Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still

One of the highly successful abstract expressionism painters was Clyfford Still. He was in fact one of the pioneers of the said art movement together with Mark Rothko during the mid-20th century. His major contribution to the American art history is his deeply moving approach to painting inspired by the aftermath of the World War II. Some art experts say that Still can be considered as the father of Abstract Expressionism for laying the foundations of the movement.

Still’s early works, through 1938 to 1942, contained traces of abstract art despite the dominating elements of Surrealist styles. It is said that Rothko and Jackson Pollock may have an influence on Still, and thus, the comparable similarities among their abstract paintings. Still’s color palette was a combination of oranges, yellows, and reds and then he developed a style that uses black and other darker colors. Although this has been the common color palette among abstract painters, his own style was never about blocks of rectangles likewise to Rothko but of patterns and different arrangements which might suppose to give a jagged effect off the surface.

The common themes in Still’s painting included the human condition represented in death, life, creation, and struggle. These themes are undeniably the condition that people had to deal with after the war in the 1940’s. As his art is classified as abstract, the paintings are devoid of any obvious figures and to him “they are (paintings of) life and death merging in fearful union… they kindle a fire; through them I breathe again, hold a golden cord, (and) find my own revelation”. Apparently, he was a believer of the moral value presented by art that may disorient one’s modern beliefs.

Still had been a major source of inspiration for the second generation of Abstract Expressionists in the west. This is especially true in depicting how humans struggle against the force of nature which is expressed in vertical patterns that reach through several of his art works. He calls this “the vertical necessity of life.”

Some examples of Clyfford Still’s paintings include:

  • Indian Houses, Nespelem (1936)
  • Untitled (1935)
  • 1944-N No. 2 – Red Flash on Black Field (1944)
  • 1948-C (1948)
  • 1957-D No. 1 (1957)
  • 1957-D
  • Untitled (1974)

Early Life

Clyfford Elmer Still was born in November 30, 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota. He had spent most of his childhood days in Spokane and Bow Island, Canada though. His first visit in New York, the melting pot for many European artists, was in 1925 when he intended to study at the famous New York School of Design. Although he briefly studied at the said school he transferred to Spokane University in Washington in 1933.

Early Career

Still later received his advanced degree in Fine Arts from the WA State College and then began teaching soon after he graduated. His tenure lasted for six years, from 1935 to 1941. During this period his works showed the qualities of an expressive figurative art. His subjects were mostly the life in the rural areas and ordinary people in their natural environment such as buildings, farms, and factories.

In 1937, Still led the foundation of the Nespelem Art Colony with the sponsorship of Worth Griffin Company. There he produced several landscapes and portraits of the Colville Indian Reservation. His style looked quite complex during this period due to his attempt to do representational art forms but changed his mind after a while by drawing towards abstract art.

In 1941, he settled in San Francisco Bay area where he developed interest in taking machinery and tools as a subject matter. Also in that city where he held his first art show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1943. In that same year he met Mark Rothko in California whom introduced him to Peggy Guggenheim.

Mature Years

While painting on the side, he maintained a teaching career at the Richmond Professional Institute from 1943 to 1945. After two years, he went to New York City to pursue a professional career as an artist. In 1946 he exhibited at The Art of This Century Gallery which was owned by Guggenheim, but as soon as this gallery was shut down, Still along with his contemporaries accepted the offers made by the Betty Parsons Gallery. He was to remain in New York during the emergence of abstract expressionism as a predominant art movement in the country.

From 1946 to 1950 he would be teaching at the California School of Fine Arts where he became a highly influential art professor. Through these years he was to establish his signature style while growing his reputation in New York. Art critic, Clement Greenberg, has viewed Still’s art as estranging yet overwhelming with sense of originality.
In 1961, Clyfford Still chose the countryside to stay away from the hustle and bustle of NYC. He lived in a farm in Westminster, Maryland. He transformed an old barn to an art studio and kept it as his comfort zone during winter months. In 1966, Patricia, his second wife, bought a mansion at New Windsor, Maryland just a few miles from the farm. This house would serve as his home for the remaining years of his life.

Clyfford Still’s Art

Clyfford Still is an exponent of Color Field art. Therefore, his paintings are characterized by its non-objective subject matter, contrasting variety of colors, and surfaces in different formations. What makes Still’s art different among his contemporaries like Barnett Newman and Marcus Rothko was the way he organized his colors; his was ‘less regular’ compared to the simpler composition and formation of Rothko’s or Newman’s.

Still uses jagged colors to make people think that one layer of paint has been ripped out of the painting, and thus revealing the colors underneath it. He used thick impasto as a painting technique in his hope to affect a variety of hues and shades across the canvas surfaces. He also did the same into his large-scale paintings, most of which depicted the forces of nature as well as natural phenomenon like foliage and old stalagmites.

These themes, subjects and the overall view of the artist on the painting are finished with a balanced blend of dark and light. As a result, the work evokes poetic meaning and impression which is specifically about the human condition. From 1947 to 1957 Still had produced some of his most magnificent works such as the 1957-D No. 1. The said painting features black and yellow colors with splashes of white and red. Additionally, in some cases, he would paint vast fields of color which would symbolize caves and vast landscapes illuminated by light.


Clyfford Still was a very private man, who shunned the glitz and glamour of New York City. It is also this reason why he had traded the city for a farm life in Maryland. He had the tendency to employ restrictions onto his exhibition and collection of paintings. Therefore, some of his works remained private until Denver City erected a museum in his honor in 2011. It was only then that those unseen works became available for the public.

A lot of artists and critics thought of Still’s character as difficult. This is based on the fact that he preferred isolation over absorbing the fame he achieved in the bigger cities. He avoided the critiques on his art work and had full control over the trading of his paintings from selling, exhibition and collection. Nevertheless, he remained to be influential artist especially to his students and the younger generation of abstract painters. His paintings were important for shaping the whole of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950’s.

His art was never meant to please the eye but to touch the spirit of the viewer, on a personal level. As he says, “As before, 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.”

In 2004, Still’s second wife, Patricia Still, wanted Denver, Colorado to accept the paintings kept in the artist’s estate. The large collection consisted of 1,575 papers and 825 paintings, all of which were to be stored at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. The museum building first opened in 2011 under the supervision of Dean Sobel, and by that year, the museum houses some more art works by Clyfford which were inherited by Patricia and then transferred to the museum after her death in 2005.
Still’s legacy would continue until 2013 when the museum founded a research center for the exploration of modern art and history. The research center will have programs that can support fellowships and scholarly publications.

Later Years

In 1972, Clyfford Still was to receive an Award of Merit for Painting from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also received another recognition, the Skowhegan Medal for Painting, in 1975. The American painter died on June 23, 1980 at the age of 75 in his estate in Maryland. His body was buried at the Pipe Creek Church of the Brethren Cemetery in Union Bridge, Maryland.