By Bailey Harberg, Collections Manager
Last weekend marked the 50th anniversary for Clyfford Still’s gift of 31 paintings to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery on April 27, 1964. In honor of this momentous occasion, let’s take a look back at the story that started it all.
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery (then just the Albright Art Gallery) began amassing a pretty impressive collection of Abstract Expressionist art in the mid-1950s thanks to the Gallery’s director, Gordon Smith, and to one of its biggest supporters, Mr. Seymour H. Knox, Jr. Together, Smith and Knox were known to make the rounds at contemporary artist studios in hopes of purchasing some truly cutting-edge artworks for the Gallery’s collection.
In January 1956, Knox gifted an incredible group of works by Pollock, Rothko, Gorky, Gottlieb, and Kline to the Albright Art Gallery (all of which can be seen next door in the Denver Art Museum’s Modern Masters exhibition). Although these works pretty much covered the Ab-Ex movement’s biggest names, the work of one monumental Ab-Ex artist was still noticeably absent from the collection (hint: his initials are CS). They just had one problem: how were they ever going to purchase an artwork from someone who had intentionally withdrawn his work from public view?
Miraculously, the following year, Clyfford Still summoned Smith to his studio in NYC to have a look at some paintings that he was apparently considering selling to the Albright Art Gallery. Smith jumped at the chance and made the trip. After seeing the paintings that Still had pulled out to show him, Smith decided he liked one in particular and asked Still if he could make arrangements to bring the painting back to Buffalo so it could be reviewed by the committee (a pretty standard procedure). However, Still, not wanting to leave the fate of his painting up to some committee told Smith, “Nope, take it now or leave it.”
Smith then made the call to Knox, who responded with, “Hmmm. I bet it has a lot of black in it”—a color which he evidently wasn’t too fond of—“but ok, go ahead and buy it.” So he did. Still must have been pretty impressed with Smith and Knox and the fact that he actually pulled something like that off, because two years later he sold them another hugely impressive painting (also on view next door), and agreed to loan 72 of his paintings to the Albright Art Gallery for a long overdue one-man retrospective.
Five years later in 1964, perhaps in a gesture of gratitude, Still made an unprecedented decision to give the newly renamed Albright-Knox Art Gallery 31 of his paintings. Bold move.
And here we are, 50 years later, celebrating Clyfford Still for his steadfast artistic integrity embodied by this story and honoring the unquestioning support of Seymour Knox and Gordon Smith who took the first steps in making Still’s wild vision a reality.