Film

The Life of Clyfford Still, the Most “Irascible” Abstract Expressionist

The documentary Lifeline recounts Still’s life, career, and legacy — and how they were shaped by his cantankerous temperament.

Still from Lifeline, dir. Dennis Scholl: “The Irascibles”

In 1950, the major (male) Abstract Expressionists — Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Barnett Newman — along with a few hangers-on, posed for a group portrait which was published in Life and has since become iconic. It was prompted by the artists’ protest against the conservatism of the Met’s 1950 survey of contemporary American painting. The members of the stony-faced collective dubbed themselves “The Irascibles.” Though this posse contained some big personalities, none were quite as “irascible” as Clyfford Still. Lifeline: Clyfford Still, an excellent new documentary by filmmaker and art collector Dennis Scholl, recounts Still’s life, career, and legacy, and how all were shaped by his cantankerous temperament.

In many ways, Still was the exemplary Abstract Expressionist. His canvases, with their craggy forms — which he called “lifelines” — encompass the expressive brushwork and monumental scale characteristic of the postwar movement. He was the first among his peers to delve fully into abstraction. And according to his contemporary Robert Motherwell, he was the most “original” among them.

Still from Lifeline, dir. Dennis Scholl: Clyfford Still Museum

Yet Still’s posthumous fame pales in comparison to that of the AbEx movement’s twin titans, Rothko and Pollock, and even some of its less acclaimed proponents. This is largely by Still’s own design. In the 1950s, he cut ties with gallerists Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons and fell out with Rothko, and soon after he left New York for rural Maryland, where he lived until his death in 1980.

In the last decades of his life, Still refused sales, turned down exhibitions, and banned the reproduction of his works. Although he sold a handful of his paintings to trusted friends, he often regretted doing so. In one particularly dramatic episode, Still stormed into the home of Alfonso Ossorio, a wealthy collector who was planning to loan one of his paintings for an overseas exhibition against the artist’s wishes. Still pulled a knife and cut a large chunk out of the canvas — as he put it, “its heart.”

Still from Lifeline, dir. Dennis Scholl (Clyfford and Pauline Still)

Still wasn’t averse only to the art market, but also any professional criticism. He called Clement Greenberg “a small and lecherous man,” and in general, thought critics were arrogant and stupid “pimps” — a quote hammily and hilariously read aloud by New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz. Other interviewees include Still’s two daughters, artists Julian Schnabel, Julie Mehretu, and Mark Bradford, and several beleaguered museum directors and curators with whom he worked.

Toward the end of his life, Still donated large collections of his works to SFMOMA and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. According to his will, the remaining works — numbering approximately 3,125 — were to go to an American city that would build a monographic museum to him, from which they would not be “sold, given, or exchanged.” After his death, the canvases lay rotting in his Maryland farmhouse for almost a quarter century while his devoted widow, Patricia, searched for a city that would agree to those terms. Finally, in 2004, she chose Denver to be the home of the Clyfford Still Museum. This is where Still’s extraordinary oeuvre remains, apart from the 150 or so paintings in public or private collections.

Still from Lifeline, dir. Dennis Scholl

On November 14, 2019, two days after Lifeline’s premiere at the DOC NYC film festival, Still’s painting “PH-399” (1946) went up for auction at Sotheby’s. It surpassed its $12 million-$18 million estimate, selling for a hammer price of $21.1 million. I’m not sure how Still would have reacted to this … but I doubt he’d be happy.

Lifeline: Clyfford Still (2019, dir. Dennis Scholl) is available to stream on Kino Now.

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