"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
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
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
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.