Clyfford Still Documentary – Extra Credit

Two months ago, in preparation for the opening of the Clyfford Still Museum, the Denver Film Festival had three screenings of the new documentary, Still, directed by local Amie Knox, this film we will be watching this Thursday in class. When tickets went on sale, the two scheduled screenings sold out almost immediately, and the festival added a third screening so more art-enthusiasts could see the film before the opening of the museum. Still played as the very last film of the two-week, two-hundred film festival, and got me, and the rest of the community, truly interested in the life and work of Clyfford Still.      

The film itself was an in depth exploration of the purpose and function of the Still Museum in Denver, as well as the life and work of the artist himself. One of the lesser known Abstract Expressionists, Clyfford Still was a true pioneer of abstract painting. Born in Grandin, North Dakota, in 1904, Clyfford Still spent his formative years in Spokane, Washington and in Alberta, Canada, where his family maintained a wheat ranch. Though he later denied its significance, the vast, flat landscape and harsh lifestyle of the prairie would exert a lasting influence on his world-view and artistic practice. Still began painting at the age of 15 and was interested in representing his surrounding landscapes, as well as surrealist abstracted forms. As Still was developing his style, the film argues that an underlying theme of his early work seems to be man’s attempt to survive in an unforgiving environment – a notion that is sometimes symbolized by vertical shapes rising in defiance against a horizontal landscape. During this period, we see the emergence of the color scheme (dark, earthy tones punctuated by flashes of bright colors) and technique (thick layers of paint applied with a palette knife) that would dominate the artist’s entire mature style. Still relocated several times in the early 1940s, first to California (where he befriended Mark Rothko), then to Virginia (where he taught at the Richmond Professional Institute), and finally to New York in 1945. This was the beginning of an exceptionally constructive period for him. The paintings he exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s Gallery in 1946 showed evidence of a unique and revolutionary style on the cusp of maturity, echoing themes that would later be assigned to the Abstract Expressionists, such as all-over compositions and large-scale paintings. In these monumentally scaled works, all recognizably human forms were discarded and replaced by flame-like shapes that rise vertically through dark and expansive fields. Along with his adoption of a non-representational style, Still also began to shy from the use of referential titles for his compositions, and would eventually settle on a nomenclature composed entirely of numbers and dates. The film explored the effect Still had on the movement of Abstract Expressionism, but vaguely touched upon the reasons for his split with the movement in the late 1950’s. The film explored how Still adamantly disregarded the notion that he was part of any school or movement, and he remained a self-styled outsider through his career as he eventually began to refuse to exhibit with any other artist.

Living more permanently in New York during the 1950’s, Still grew even more disillusioned with the New York art scene. He clashed with most of his contemporaries, resulting in the termination of long friendships with Rothko, Pollock and Newman – and severed ties to his galleries. Around this time, Still also began to place severe restrictions on how institutions could lend and exhibit his paintings. In many instances, he even refused to allow any other artists to be shown alongside his work. It is this notion that the film explored deeply, as it is the reason for the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.

Although the film focused primarily on the reasons for a creation of the Clyfford Still Museum, I found myself most fascinated with the parts of the film the explored the extraordinary life of the artists and the works he produced over his long life. Although I am sure this film will be easily accessible for future viewing, I am very glad I was able to see it before the museum itself opened. As well, viewing his work on the big screen was a genuine treat. Now, after having been to Denver’s new glorious museum and experiencing the work of Clyfford Still in a manner he himself would truly appreciate, I am investigate his work, and the work of the Abstract Expressionists, in the classroom setting.

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