An Outsider Inside the Art World

THE history of art is full of outsiders who dedicated themselves to being rebels but who soon found themselves honored by great institutions and petted by high society.

The American artist Clyfford Still (1904-1980), although much admired, remained an outsider all his life. Still was a 19th-century eccentric who was born in the 20th century and somewhat grimly went about making the best of it.

Today he is known as one of the first New York Abstract Expressionist painters. It is ironic that he should be associated with New York: He was born in North Dakota, grew up in southern Canada and the Pacific Northwest, and reached artistic maturity in San Francisco. His longest stay in New York was from 1950 to 1961, after which he moved to rural Maryland.

Still's early work was conventional. During the 1920s he was painting scenes of American life, like Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and other conservative artists of the time. He seemed to be celebrating the rural landscape and rural work while repudiating urban life and European ideas about modern art.

Gradually his paintings of the 1930s became more abstract, but they often contained a recognizable human figure with suggestions of landscape in the background. Then Still began to discard the familiar contours of the body.

"It is like stripped-down Rembrandt or Velasquez," he once explained, "to see what an eye can do by itself, or an arm, or a head - and then going beyond, to see what just the idea of an eye or an arm or a head might be."

"In a sense, all the paintings are self-portraits," he said. "The figure stands behind it all until eventually you could say it explodes across the whole canvas.

"But by then, of course, it's become a whole new world. Simply by talking about it you have already begun to falsify, because you are giving names to these ideas, and the forms and colors and textures have become something else, for which there are no words."

Beginning in the 1940s, Still's paintings often included large areas of a single intense color, broken by jagged verticals that could have been lightning bolts. Considering that his earlier paintings abounded in explicit references to landscape, it was easy to infer that his vast fields of color, however abstract, were inspired by the prairies and open skies he knew as a boy.

In 1948, Still was quoted as saying that the paintings were inspired by memories of the North Dakota plains. Later, when he was better established, he said what many other artists must have been tempted to say: "I paint only myself, not nature."

It was a persistent idea, not only about his own work but also about what art could and should be. While walking through the Albright-Knox Gallery, in Buffalo, New York, Still once commended a painting by Albert Pinkham Ryder, "The Temple of the Mind," saying that he especially liked the title, which expressed the subject matter of all painting.

Like the 19th-century American landscape painters he resembled in his romantic attitudes, if not in his style, Still cherished a vision of America as a pure new land. Europe seemed morally corrupt, and in his opinion its art was far less good than was generally believed.

At a time when the School of Paris ruled the art world and many young American painters were imitating Picasso, this was heresy. Such radicals as Jackson Pollock thought of themselves as extending the history of European art, but Still dedicated himself to expunging from his work almost the entire past of art.

"It all added up to a completely new vision," a San Francisco artist commented on seeing one of Still's paintings in a group exhibition. "I mean, if you accepted the other stuff, you had to reject it. It had a very repelling effect, and yet somehow you felt the vitality and fresh air."

By the standards of their time, Still's abstract paintings were totally lacking in charm. And his behavior, although courteous and at times courtly, made it clear that he was no bootlicker. When a collector wanted to buy a painting from him, Still typically offered him three, from which he was invited to pick one. If none of the three was satisfactory, the collector was shown to the door.

Still let his students and fellow artists know that he was being deliberately difficult, in style and otherwise, to protest against the idea that the ultimate purpose of art was to look nice in rich people's living rooms.

Curmudgeonly as he could be when dealing with the rich and powerful, Still did not intend his art to suggest an embittered or fearful view of life. He saw himself as fundamentally different from such fellow painters as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, whose art seemed to express skepticism and anxiety about the future.

The 1930s had been marked by a worldwide economic depression, and the 1940s by a terrible war. It seemed to many observers - not just New York artists, but ordinary citizens as well - that an even more destructive war might soon take place.

Clyfford Still managed to transcend fashionable gloom. He said of his paintings that they were not expressions of "terrible anxiety," but rather of "joyous celebration and man's aspiring."

Still had a comparably exalted vision of how his work should be displayed. According to his will, the artwork in his estate - which includes the vast majority of his lifetime production, because he was so often reluctant to exhibit or sell his work - was offered to the first American city willing to build a museum entirely devoted to him. No cafeteria, no gift shop, no auditorium; just rooms and rooms of Clyfford Still.

Understanding that such conditions might never be met, Still created two mini-museums during his lifetime. In 1964 he gave 31 paintings to the Albright-Knox Gallery, in Buffalo, and in 1975 he gave 28 paintings to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Those are the largest groups of his work in public or private hands anywhere in the world.

Last year Still's widow allowed both collections to be lent for a traveling show that toured Europe, where his work had never been seen in quantity. After traveling as a group to Buffalo and San Francisco earlier this year, the paintings once again returned to their permanent homes.

Still knew he could not change the art world single-handedly, but he could insist on being treated differently. He was in many ways an American Don Quixote, who made art as if he were carrying on a moral crusade.

Although he must have been satisfied to know he had earned an outstanding place among the pioneers of art after 1945, he might have been even more pleased to stand completely alone.

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