|Chopped liver, gribenes and lettuce.|
Clyfford Still, that is -- snubbed by the Museum of Modern Art in their exhibition, Abstract Expressionist New York.
Contemporaries of Still have entire rooms of their own: Mark Rothko (eight paintings), Barnett Newman (seven paintings plus 18 drawings in the entryway) and Jackson Pollock (eight paintings and an additional six paintings near the entrance). There are only two paintings by Still, and they are buried in the middle of the show.
In MoMA's defense, the exhibition is drawn entirely from their collection, and it’s not surprising that they own only two Still paintings. His paintings were very hard to come by. Still intentionally sold very little of his art; instead, he gave work away under strict conditions on how it was to be displayed. He gave the Albright Knox 31 paintings and the San Francisco MoMA 28 paintings; and, after he died, Still willed a whopping 825 paintings and 1575 works on paper (almost everything he ever made) to the new Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.
|Clyfford Still, 1944-N No.2, oil on canvas, 104 x 87 in. (MoMA)|
But let's compare what Still’s contemporaries were doing in 1944:
In another post I'll write about Clyfford Still as one of the first to break from cubist composition and how he pioneered color-field painting; but for now I'd like to discuss Still's leading role in the development of large-scale paintings. This is a complicated issue. Many artists made an occasional large painting: Picasso, Matisse, Pollock; there’s even a knock-out large painting by Richard Pousette-Dart in the show. But Still was the first to make large scale a characteristic of his art by having an exhibition in which all the work was large.
There’s a lot of dispute about this including by William Rubin, long-time MoMA curator, who suggested in Artforum (February, 1967) that Still was duplicitous: “To be sure, recent exhibitions of Still’s paintings have included giant canvases dated in the forties, but there is no evidence - based upon work exhibited at that time - of any such pictures before the fifties.” But in spite of Rubin’s doubts, Still did have an exhibition in 1944 at the Richmond Professional Institute in which all the work was large. (I found out about this exhibition while doing research for my MA thesis on Still -- in 1973 -- sheesh. FYI, a letter describing the exhibition was sent to me and later published in a catalog (page 182) of a huge exhibition of seventy-nine paintings of Still’s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 17, 1979 - February 3, 1980.)
Admittedly Richmond is out of the way, but by 1945 Still moved to New York and lived there off and on for most of this period; and he maintained close relationships with most of the first generation Abstract Expressionists (he even got Rothko a teaching job in the late 1940‘s at the San Francisco Art Institute).
Still also had an influential one-person show of twelve large paintings at the Art of this Century Gallery in New York in February 12 - March 2, 1946. Robert Motherwell, the most educated and historically minded of all the Ab Ex’s, said in a Summer 1967 interview with Sidney Simon in Art International: “I must say, it is to Still’s credit -- his was the show, of all the early shows of ours, that was the most original. A bolt out of the blue.”
So why is Clyfford Still consistently disregarded? Tyler Green, who is rapidly becoming my favorite art blogger, puts it well: “... Still was a paranoid, insulting, mean-spirited, grandiose, pompous, officious, self-important jerk. He treated MoMA and its curators badly and made it difficult for the museum to exhibit — let alone own! — his work.”
But if being an asshole is cause to be erased from art history, a lot of great artists would be unknown today.