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Clyfford Still Photo

Clyfford Still

American Painter

Born: November 30, 1904 - Grandin, North Dakota
Died: June 23, 1980 - Baltimore, Maryland
"These are not paintings in the usual sense; they are life and death merging in fearful union. As for me, they kindle a fire; through them I breathe again, hold a golden cord, find my own revelation."
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Clyfford Still Signature
"I'm not interested in illustrating my time. A man's 'time' limits him, it does not truly liberate him. Our age - it is of science - of mechanism - of power and death. I see no virtue in adding to its mammoth arrogance the compliment of graphic homage."
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Clyfford Still Signature
"I never wanted color to be color. I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit."
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"My work is not influenced by anybody."
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Clyfford Still Signature
"As before, the pictures are to be without titles of any kind. I want no allusions to interfere with or assist the spectator. Before them I want him to be on his own, and if he finds in them an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look to the state of his own soul."
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"You can turn the lights out. The paintings will carry their own fire."
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"It's intolerable to be stopped by a frame's edge."
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Clyfford Still Signature

Summary of Clyfford Still

Although not as widely known as some of his New York School contemporaries, Clyfford Still was the first to break through to a new and radically abstract style devoid of obvious subject matter. His mature pictures employ great fields of color to evoke dramatic conflicts between man and nature taking place on a monumental scale. "These are not paintings in the usual sense," he once said, "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." A believer in art's moral value in a disorienting modern world, Still would go on to influence a second generation of Color Field painters.


  • Still's overriding theme is the existential struggle of the human spirit against the forces of nature, a notion that finds expression in the vertical forms that reach defiantly through the majority of his compositions, and a struggle he evoked in his phrase "the vertical necessity of life."
  • His expansive fields of color have sometimes been likened to caves or vast abysses momentarily illuminated by crackling flares of light.
  • Still's progression to purely abstract painting in the mid-1940s predated and influenced a similar move to non-representational art by his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries.
  • Still was a notoriously difficult character who often shunned the New York art world, resisted most critiques of his work and went to exceptional lengths to control how his paintings were sold, collected and exhibited.

Biography of Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still Photo

Born in Grandin, North Dakota, in 1904, Clyfford Still spent his formative years in Spokane, Washington and in Alberta, Canada, where his family maintained a wheat ranch in what was then the last outpost of the North American frontier. Though he later denied its significance, the vast, flat landscape and harsh lifestyle of the Canadian prairie would exert a lasting influence on his worldview and artistic practice.

Important Art by Clyfford Still

Progression of Art

Untitled(Indian Houses, Nespelem)

Untitled (Indian Houses, Nespelem) is characteristic of the artist's work from the late 1920s to mid-1930s. It was executed in the town of Nespelem, on the Coleville Indian Reservation, where Still co-founded an artist's colony in 1937. In this work, Still synthesizes the influences of Gustave Courbet, Paul Cézanne, and American Regionalism, while also beginning to formulate his own individual artistic philosophy and style.

Oil on canvas - Collection Douglas Sandberg, San Francisco



An amalgam of body and landscape, Untitled is emblematic of the influence of Surrealism on Still's work of the mid-1930s. It also shows the development of a personal iconography and hints at the artist's lifelong interests in mythology, Native American shamanism, and totemic motifs. Art historian David Anfam has described the picture as a contradictory one, the grim-faced head suggesting sterility, whilst its apparent position, high above a landscape, evokes the soaring spirit.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


1944-N No.2 (also known as 'Red Flash on Black Field')

1944-N No.2 marks an essential turning point in Still's progression to completely non-representational painting. Along with its purely abstract subject matter, it also exhibits several other devices which he would employ throughout his career: a dynamic relationship between vertical and horizontal forms; a predominantly dark palette highlighted by areas of bright color; a highly textured surface resulting from the use of a palette knife; and the adoption of a non-referential naming system composed of numbers and dates. 1944-N No.2 is also notable in being one of the few replicas that Still produced throughout his career. Although Abstract Expressionists often produced pictures in series which were very similar in composition, their conception of the painterly act as an event, as an expression of emotion, discouraged them from producing replicas. Nevertheless, Still appears to have seen both this picture and its pair, 1944-N No.1, as identical in character and quality.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

1948-C (1948)


1948-C serves as a perfect example of Still's mature style as it appeared in the mid to late 1940s: figuration has disappeared entirely, to be replaced by nothing but a strange, crackling field of color. The work features characteristically dramatic relationships between compositional elements - foreground and background; light and dark - relationships that the artist thought of as "life and death merging in fearful union." It is also characteristic of Still's work from the late 1940s in being dominated by colors drawn from a palette at the extreme end of the spectrum - here, hot yellows.

Oil on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

1957-D-No. 1 (1957)

1957-D-No. 1

Still began to move towards more vertically oriented canvases in the mid-1950s, a shift that is evident in 1957-D-No. 1. In this work, the fleeting flashes of color that interrupted the dark expanses of earlier paintings are now monumentally scaled vertical forms that rise and fall across an almost mural-like composition. Art historian David Anfam has observed how Still was drawn to compositions which evoke "enclosure and liberation, containment and precarious release;" here the dramatic tension of yellow and black suggests exactly that contrast.

Oil on canvas - Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York



This work is a late-period piece typical of Still's output after his 1961 move to rural Maryland. It features a markedly lighter color palette than his earlier paintings, though it retains the sense of a loose, grid-like structure underlying the abstract motifs, a characteristic evident in some of this earlier work. The work is also notable for the large amounts of bare canvas that Still allowed to remain visible on the surface of the painting.

Oil on canvas - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Similar Art

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Clyfford Still
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Jane Ellen Harrison
    Jane Ellen Harrison
  • Sir James Frazer
    Sir James Frazer
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
    Friedrich Nietzsche
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Clyfford Still

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Content compiled and written by David Kupperberg

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Clyfford Still Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by David Kupperberg
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Jan 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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