Friday, November 30, 2007

Still in Control

Plenty of artists content for the title of most self-promoting in art history. The undisputed champion of most non-self-promoting artist may never be wrestled away from Clyfford Still, born on this date in 1904. After his death in 1980, all of his works not already owned by museums or private collectors were stored away with no access to the public or even art scholars. Like an ancient pharaoh, Still’s life and work were entombed until a museum could be built to house them according to the exact specifications in his will. Fortunately, those specifications are now being met and finally the public will get to see the full power of one of the earliest Abstract Expressionists. Sometime between 1938 and 1942, years before other artists such as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko turned to abstraction, Still was painting works such as 1944-N No. 2 (above, from 1944). In many ways, Still is the forgotten father of Abstract Expressionism in America.

While alive, Still painted and taught and generally disdained the entire art world, especially that centered in New York City. While Pollock and Willem de Kooning basked in the limelight, Still quietly painted works such as 1947-R-No. 1 (above), developing his unique style of layered colors that appear to be torn from one another, the transitions between the tones as jagged as lightning. Still fled to Maryland in the 1950s, looking for the solitude necessary to create his abstractions that he saw as the story of his life. "Each painting is an episode in a personal history, an entry in a journal," Still once said. Even his titles are purely abstract, consisting of the year, a letter code, and a number. All personal associations between the work itself and Still's life remained secret. By doing so, Still ensured that anyone coming to his art would have to find their own meaning rather than delve into his life to find one.

The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado should be complete sometime in 2010. The Denver Art Museum will exhibit next summer selections from the estate, the first and only preview before the Still Museum opens. When completed, the Still Museum will contain over 2,400 works by him, representing 94% of his total output. Perhaps even more importantly, Still’s letters will be available to scholars, allowing the art critics Still denied for so many years finally to study and understand his art. Still believed that his works could only be understood as a whole, explaining his mania for a special museum to keep them together. Looking at 1957-D, No. 1 (above), you see subtle differences from Still’s work from 1947, yet the decade between has done little to change the fundamental nature of his painting. Edvard Munch similarly saw his entire oeuvre as a unified work, painting copies of works he had sold just so that he could reunite them with their brethren. Thanks to Still’s explicit instructions that none of these works ever "sold, given, or exchanged," he can rest easily in the afterlife that his vision will live on after him.

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