Although considered a major figure of the abstract expressionist movement, Clyfford Still developed his abstract art apart from his abstract-expressionist colleagues, limiting his association with them even when he resided in New York. Born in 1904 in North Dakota, Still spent his youth in Spokane, Washington, and on the prairies of southern Alberta, Canada, drawing and painting from an early age. The harsh conditions in Canada are said to have affected his disposition and approach to art, fostering his need for solitude and his independent lifestyle. In 1925 he visited New York, briefly studying at the Art Students League; however, he seems to have developed his style without acknowledging the work of other artists. Still attended Spokane University from 1926 to 1927 and returned in 1931 with a fellowship, graduating in 1933. That fall, he became a teaching fellow, then faculty member at Washington State College, Pullman, where he obtained his M.F.A. in 1935. He spent the summers of 1934 and 1935 at Yaddo, an artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York.
After moving to California in 1941, Still had his first one-person show at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) in 1943, and at around the same time, he met abstract painter Mark Rothko. Still moved that year to Virginia to paint while teaching at Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University). In the summer of 1945, Still moved again, this time to New York, where Rothko introduced him to Peggy Guggenheim. She gave him a solo show at her Art of This Century Gallery in 1946. Soon he moved to San Francisco to teach at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). During this time, he made trips to New York, returning to live there briefly in 1950. He continued to move around the country, teaching for short periods at various schools. His graduate painting classes became legendary, notably because of his irascible nature and controversial approach. During this period, he developed his signature style, making large paintings that featured large ragged shapes that fill the canvas with a single dominant color, forming a commanding and encompassing presence. Painted in a rich impasto, the dominant field of color is set off against small accents of a contrasting hue in flecks or hovering at the edge of the composition, creating a dynamic tension.
Still’s insistence on the uniqueness of his own work, its moral truth, as well as his scorn of his fellow painters and his increasing demands for recognition alienated him from the New York art world. As a result, he left New York in 1961, purchasing a farm in Carroll County, near Westminster, Maryland, where he could work in seclusion. Five years later he moved to a house in New Windsor, Maryland. Still’s work received critical and public acclaim; he won numerous awards and had several major exhibitions in the later years of his life. Nevertheless, he resolutely remained isolated from and suspicious of the mainstream art world. He eventually gave numbers of his paintings to selected museums, for example, the Albright-Knox in Buffalo and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He died in 1980 in Baltimore, Maryland.