of paper and create an abstract drawing or painting like the one above, using only the colors they have collected. You could even try adding different substances to parts of the drawing after it is finished, such as Elmer’s glue, to make some parts shinier than others. Talk about matte as opposed to shiny, opaque as opposed to transparent. Try to classify all the different blacks in the students’ drawings using these terms. Finally, let students look at the works and describe how they make them feel.
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