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Clyfford Still’s Birthday


On this date in 1904, painter Clyfford Still was born in Grandin, North Dakota. Mr. Still is one of the founders of Abstract Expressionism. He and his art influenced contemporaries like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Barnett Newman.

After leaving North Dakota, Still spent his early life on farms Washington and Canada. Life on the farm was hard. As a child, he often shocked wheat until his arms were bloody. His sister died four days after her birth. Once, Still’s father tied a rope around his son’s ankles and lowered him headfirst into a well in order to assess the well’s status. These adversities would later show up in his paintings.

Mr. Still studied painting, literature, and philosophy at Spokane University. He got his Masters in Fine Arts from Washington State College in 1935. His early paintings use the dark, earthy tones and flashes of color that would eventually define his style.

Still’s paintings abstract human bodies into vertical shapes rising up against stark horizontal landscapes. His work is often dark, but marked with bright ‘lifelines’ of color. The overriding theme is the struggle of the human spirit against the forces of nature, which make a lot of sense when you consider his difficult childhood.

Clyfford Still is also remembered for his cantankerous individualism. He said, “My work is not influenced by anybody.” He clashed with contemporaries, resisted critique, and eventually left the New York art scene for good in 1961. He dismissed it as frivolous and decadent. He began severing ties to his galleries and turning down invitations to exhibit. But he continued to make art in seclusion on a Maryland farm, showing his paintings only when he had complete control over their exhibition, like not allowing other artist’s work to be displayed alongside his.

He died on June 23rd, 1980, leaving behind quite a legacy, stipulating in his will that his

estate be given to an American city willing to establish a permanent museum dedicated to his work. In 2004, the City of Denver accepted the offer, becoming home to The Clyfford Still Museum, which now houses 95 percent of the artist’s work – more than 3,000 paintings created between 1920 and 1980.

Mr. Still once said: "These are not paintings in the usual sense; they are life and death merging in fearful union … they kindle a fire; through them I breathe again, hold a golden cord, find my own revelation."

Perhaps that individualistic approach to painting has roots in the hardiness of prairie life, something familiar to many a North Dakota native.

This Dakota Datebook was written by Josephine Sloyan.