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.

Naomi Polonsky is a London-based curator, art critic, and translator. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art and has experience working at the Hermitage Museum and Tate...

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

  1. I have never understood why Still’s work is of consequence, especially visually. I found the work amateurish and developmental. In other words his application lacks depth and the visual result is what most artists (including myself) walked past during our learning years in grade school. We became better and found the marks lacking substance. And yet, with so many invested in his work, Still persist as having any right to be among his peers from the 1950’s photo in this article.

  2. Clyfford Still’s work is perhaps not as purely abstract as it might seem, as pointed out many years ago and since by such authors as Patrick McCaughey (“Clyfford Still and the Gothic Imagination”). There is no question, however, that Still’s craggy, Messianic personality caused problems for his acceptance by the art world establishment. One small incident comes to mind. Following his gift some years earlier to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, I spotted him entering the museum and making a bee-line for the gallery where a selection of his works was on view, in accordance with the terms of his gift. Just checking, I guess. Without looking at any other art works on his way to or from his own gallery, he jumped back into his car that he and his wife had driven from Maryland and, presumably headed home after spending no more than five minutes at the museum. I know, because I tried to alert both the Director (Robert Buck) and Jim Wood, the Chief Curator but was not fast enough.

  3. Setting aside his personality, as a young art student I was smitten by his paintings. I spent hours steering at his jagged edged verticals lines of color that drifted in sways. Reminded me of layers of torn paper, a history of sorts where I wanted to look at what was underneath it all. Still, I was taken by his surfaces. In the end, personal motivation and beauty lie in the eyes of the beholder.

  4. “Just a handful of good painters this century. Mondrian, of course. Picasso, maybe five percent of the time, when he wasn’t cocking around. But five percent of Picasso is plenty … Who else? Pollack. Frank Roth. Trossman. Clyfford Still. Darragh Park. Rothko, before he got so far down he forgot to use color.” Edwin P. Turnquist

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