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Clyfford Still’s career was heavily self-curated. In the 1950s, during his most productive period, he developed a reputation for criticizing commercial galleries and altogether rejecting group shows based on their “political” motives. Works made after 1961, when he removed himself from the art world, were rarely shown in his lifetime and only recently appeared at his dedicated museum in Denver.
Among the foremost Color Field painters, Still employed a high-contrast impasto style that led the New York Times to deem him a “pioneer” of Abstract Expressionism. Mark Rothko once described him in the terms “artist as ethnographer and shaman.” This wording struck a nerve with Still, who protested largely because it overshadowed the depth of his work. But Rothko’s words have a double meaning, as Still did partially develop his painting practice on an Indigenous reservation.
While teaching at Washington State College, Still and colleague Worth Griffin co-founded the Nespelem Art Colony (NAC), creating portraits and landscapes from the Colville Reservation over four summers in the late 1930s. NAC’s mission was to document the Nespelem people as their population was dwindling. Rather than aiding the tribe, the colony functioned purely as an educational experience for Washington State faculty and students, who observed the daily lives of their Indigenous subjects without embracing or materially supporting their lifestyle.
In this context, the term “art colony” carries particular implications. This was around the time of the Indian Reorganization Act, when the US Bureau of Indian Affairs had pushed new policies for the preservation of Indigenous cultures in the name of “self-determination.” Cultural extraction was rarely reciprocated financially, and the identities of Still’s subjects have faded into relative obscurity. Still painted detailed portraits of tribal leaders, but his field notes indicate few meaningful interactions. Likewise, his paintings of the Grand Coulee Dam portrayed various stages of its construction, but Still’s work reflects little awareness of the effects it would have on the tribes — such as flooding their land and wiping out the salmon population.
Still would later relocate to San Francisco and shift his day job to the war industries, working on ship- and airyards while making a name for himself. But the artistic impact of his experiences at the NAC would persist in the colors of his most famous abstractions. Compare his sketch of a headdress with “1947-Y-No. 3” (1947), how the same streaks of blue and yellow accent deep shades of brown and black. Curators claim that Colville instilled a “tragic sensibility” in his art. But Still had always been fascinated by photographs of struggling rural families, from Walker Evans’s to Dorothea Lange’s work. This may have left him oblivious to his cultural appropriation as he ascended the art industry.
Other AbEx painters like Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman supposedly drew inspiration from Indigenous art, but Still was the only one to make contact with tribes, describing their lives as “wretchedly impoverished.” To this day, many of the Colville Reservation’s residents live below the poverty line with inadequate resources. Still, on the other hand, has become one of the highest-selling painters of the 20th century since his death. A 2015 exhibition displayed many of his Colville works together for the first time, portraying him as a sort of white savior for “preserving” the culture of the Nespelem people, even as he witnessed their oppression.
Wealthy museums have put a lot of stock into Still’s work recently. When the Baltimore Museum of Art attempted to deaccession one of his paintings in October, the executive pushback resonated across the industry. Perhaps directors and trustees were feeling a bit defensive for still hoarding stolen Indigenous art in storage. Or maybe they just recognize that the artist’s legacy continues to serve their colonialist ends.