Earlier this month, a series of four paintings by Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still commanded the spotlight of the 2011 Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Sale. Of the 62 total works sold in just two hours for a total of $315.8 million, work by Still, the fame-shy painter of the twentieth century New York School of artists, earned $114.1 million under the gavel.
To the soundtrack of the art handler’s lockout just six floors below, “1949-A-No.1” shattered Still’s personal record, garnering a $61.7 million dollar lot price to the astonished applause of the art elite present for the evening’s proceedings. Still’s late wife, Patricia, had bequeathed the series of paintings in 2005 to the City and County of Denver, who in turn, sold the works to benefit the endowment of The Clyfford Still Museum, freshly opened in the heart of Denver, Colorado.
Clyfford Still's "1949-A-No.1," 1949. (Photo Credit: Paul Fraser)
According to John Elderfield, MoMA’s chief curator and the force behind the MoMA’s current Wilhelm de Kooning retrospective, “painterly paintings” were in high demand this year. “Maybe it’s the de Kooning effect,” he added. “With Richters and Stills flying off the walls.”
Regardless, it is difficult to say if the artist would appreciate such attention.
In life, “he didn’t like to be analyzed,” said the artist’s elderly daughter, Sandra Still Campbell, at the Clyfford Still Museum’s press preview. “And now he’s going to be analyzed to death.”
In the early 1940s, Still approached the peak of his career. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art showcased his first solo exhibition in 1943, and the adoration of the art establishment followed. Fellow artist Robert Motherwell exalted Still as a “bolt out of the blue,” and Jackson Pollack chided famously, “Still makes the rest of us look like an academic.”
Peggy Guggenheim came a-knocking in 1946, offering the artist a solo show at the infamous Art Of This Century gallery. And by the early 1950s, Still had established himself as a bona fide icon in the New York school of Abstract Expressionism. Works like “PH-235” and “1947-A-No.2” became watershed moments in the emergence of Color Field painting. They include the sprawling crags of color and dense layers of paint – a technique called impasto – that would come to epitomize Still’s visual language.
Clyfford Still "1944-N-No.1 (PH-235)," 1944. (Photo Credit: Mountain Living)
But for the artist, his unrest swelled as quickly as his fame.
Between 1952 and 1959, he refused to partake in any public exhibitions of his work. And by 1961, he had all but severed ties with the prominent galleries responsible for his growing success. That same year, he relinquished his position amidst the New York school of Rothko’s and Reinhardt’s, and fled to the country, groping for a life of obscurity in the lush woods of Westminster, Maryland until his death in 1980.
According to the artist, “Our age is one of science, mechanism, power and death. I see no point in adding to its mammoth arrogance the compliment of a graphic homage.”
At heart, he remained the blue-collar boy from Grandin, North Dakota. Despite his efforts, the art world never stopped paying attention.
The Clyfford Still Museum, now open in Denver, CO. (Photo Credit: Adobe Airstream)
Throughout his life, he kept his works close to the vest, offering art acolytes a mere 6% snippet of his oeuvre that encompasses over 2,400 works on canvas. According to David Anfam, one of the curators of the newly-opened museum named for its benefactor and focus, the public has never been offered unhindered access to such a comprehensive display of the artist’s masterworks.
“This is the first time we are seeing Clifford Styll whole,” he said.
James C. Russell, architecture critic for Bloomberg newswire, agrees: “Single-artist museums can embalm. This one astonishes.”
Find more information on The Clyfford Still Museum here.
- Tom McKee