- Clyfford Still, who died in 1980, is credited with pioneering abstract expressionist art
- Still walked away from fame at the height of his career in the early 1950s
- His never-before-seen artwork is featured at a Denver museum
- The Clyfford Still Museum opened in the fall
Clyfford Still was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, but it's likely you've never heard of him. That may be starting to change though. More than a half-century after walking away from fame and fortune, the late painter is gaining renewed appreciation, with his work finding a permanent home at a Denver museum.
How the Clyfford Still Museum came to exist is nearly as compelling as the paintings on its walls. Still agreed to give away all his art in his possession to an American city that agreed to keep the entire collection intact after his death. He died in 1980.
Still is credited with being a pioneer of the abstract impressionist movement in the early 20th century. Yet the breadth of his artistic reach remains a mystery.
The museum, which opened in the fall, can only exhibit a small fraction of Still's artwork -- considered the most intact body of work of any major artist. Curators are going through dozens of rolled-up canvases found in his Maryland farmhouse after his widow's death in 2005. These have never before been seen in public.
"A lot of the work is just starting to happen now, getting deeper into those paintings and the rolls, doing inventories and learning and trying to understand, if we ever can, what Clyfford Still set out to do," said museum director Dean Sobel.
Birth of an artist
Born in 1904, Still grew up in rural Washington state and Alberta, Canada. His early work in the 1930s reflects his environment: rugged farmhands and laborers toiling away during the Great Depression.
His art would quickly begin to morph into a style that would become known as abstract expressionism.
"What starts to happen in the later '30s and early '40s is he abstracts those figures and the landscapes they stay in, and he moves closer and closer to his abstract expressionist style," Sobel said.
After spending time in California and gaining notice for his increasingly abstract paintings, he moved to the hub of the American art world: New York.
There, artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko were also moving toward abstraction.
"Clyfford Still is among the first to develop an expressionist abstraction and not one that's geometric or hard-edged based on cubes or rectangles," Sobel said. Still's style of abstract expressionism, according to Sobel, showed that "the material of art itself can be expressive as much as the scale and the imagery you include within the painting."
By the late 1940s, the art world was beginning to take notice of Still and the new abstract expressionism movement. Collectors began to pay large sums for the paintings, and newspapers and magazines featured large articles on these exciting new painters.
Walking away from fame, fortune
In 1951, as he was becoming a force in the art world, Still simply dropped out.
"He writes his dealer at that time and says quite politely and with all respect that he is going to remove himself from the commercial aspect of the art world," Sobel said.