The Arts section of today’s The New York Times examines the strange history and odd future of an artist considered to be one of the geniuses of the 20th Century and possibly the greatest of the Abstract Expressionists. Ironically, he remains–by design–virtually unknown to the general public and this despite the fact that he may have been even more prolific than Picasso.
For those of you unfamiliar with Clyfford Still, he is most certainly the ultimate manifestation of an artist’s contempt for commercialism, museums, galleries and collectors. He is famous for denouncing the galleries and museums of the art world as Nazi gas chambers. After a brief period of selling and displaying some of his work, Still retreated to a remote farm in Maryland and spent the remaining decades of his life painting furiously, cursing critics and the commercial art world and hiding his work. In a one page will he specified that his body of work could never be sold, never be separated, never be shown next to another artist’s work and could only be shown to the pubic in a Clyfford Still museum that would be built by an American city and would exclusively house his entire collection.
In August 2004, the City of Denver announced it had been chosen to receive the artworks contained within the Clyfford Still Estate. In preparation for the 2010 opening of the Clyfford Still Museum, representatives of the city of Denver and a British art historian were recently allowed into a sealed and secret warehouse in Maryland to explore the inventory of 2,393 paintings, representing 90 percent of Still’s paintings. (Estimates are that there are over 10,000 drawings and sketches that will also be housed in Denver.) The paintings alone have been conservatively valued by Christies at well over $1 billion if they were to be brought to market.
You can read the full story–and I highly recommend that you do–by clicking here, but I’m less fascinated by Still’s art than I am by his drama. When the Denver museum opens, a vast body of work that has been hidden for almost half a century will rock the art world, rewrite the history of 20th Century art (or so the critics and historians will tell us) and relegate the current reigning masters of Abstract Expressionism to second class status.
Ironically, for an artist who spat on the commercial art world, the revelation of his work will obviously have a huge impact on “the commercial art world.” There are an estimated 150 Still paintings in circulation, sold before he retreated into his furious misanthropic seclusion. Just this past November one his paintings went for $21.29 million at Christie’s in New York. One can only imagine what this may do to the work of other Abstract Expressionists, likely pushing renewed interest in the school and sending values through the stratosphere. How ironic that the habits of an artist who despised the commercial art world more than any other artist in history, in fact taking his contempt and disdain to the level of an art form unto itself, may be responsible for the biggest windfall the commercial art world has ever experienced.
Collectors in possession of paintings by de Kooning, Motherwell, Pollock, Hare and Rothko must be drooling–and it will be thanks to the man who hated each and every one of them, their galleries and their collectors. In the end Still’s war against the commercial art world may prove to be the most brilliant commercial marketing strategy in the history of commercial art. And then there is one other interesting point to consider. Who exactly has determined that Clyfford Still is one of– if not the greatest of the Abstract Expressionists– and one of the artistic geniuses of the 20th Century? Well, Clyfford for one and then, of course, the denizens of the commercial art world that Clyfford Still so arrogantly consigned to Hell.
Don’t get me wrong. I profoundly love these paintings. But I am much more in awe of the grand opera that this artist has created as his legacy. And like Picasso, one might argue that he was more of a showman and theatrical genius than an artist. And the artist who has best been remembered for his condemnation of the commerical art world may likely end up being remembered as having produced the most commercially valuable collection of paintings in art history. Clyfford Still is either furious or laughing his ass off.