Clyfford Still


1904, Grandin, North Dakota
1980, Baltimore, Maryland


After studying and teaching art in Washington State, Clyfford Still began his influential tenure (1946–50) on the faculty at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. There he turned a younger generation away from the social realism of the early 20th century and toward gestural abstraction.

He then spent much of the 1950s in New York, but he eschewed any association with the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. Still chose to develop his work independently, relying on the primacy of personal experience and the study and distillation of his own painting. Unlike most artists of his day, he ground and prepared his own pigments, applying them to canvas with both a palette knife and brush.

Still's mature style consisted of jagged-edged fields of pigment, heavily applied and worked into a thick, scabrous surface. He was an outspoken proponent of the idea that abstract painting could portray his inner psychic state, and he vigorously denied any direct associations with landscape imagery in his work: "I paint only myself, not nature." Nevertheless, Still's large-scale paintings often suggest primordial landscapes, rendered in the deep colors of the earth.

Audio Stories

Musical take on Still’s work

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SFX: Slow rise of music (Composer Marc Kate) 



Giant fields of blazing color and jagged, abstract shapes. This is Clyfford Still’s universe.  


Let’s move into the center of the room so we’re surrounded. I’ll give you a few seconds to find a good spot.  





We asked composer Marc Kate to show us what kinds of sounds he hears lurking inside these canvases. Pivot around slowly while you listen. 


SFX: Music and elemental activity – ebb, flow, power about to be unleashed, jagged, rumbling, volcanic – coming in and out of focus from all sides.  



It feels very earthy, very rugged, craggy.  



That’s curator Gary Garrels. 



I would call it primordial. You feel the forces of the universe pulling, pushing against each other. One can really begin to imagine the cosmos at a point of separation. 


SFX: Music continues, slow fade.  

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