Lifeline - Clyfford Still

Review by Willard Manus

"Here I stand, implacable, naked and unafraid," he said at the peak of his career, right before he lived up to his declaration and walked away from the commercial art world, giving up tens of millions of dollars in sales.
The late Clyfford Still, the Canadian-born painter who, along with Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack, put Abstract Expressionism on the post-WW II map, is the subject of a compelling documentary, LIFELINE, directed by Dennis Scholl. The 77-minute film, produced by Kino Lorber, provides an intimate look at an artist who refused to compromise his principles and paid a sizable price for such a stand.

Still, who grew up on a Manitoba farm, had a difficult childhood, shucking wheat by hand, coping with unloving parents, learning early that life was not upbeat or romantic. Once, when the family was digging for water, he was tied by the ankles and lowered head-down into the dark shaft to see if the effort was successful. The image of a thin, red, vertical lifeline piercing the darkness stayed with him over the years and became a familiar motif (as his famous "Black Painting" shows).

That painting, by the way, was scorned by dealers and museums, including New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), a decision that infuriated Still and provoked him to denounce the museum as "the gas chopper of culture." He had even ruder words for art critics, who he felt were part of the "product package."
LIFELINE utilizes archival material, found footage and audio recordings to create a portrait of a man who refused all his life "to go along with the herd" and was dubbed by some as "the great unknown." Irascible, blunt-speaking and dogmatic, he had few friends among his peers, except for Rothko with whom he taught at San Francisco's Art Institute in the late 1940s. He shared ideas and experiments with Rothko, who was responsible for introducing him to Peggy Guggenheim. It was she who urged him to "go inward" and be even more daring and bold, advice that resulted in one of his paintings being sold for 55 million dollars.

The money didn't corrupt Still, who eventually decided that he would no longer show his canvases in galleries. He also parted company with Rothko, whom he accused of copying his style and of being a "sell-out," an artist who had gone over "to the other side." When Rothko committed suicide, Still remained scornful and judgmental, commenting "evil falls to those who lead evil lives."
Still may have been an unpleasant human being, but there's no denying his prodigious talent as an artist--or his work ethic. He worked in a fury, turning out tens of thousands of paintings, most of which were never publicly displayed. He worked for himself, he said, not for anyone else. But in the 1970s, when he was beginning to lose his health, he agreed to try and find a home for his vast collection. It could only be displayed in its own building, though, which had to be on a grand scale, "a symphony, an opera."

Several cities offered to accommodate him, but it wasn't until the governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, made a personal pitch did Still decide in favor of Denver. The three-story Clyfford Still Museum opened there in 2011 and shows nothing but paintings and drawings by the doyen of Abstract Expressionism.
Hickenlooper is one of the film's talking heads, along with artists like Julian Schnabel and Mark Bradford, museum chiefs like David Anfam and Dean Sobel. Still's two daughters, Sandra and Diane, also sit for tell-all interviews about their cantankerous genius of a father.