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Master of abstract expressionism had Spokane, Pullman roots

The father of abstract expressionism, one of the most important of all American art movements, lived in Spokane and Pullman for half his life. And if that sounds unlikely, here’s something even more unlikely: Hardly anybody in Spokane knows it.

His name was Clyfford Still and one of his paintings recently sold for $21 million.

He may not be a household name like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, with whom he is often compared, but he’s legendary in the art world.

Most people are unaware of his Inland Northwest roots. Dean Sobel, the director of the forthcoming Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, put it this way: “Probably you and 10 others may know about it.”

And we wouldn’t know about it either, if it weren’t for “Antiques Roadshow.”

More on that later. First, the salient facts about Clyfford Still:

• He was born in 1904 and spent most of the first 30 years of his life in Spokane and then another six or seven years in Pullman, where he taught.

• He went on to San Francisco and New York, where he, along with Rothko and Pollock, helped invent an abstract style that swept the world in the 1950s. Pollock once said, “Still makes the rest of us look academic.”

• He was irascible and publicity-averse, rarely exhibiting his work or talking about his life – and never about his Spokane roots.

• He died in 1980, hailed by art critic Robert Hughes as a “mythic” figure in American art.

Yet the Northwest has never embraced him as a native son, probably because the Northwest was barely aware of it.

Then, on Jan. 5, public television’s “Antiques Roadshow” aired an episode from Palm Springs in which a woman brought in a 1937 painting by Still. The art appraiser said that this Grand Coulee Dam construction scene was painted while Still was teaching at Washington State College (now Washington State University), “near Spokane, where he grew up and studied.”

The appraiser, Alasdair Nichol, went on to call it “the most exciting find” he had seen in all of his years on the show. Then he appraised it at $500,000 – allowing that he was being “rather conservative,” considering that one of Still’s later abstract paintings sold for $21 million.

Nichol was better informed than most about Still’s background. Even some art scholars are only dimly aware of the man’s Washington roots. That’s because Still effectively scrubbed his Spokane and Pullman years right out of his resume, preferring the world to believe that he sprang directly onto the San Francisco and New York art scenes at around age 40.

Still was born in Grandin, N.D., on Nov. 30, 1904. His family came to Spokane in 1905. They also had a farm near Bow Island, Alberta, so they split their time between Spokane and Canada. Still often went to Alberta in the summers to help in the wheat fields.

Around 1926, he enrolled in the now-defunct Spokane University, in the Spokane Valley. He was particularly absorbed in his art classes.

“Clyfford Still came and went mysteriously,” another Spokane artist, Vivian Stuart Pendell, said in one of the only local stories ever written about him, a 1980 Spokane Magazine piece by Allegra Askman.

“He was tall, intense, dark-eyed, with a shock of black hair. He had special attention from Miss Maude Sutton, the dean of fine arts at Spokane University; he used to come in on Saturdays and go to a secluded part of the painting studio.”

Still’s dark temperament emerged even in his earliest work. Another fellow student, Robert Sandberg, quoted in the Spokane Magazine story, remembered that Still was prone to paint endless wheat fields with heavy clouds above and sometimes a dark and brooding figure in the foreground.

“This same mood of endless despair seems to have been part of Still throughout his life,” said Sandberg. “Humor certainly was not part of it.”

Pendell remembered Sutton counseling Still when he was apparently under pressure from his family to be a wheat farmer. She remembers Sutton saying, “The wheat in Canada isn’t dependent on you. You have a special talent and you owe it to yourself to pursue it.”

And so he did. He graduated from Spokane University and went to Washington State College on a teaching fellowship in 1933. He earned his master’s degree in art and was hired as a professor.

Sometime during this period, he married and had two daughters. He stayed at Washington State until 1940.

“He spent a great deal of time painting the people and scenes of Nespelem and the Colville Reservation and Grand Coulee Dam, which was under construction,” said the Still Museum’s Sobel.

He also had his first one-man exhibition in 1939 at the Spokane Art Center, a Works Progress Administration facility.

Still’s tenure at Washington State was sometimes stormy. He sparked some controversy by having partially nude student models in his class. Yet one former student was quoted by Spokane Magazine as saying he had “good rapport with the students and was easy to talk to,” despite not being an “enthusiastic lecturer.”

“And one thing he didn’t do was try to get you to express yourself in his style,” said the student.

Still believed that artists should express themselves in their own way – and he took that idea to an extreme in his own life. Here’s how he described his artistic goal during those Pullman years: “To impale and expose the sycophancy of (all influences) on the blade of my identity.”

He left for the Bay Area, worked as a wartime shipyard crane operator and then taught at the California School of Fine Arts. It was there that he refined his new, completely abstract style, which owed nothing to European styles. In fact, it owed little to the prevailing New York styles.

“What’s unique about Still … is that his art develops quite independently in Washington State,” said Sobel. “One could attribute that to his personality, to his artistic temperament, but one could also attribute it to the fact that he’s kind of from the middle of nowhere from an art world perspective – and that’s a good thing.”

By 1945, he had met Rothko, who introduced him to Peggy Guggenheim in New York. She gave him his own gallery show, which artist Robert Motherwell called “a bolt out of the blue.” Still had several more groundbreaking gallery shows in the 1940s.

“Rothko, in many of his writings, singles out Still as having a huge development on the impact of Rothko’s work,” said Sobel.

If Pollock, Rothko and Motherwell considered him an innovator, why didn’t he become as famous as they did?

The answer lies in Still’s prickly personality and his utterly individualistic approach to art.

“Still drops out of the art world when he moves to New York,” said Sobel. “So in the early 1950s, he has already removed himself from the mainstream of galleries and museums and exhibits.”

He continued to paint all of his life, but only rarely allowed his work to be displayed or exhibited. He gave no titles to his paintings, in the belief that people would then attempt to “interpret” them in ways he deplored.

He regularly issued denunciations of critics, dealers and fellow artists. He refused to allow his art to be shown in the same room with any other artist. In 1969, ARTnews magazine called him “Mr. Outside himself.”

“He was one of the most irascible of all artists,” said Ben Mitchell, art curator at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. “And that’s a pretty big club.”

“Ultimately, what it boils down to is that he just wanted to do it his way,” said Sobel.

Still believed his art was best seen under certain conditions, which meant without the distraction of any other artist’s work.

That limited his visibility, yet he was by no means ignored. He allowed the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to open a permanent installation of his works in 1975, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art gave him an exhibition in 1980, just before his death.

Then, when he died near his Maryland farm, his second wife “seals it all up,” said Sobel. After that hardly anybody saw his paintings, had access to his letters or obtained reproduction rights.

“So that’s why he’s not a household name,” said Sobel. “… I get pretty feisty about this, because it’s a crime what has happened to this man.”

His will consisted of a single sentence, stipulating that all of his works (95 percent of which he had retained) be given to “an American city that will agree to build or assign and maintain permanent quarters exclusively for these works of art.”

In other words, he would give them to any city that would agree to build a museum devoted solely to him.

In 2003, Denver agreed to do just that. The Clyfford Still Museum is in the final stages of design and is scheduled to open in late 2010.

For the first time, the world will see many of Still’s paintings from Spokane and Pullman. Sobel thinks that these works are “exceptionally important” and will spark renewed interest in Still’s early life.

Sobel said these early paintings are traditional in some ways, depicting common Depression-era subjects such as farm workers. But his treatment of those subjects is “exceptionally expressionistic,” meaning he does not rely on a direct recording of what the eye sees.

“Still isn’t interested in the physical, exterior realm, but much more interested in the feelings and soul and inner powers and strength,” said Sobel. “How do you depict that? Not through realistic art, but through abstract art.”

This concept would not fully mature in Still’s art for another decade. Yet if you look closely at those early Still works, you might see the seeds of a great worldwide art movement, sprouting in the art studios and classrooms of the Inland Northwest.

Jim Kershner can be reached at (509) 459-5493 or by e-mail at
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