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Published January 04, 2012, 05:22 PM

Ag inspired artist’s early works

Denver art museum celebrates rural abstract expressionist and ND-born Clyfford Still

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek, Agweek

DENVER — When it comes to art, rural America is best known for regional, realistic works such as the iconic Iowa couple by Grant Woods and the murals of Thomas Hart Benton.

But the recent opening of a museum in Denver devoted to the paintings of Clyfford Still, an artist who was born in North Dakota and grew up near Spokane, Wash., and on an Alberta homestead, show that the North American fields and skies were a major inspiration for abstract expressionism, the most important American art movement of the late 1940s and ’50s.

Still’s life, the establishment of the museum and the building itself make up an unusual story even by the standards of the art world.

Art critics view Still as a figure on par with Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning and other painters, who moved away from figurative painting to abstraction. But Still has remained less known to a wider audience because he ended his relationship with commercial galleries in 1951, moved from New York to a farm in Maryland in 1961, and after that rarely sold his work or even allowed it to be displayed.

Still died in 1980, leaving a will that said the paintings he left behind should be given to an American city that would be willing to build a museum devoted only to his works, and that would not break up the collection. Many cities vied for the Still collection.

But John Hickenlooper, then mayor of Denver and now governor of Colorado, promised to raise money to build the museum and convinced Still’s widow, Patricia, to turn the art works over to Denver.

The art world confirmed Still’s status in November when the new museum put four works on the auction block at Sotheby’s in New York to create an endowment for the museum. The paintings sold for $114 million.

Raising the money and building the museum took many years, but on Nov. 18, the Clyfford Still Museum opened, showing 110 works out of a total collection of 2,400 that constitute 94 percent of the artist’s total output.

Most of the paintings and drawings on display are abstract, but the exhibition includes many early works that show Still’s understanding of farm life in the 1920s and 1930s, and how he evolved from a painter of realistic portraits to one of the earliest artists to use abstraction to convey the experience of life.

Depicting the prairie

While Denver usually celebrates its nearness to the Rocky Mountains, the museum building honors the prairies that were so much a part of Still’s early life.

“Denver didn’t need another building that represents the mountains,” architect Brad Cloepfil told Mountain Living magazine. “This is a prairie town; the mountains are over there.”

Instead of a soaring structure, Cloepfil, of Allied Works Architecture in Portland, Ore., designed a low, cantilevered building that’s close to the earth, the magazine noted.

Still was born in 1904 in Grandin, N.D., a small town in the Red River Valley, to parents of Scottish origin, who had moved there from Guelph, Ontario, in hopes of becoming wheat farmers.

Still’s father, John Elmer Still, had followed a brother, Eugene, to Grandin, but after six months, he, his wife and newborn son followed the brother to Spokane, his daughter Sandra Still Campbell said in an interview during the museum opening.

During winter, the family lived in Spokane, where Still went to school, but also farmed near Bow Island in southern Alberta. His father received a 160-acre Canadian dominion land grant — the equivalent of a homestead — in 1911 and later at Killam, Alberta, a bit farther north and in a better farming area.

Still’s first artistic inspiration came from a barrel of old magazines he and his mother found in an abandoned farm house. Still’s mother was a cultivated person who led book clubs. Still felt that his father viewed him as free labor, but he learned to harness horses and knew farm equipment parts, which became elements in his early works. It also was his father who gave him his first tubes of paint when he was 15.

Still graduated from high school in Spokane in 1924 and spent several months studying at the Art Students League in New York. But he returned west, studying at Washington State University in Pullman. He later taught at the university and lived in eastern Washington until 1941.

Rigors of farm life

The first painting in the exhibition is of field rocks, but most of Still’s early work is in the Depression-era style depicting hard daily farm life. In a realistic style, he painted his family, himself, grain elevators and trains — the last appearing to be a reflection of his desire to break free from the constraints of farm life.

In an interview, Still described vivid memories of arms bloodied to the elbows from shocking wheat. He also spoke of “men and machines ripping a meager living from the thin top soil.” Several of the rural people in his paintings look similar to the depictions of ’30s-era farmers in the President Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, but Still’s farmers and their wives are so thin they are almost skeletal.

Still got his first exhibition in 1939 through the Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era federal agency.

Still had married his high school sweetheart, Lillian Batten, and, in 1941, he moved with his family to San Francisco, where he planned to open a portrait studio to support the family while he pursued his painting. But World War II broke out and Still, who was very patriotic, went to work in a shipyard to make a contribution to the war cause.

The cranes and other shipbuilding equipment at the shipyard appear to have influenced the verticality of his later work.

In 1943, the San Francisco Museum of Art gave him a retrospective. That same year, he moved to Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., to teach. His period in Virginia is viewed as a time of great creativity in his move to abstraction. His work from this period, including a predominantly black painting made in Virginia in 1944, has led art historians to say that although abstract expressionism was considered a New York movement, Still was ahead of the East Coast artists in the purity of his abstractions.

As modern art became more popular and Madison Avenue began to use it to sell products, Still marginalized himself. He became disenchanted with the commercialism and competitiveness of the New York art world, and stopped exhibiting in commercial galleries.

He also taught occasionally, but became furious at students who wanted to know how to get into a gallery and how to get a retrospective.

Still’s wife, Lillian, had moved from their California home to Spokane, and the Stills were divorced in 1954.

During this period, he was supported by Patricia Garske, a student with whom he had become involved in the late 1930s. He and Patricia married in 1957.

In the early ’60s, he sold three paintings, accumulated $100,000 and bought the farm in Maryland. He called the paintings he sold “his hostages.”

While Still rarely showed his works, he continued painting until the end of his life, often wrapping his paintings around a pipe. He grew to dislike his paintings to be shown with the works of other artists, but did give a group of paintings to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y.

In 1979, the Metropolitan Museum in New York gave him a major retrospective. He died a few months later.

As word of his will spread in the art world, officials from many cities tried to convince Patricia Still to give them his work. She eventually chose Denver at the urging of Hickenlooper and her nephew Curt Freed, a Denver physician.

Through the coming years, the museum is expected to display more of the 2,400 works.

Sandra Still Campbell is determined that the museum will display all the paintings, even those that appear repetitive.

“His life work is a symphony,” she says.

Still loved the western sky and fields, but his works are not landscapes, she says, noting that her father trusted the viewer to interpret his paintings, drawings and sculpture.

In a rare comment on his work, Still said, “If you look at my painting with unfettered eyes, you may find forces within yourself you didn’t know existed.”

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