Clyfford Still was born in 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota. He spent his childhood in Spokane, Washington and Bow Island in southern Alberta, Canada. Still graduated from Spokane University in Washington in 1933 and in 1934 was invited to join the Yaddo artists community in Saratoga Springs, New York as a guest artist. He then returned west to Washington State College, where he received his MFA in 1935. Still remained in Washington through 1941, co-founding the Nespelem Art Colony with Worth Griffin in 1937, seeking to depict the landscape and people of the Colville Indian Reservation during the summers. These depictions, considered his early work, are marked by an expressive figurative style, somewhere between representation and pure abstraction.
In 1941, Still moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Following work in various war industries, he taught briefly in Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth University from 1943-45 before becoming a professor at the California School of Fine Arts in 1946.
While he continued to teach at the California School of Fine Arts, Still visited New York for extended periods of time during the late 1940s. It was during these stays that he became acquainted with the groundbreaking gallerists Betty Parsons and Peggy Guggenheim. It was Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery gave him his breakthrough solo exhibition in 1946, prompting Robert Motherwell to proclaim Still’s work the “most original” of all of the early shows at Peggy’s gallery, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Motherwell’s own. It was the complete abandonment of images that struck Motherwell and characterized Still as a harbinger of the mature abstract expressionist aesthetic.
Between San Francisco and New York in the late 1940s he developed his “mature” style, characterized by jagged, thick lines of color that tear across his canvases. The use of impasto paint gives his work a force and rawness that is not apparent in his color field contemporaries such as Mark Rothko. His large, usually dark canvases call to mind the natural world and the primordial American landscape, simultaneously wonderful and terrifying and their torn, gestural quality speaks to the classic Abstract Expressionist themes of struggle and the human condition, of man against the void.
In 1951, after five years of teaching in California, Still moved to New York full time. Increasingly critical of the art world in New York at Abstract Expressionism’s peak, he severed ties with commercial galleries shortly following his move and ultimately relocated to Maryland in 1961. He remained there with Patricia, his second wife, until his death in 1980.
In 1979, the Metropolitan Museum in New York organized a comprehensive survey of his work, the largest survey of his art to date. Following Still’s death in 1980, his work that had not entered the public domain was sealed off completely, blocking both public and scholarly access to his estate. In 2004, the Clyfford Still Estate chose Denver as the site for the Clyfford Still Museum, scheduled to open in 2011. The collection will be exclusively Still’s work and prohibit both loaning and selling. Other museums with major Still collections include the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, the SFMOMA, the Hirshorn, and the Metropolitan, all of which have galleries dedicated exclusively to Still.