Three Keys to Clyfford Still’s Time at Yaddo
Posted on June 28, 2018
by Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp, Editorial Assistant
In the summer of 1934, Clyfford Still embarked on a transcontinental journey from Pullman, Washington to Saratoga Springs, New York. He was headed to Yaddo—a prestigious artist’s retreat—and the time he spent there in the summers of 1934 and ’35 would alter the course of his artistic career. It was the first time in Clyfford Still’s life that he had the freedom to “dream, think, and paint.” And it’s the subject of our current exhibition A Light of His Own: Clyfford Still at Yaddo.
Still was born into a family of farmers in Grandin, North Dakota with humble but hardworking origins. His paintings from the 1930s have a gruesome, haunting quality that reflects the hardships of agrarian life (see PH-229, PH-230 above). Motivated to leave the difficulties of farm life behind and become an artist, Still taught his way through Spokane University to earn a B.A. in Fine Arts and then had what he called a “bread-and-butter Fellowship at Washington State College”  which paid the bills and allowed him to earn his master’s degree. In 1934, the first year Still visited Yaddo, he was at Washington State College. Mentor Sidney Dickinson affectionately described Still’s barely contained ambition and enthusiasm as “almost pathetic” in a recommendation letter to Yaddo’s director.  Fueled by dreams and determination, Still loaded his car with art supplies and headed East. When he arrived at the opulent Trask estate in Saratoga Springs he was impressed. He had never had the luxury to create without the external pressures of making a living wage. While at Yaddo, Still wrote in a letter to Washington State College president Ernest Holland that he was treated like a prince. 
Yaddo has a reputation for attracting the best and the brightest, boasting 74 Pulitzer Prizes, 29 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships, 68 National Book Awards, and a Nobel Prize collectively among its residents. Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Aaron Copeland, Langston Hughes, and Sylvia Plath are just a few of the big names who spent time there. At Yaddo, Still was exposed to a community of accomplished and worldly creatives with varying political viewpoints. He met Marxists and feminists in an intimate, supportive community designed to foster creativity. In a photo from 1934, Still stands with communist sympathizer Alan Porter and feminist Martha Gruening. “Gruening, whose politics were devoted to women’s rights and racial equality, was a lawyer, journalist, literary critic, and associate of W.E.B. Du Bois.”  She introduced Still to her sister, Clara Gruening Stillman, who worked with Margaret Sanger as a fellow pioneer in women’s sex education and birth control. Another of the residents with whom Still developed a lasting friendship was Peter Neagoe, a Romanian-born American writer and painter who worked with Constantin Brancusi in Paris. Neagoe was friends with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce. According to Patricia Failing, curator of A Light of His Own, “Still must have been intrigued by [Neagoe’s] experiences with the international avant garde and gratified by his unpretentious expressions of friendship.” 
Clyfford Still had his first public exhibition while at Yaddo. “Presented in the gallery at nearby Skidmore College, the show included prints by Maurice Becker and Agnes Tait, two paintings by Still, and several by Ilya and Esther Bolotowsky. All the artists were established professionals except Still.”  It was also a fruitful time for Still in terms of work. Unfettered by teaching obligations or classes, “Still completed a series of small, imaginative figure paintings at Yaddo he came to recognize as a new beginning”  during the summer of 1934. In the summer of 1935, Still spent eight weeks at Yaddo and produced another small series of paintings on window shade. These paintings were the beginning of Still turning away from representational art and toward abstraction.
 Patricia Failing, A Light of His Own: Clyfford Still at Yaddo (Denver: Clyfford Still Museum, 2018), 15.
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