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Clyfford Still


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(b Grandin, N. Dak., 30 Nov. 1904; d Baltimore, 23 June 1980).

American painter, one of the major figures of Abstract Expressionism but the one least associated with the New York art scene. In the 1930s he taught at Washington State College, Pullman, and after working in war industries in California, 1941–3, he taught for two years at the Richmond Professional Institute, Richmond, Virginia. He then lived briefly in New York (1945–6), where he had a one-man exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery in 1946. Although he stood somewhat apart from the other Abstract Expressionists, he was friendly with Mark Rothko (they had met in 1943), the two men sharing a sense of almost mystical fervour about their work. In 1946–50 he taught at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, then lived in New York, 1950–61. By the time he returned to New York, Still had created his mature style and had a rapidly growing reputation. He was one of the pioneers of the very large, virtually monochromatic painting. But unlike Newman and Rothko, who used fairly flat, unmodulated pigment, Still used heavily loaded, expressively modulated impasto in jagged forms. His work can have a raw aggressive power, but in the 1960s it became more lyrical. In 1961 Still moved to rural Maryland to work in tranquillity away from the ‘poltroon politicians and charlatan hucksters’ of the art world. Scorning galleries, dealers, and critics, and rarely exhibiting, he considered himself something of a visionary who needed solitude to give expression to his high spiritual purpose, and he gained a reputation for cantankerousness and pretentiousness—his comment on his painting 1953 (1953, Tate, London) is typical of his high-flown prose: ‘there was a conscious intention to emphasize the quiescent depths of the blue by the broken red at its lower edge while expanding its inherent dynamic beyond the geometries of the constricting frame…In addition, the yellow wedge at the top is a re-assertion of the human context—a gesture of rejection of any authoritarian rationale or system of politico-dialectical dogma.’ Despite his aversion to the art establishment, Still received numerous awards in his later years. He and his widow presented large groups of his paintings to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but the bulk of his output still remains the property of his estate. A museum to house these works is scheduled to open in Denver in 2011.

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