Clyfford Still was among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists who developed a new, powerful approach to painting in the years immediately following World War II. Still’s contemporaries included Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. Though the styles and approaches of these artists varied considerably, Abstract Expressionism is marked by abstract forms, expressive brushwork, and monumental scale, all of which were used to convey universal themes about creation, life, struggle, and death (“the human condition”), themes that took on a considerable relevance during and after World War II.
Described by many as the most anti-traditional of the Abstract Expressionists, Still is credited with laying the groundwork for the movement. Still’s shift from representational painting to abstraction occurred between 1938 and 1942, earlier than his colleagues, who continued to paint in figurative-surrealist styles well into the 1940s.
Still was born in 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota, and spent his childhood in Spokane, Washington, and Bow Island in southern Alberta, Canada. Although Abstract Expressionism is identified as a New York movement, Still’s formative works were created during various teaching posts on the West Coast, first in Washington State and later in San Francisco. He also taught in Virginia in the early 1940s.
Still visited New York for extended stays in the late 1940s and became associated with the two galleries that launched this new American art to the world—the Art of This Century and Betty Parsons galleries. He lived in New York for most of the 1950s, during the height of the Abstract Expressionism movement—also a time when he became increasingly critical of the art world. In the early 1950s, Still severed ties with commercial galleries and in 1961 moved to Maryland, removing himself further from the art establishment. He remained in Maryland with his second wife, Patricia, until his death in 1980.
In 1979, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the largest survey of Still’s art to date and the largest presentation afforded by the institution to the work of a living artist. Following his death, all works that had not entered the public domain were sealed off from both public and scholarly view, closing off access to one of the most significant American painters of the 20th century.
Abstract Expressionism refers to an American art movement that emerged after World War II during the 1950s. The artists who are generally considered Abstract Expressionists experimented with new approaches to painting in a number of unique ways. They “broke free” from traditional painting methods (like keeping the canvas on an easel, or painting with traditional tools like brushes). Although Abstract Expressionist artists’ paintings look very different, their work tends to share several key characteristics.