DENVER — The children of acclaimed artists are often the gatekeepers of their estates. At times, these children’s voices emerge with observations that erode certain myths (like Daniel Rhodes Dixon on Dorothea Lange and Maynard Dixon, or the memoirs of Francoise Gilot and Marina Picasso about Pablo Picasso) and the question is raised: Can a child provide a fair record of their parent?
A Daughter’s Eye/A Daughter’s Voice at the Clyfford Still Museum is curated (and narrated through available Bluetooth headsets) by Sandra Still, the youngest of Clyfford Still’s two daughters. Her curatorial debut offers visitors and scholars sharp judgments on celebrated paintings and brilliant details about her father during his most reclusive period. “There was never a dull conversation. There were lots of silences,” said Sandra in an interview with Hyperallergic. The sentiment encapsulates a relationship that seesawed between loving and absent. Her frank observations introduce a vantage point on the sacrifices artists can impose on others.
“He was not intended to be a dad,” Sandra Still confessed. He and Lillian, his first wife and Sandra’s mother, had agreed not to have children. But when Sandra was born in Spokane, Washington in 1942, her sister Diane was already three years old and Clyfford was in Berkley, California. He had saved for years to open a studio, “to spend 90% of his time painting, and 10% working on commissioned portraits,” according to Sandra. Pearl Harbor changed everything. By the World War, he was in and out of their lives.
The painting selection of the exhibition is revelatory and deeply personal. Paintings act as visual time stamps of Sandra’s relationship with Clyfford. “The best of him is in his paintings,” she told me. Of the 31 paintings in the exhibition 18 have previously never been shown, and 19 were produced after 1960. Addressing the museum director, Dean Sobel, Sandra said, “you’re not showing the earthen-colored and bare canvas works. You got the big blues, the reds and blacks. There is a lot more going on between those. There is magic there.”
Art historians position the 1950s as a significant period when Still’s break through to abstraction found momentum and unique standing among Abstract Expressionists. Sandra refutes that claim, “The ’50s were familiar and over witnessed.” Clyfford’s withdrawal from the New York art market and relocation to rural Maryland in 1961 was poorly received. “People didn’t like his private approach. They resented that they made no money with him,” she sharply criticized, arguing that critics and scholars focused their gaze upon the decade that granted them the greatest access.
Paintings “PH-1153” (1959) and “PH-409B” (1964) hang as a pair, neither previously seen by the public. Each painting presents a muted palette of scratchy orbs floating on bare canvas. They are an odd couple among other paintings of similar color and scale in the gallery. Sandra noted the duo “was an answer to Adolph Gottlieb doing dad’s black sun and Pollock’s splash.” She explained, “Gottlieb was nicknamed the ‘Pants Cutter’ by other artists because he kept doing it over and over again. It offended dad that he took an element and made it sterile or a shtick. Nothing organic about it. These two paintings are dad saying, ‘this is how you should have done it.’”
From the “pounds of paint” — as Sandra called the paintings of the 1940s and 1950s — to the growing presence of bare canvas in the last galleries, Sandra’s presentation braids her own childhood memories with those of her father’s. “I saw a photo of him as a child in Alberta, Canada. Patches of a late snow are underfoot and behind him nothing but gray sky.” Like the empty landscapes of Clyfford’s childhood, “his canvas was a never-ending space to fill.”
Many times, Still recalled a story from his childhood for Sandra about a clogged well on the farm. She repeated it in our conversation:
It was a very primitive and deep well, just a hole with shingles along the opening and a pulley. Elmer (Clyfford’s father) had hired a professional to come in and open it. The dynamite didn’t go off and the guy wouldn’t go down and relight it. Elmer challenged his son to do it. The pulleys lowered him forty or some feet. Dad said it was airless and very damp. It took 4 matches. He got it lit, they pulled him up, and patted him on the back, like ‘brave boy.’ Dad just waved them off. That was the ultimate moment of ‘I don’t matter to Elmer, I’m just free labor.’
Sandra is a detailed and careful narrator. When prodded for more details about how she remembered her childhood without a parent, or the challenges it presented to her mother raising two girls alone, she said, “he rarely supplemented. His teaching never supported us. If he sold a work it was to buy another canvas, it wasn’t for us. I knew early on that we were secondary. The work always came first.”
Before entering the final gallery, an audio recording by Clyfford Still addresses the caretakers of his estate: “So I retreat. Back again, into the shell. Knowing only that I have two people, my daughter and my wife, who are dedicated to this. I intend to keep it exclusively in their hands. And only hope that it will not injure them.” Notably missing from his comments is Diane, his eldest daughter. Punctuating this moment is Sandra’s inclusion of a spectacular painting pair, “PH-960” (1960) and “PH-259” (1962), which was only previously known by a photograph and unrolled specifically for the exhibition. Clyfford and Patricia Still (Clyfford’s second wife) left New York on July 10, 1961. A month later, Still bought a 20-acre plot of land in New Windsor, Maryland. Previously a dairy farm, the barn required a crew to clean out the wasps and hay to transform it into a painting studio. “Dad couldn’t start painting until 1962. He ended there [pointing to PH-960] and picked up where he left off. They are answering back to one another.”
Sandra photographed many of Still’s major moments and was present during the reclusive Maryland years, making her the largest contributor to the photographic archive at the Clyfford Still Museum. “He wanted to look separate from the painting,” Sandra noted when describing the composed event of photographing her father as never spontaneous.
Historically, a family’s testimony of an artist is minimized in comparison to an artist’s personal insights. Recently, artistic legacies are being revisited and judged for acts beyond their professional contributions. For this reason, this exhibition is perfectly timed. Moral judgements of behavior are fraught with pitfalls, hence why they are scrubbed from art historical analysis. However, these exclusions romanticize the messy life choices of our greatest creative minds. Family observations, which describe moments undocumented by critics, peers, or the artist, can produce a more complete and complex record for the future.
A Daugher’s Eye /A Daugher’s Voice continues at the Clyfford Still Museum (1250 Bannock Street, Denver) through January 13.