Following his death in 1980 all the works by Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still that had not previously been shown or exhibited were immediately put into storage and sealed off from public view. They have remained under lock and key for the past 30 years - one of the most closely guarded secrets in the art world. Until now. In the heart of Denver Colorado now stands the Clyfford Still Museum which opened its doors last month, finally allowing the world to see the 825 paintings and 1575 works on paper (amounting to 94 per cent of the artist's total output) produced by an artist who Jackson Pollock considered to be one of the three men (along with Mark Rothko and himself, of course) responsible for changing the very nature of painting.
So why is Still so important and why has it taken so long for his paintings to re-emerge? Why were they hidden away in the first place? And (perhaps most intriguingly) why did David Anfam – critic, commissioning editor of Fine Art books at Phaidon and co-curator of the Clyfford Still Museum’s inaugural show - tell us that “Still, perhaps like no other artist, gives me an instant high”?
It was Still himself, along with his wife Patricia, who came up with the concept of a museum dedicated solely to his work. He laid out the stringent parameters of how he wanted his collection to be handled in his will. He had three wishes: That his art be dedicated to a city not a museum; that the collection must be kept together and that the museum that housed his work should have no extra facilities such as a book shop or a café in order that concentration be focussed entirely on his art.
Still said of his work - “These are not paintings in the usual sense, they are life and death, merging in fearful union.” This might sound somewhat immodest but on experiencing Still’s canvasses (many of which measure over 10 ft by 14 ft), one gets a sense of the power he aimed to evoke. Anfam told us about the impact Still’s work has on him. “His work has a visceral impact, the paintings stare back at me and the viewer. I don’t know many other artists who induce quite the same kind of electric charge – a true frisson. Yet it’s not just this kind of high voltage drama that grabs me, what I also find remarkable is that Still managed to combine this intensity with a rare degree of subtlety and delicacy.”
While Still is regarded as an Abstract Expressionist and part of the American post-war circle of artists that included the likes of Pollock, Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Barnett Newman, he is also thought of as a bit of an outsider. There was a popular tendency which came about at the time to classify the Abstract Expressionists as either ‘colour field painters’ (Rothko, Newman) or ‘gestural painters’ (Pollock, Kline, De Kooning) but in Still’s almost violent application of paint with a palette knife, combined with his presentation of large expanses of colour – he managed to avoid his work being pigeon-holed or reduced to clichés.
There were two, epic, landmarks in Still’s pictorial trajectory, according to Anfam. "The first is a painting known as 1944 (image above) – probably the first largest radical statement of tendencies that would later be hallmarked as abstract expressionism. Even in Pollock and Rothko certainly there is nothing to match the precocity and extremism of this huge black field canvas. Still did two versions of the work. I’m pleased to say the Museum of Modern Art has the second, slightly smaller and somewhat less cutting edge version. By contrast, the Clyfford Still Museum has the number one version which betrays Still's imprimatur throughout every inch of the canvass. Perhaps Still’s second landmark painting is in Albright - Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, known as 1957-D. I choose this because it’s in a public collection and has become one of the most iconic statements of abstract expressionism. The Clyfford Still museum has numerous other canvasses which match and rival 1957-D in their daring and accomplishment but these have not yet, with the exception of one 1957 painting in the current collection, been displayed to the public. I hope the mission of the Clyfford Still Museum amongst many things will be to gradually unfold these hidden treasures to the public eye."
Still had a very tough life. He grew up on the prairies of southern Alberta, Canada, and this had been a character forming experience which would never leave him and helped contribute to his outsider status. "In The 1950s he began to take a great dislike to all art critics," says Anfam. "He specifically singled out Emily Genauer, the art critic for the New York Herald Tribune. He mailed Genaurer a pair of baby rubber pants tagged with the note 'Hoping this will help conceal your Sunday afflictions', yours sincerely Clyfford Still. She kept them and eventually donated the rubber incontincy pants to the Archive of American Art. I’d love to see an artist do that to say a critic like Roberta Smith or Andrew Graham Dixon. It takes a heck of a lot of spunk to burn your bridges behind you in that intractable way. What Still effectively did by his example was to throw the money lenders out of the temple."
Stylistically and literally speaking, Still’s work stands alone in the simply-designed concrete museum created by Allied Works Architecture. With over 10,000 sq ft of gallery space, the museum will be presenting changing exhibits of Still’s life work, chronologically taking visitors through his career from 1920 – 1979.
Sign-up to receive weekly updates from Phaidon: