Biography of Clyfford Still, Abstract Expressionist Painter

clyfford still untitled 1960
"Untitled" (1960). Mal Booth / Creative Commons 2.0

Clyfford Still (November 30, 1904 - June 23, 1980) was a pioneer in the development of abstract expressionism. He adopted complete abstraction earlier than most of his colleagues. His battles with the New York art establishment in the latter part of his career drew attention away from his paintings and blocked access to them for more than 20 years after his death.

Fast Facts: Clyfford Still

  • Full Name: Clyfford Elmer Still
  • Known For: Completely abstract paintings that featured sharply contrasting fields of color and textures caused by the use of a palette knife
  • Born: November 30, 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota
  • Died: June 23, 1980 in Baltimore, Maryland
  • Education: Spokane University, Washington State University
  • Art Movement: Abstract expressionism
  • Mediums: Oil painting
  • Selected Works: "PH-77" (1936), "PH-182" (1946), "1957-D-No. 1" (1957)
  • Spouses: Lillian August Battan (m. 1930-1954) and Patricia Alice Garske (m. 1957-1980)
  • Children: Diane and Sandra
  • Notable Quote: "I want to be in total command of the colors, as in an orchestra. They are voices."

Early Life and Education

Born in the tiny town of Grandin, North Dakota, Clyfford Still spent most of his childhood in Spokane, Washington, and Bow Island, Alberta, Canada. His family grew wheat on vast prairies that were part of the North American frontier.

Still first visited New York City as a young adult. He enrolled in the Art Students League in 1925. Returning to Washington state a year later, he began studying art, literature, and philosophy. Still's first stay as a student lasted for two years. He then returned in 1931 and eventually graduated in 1933. Continuing his studies, he received a Master of Fine Arts degree from Washington State College (now Washington State University).

clyfford still self-portrait
"Self Portrait PH-382" (1940). WikiArt / Public Domain

Clyfford Still taught art at Washington State from 1935 until 1941. In 1937, he helped found the Nespelem Art Colony with Worth Griffin. It was a project dedicated to the depiction and preservation of the life of Native Americans on the Colville Indian Reservation. The colony continued for four summers.

Still's painting during his years at Washington State ranged from the ruggedly realistic "PH-77" to experiments with surrealism. A common element appeared to be man's experiences in unforgiving environments. Many observers believe they show the influence of Still's upbringing on the harsh prairie.

Abstract Expressionism Leader

In 1941, near the outbreak of World War II, Clyfford Still moved to the San Francisco Bay area. He worked as part of the industrial war effort while continuing to paint. His first solo exhibition took place in 1943 at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Later in the year, Still relocated to the opposite side of the continent and taught at the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University) in Richmond, Virginia. Finally, in 1945, the young artist returned to New York City for the first time since 1925.

The 1940s were an exceptionally productive decade for Still. He developed his mature style as represented by "PH-182." His works were purely abstract and featured textured surfaces due to the use of a palette knife while painting. Areas of bold color produced sharp contrasts in both design and emotional impact on the viewer.

clyfford still ph 182
"PH-182" (1946). G. Starke / Creative Commons 2.0

Clyfford Still met painter Mark Rothko in California in 1943. In New York, Rothko introduced his friend to famed art collector and tastemaker Peggy Guggenheim. She gave Still a solo exhibition at her gallery, The Art of This Century, in 1946. Subsequently, he earned recognition as one of the top artists in New York's exploding abstract expressionist scene.

Still's paintings of the late 1940s are dominated by what are called "hot" colors: yellow, red, and orange. They show no definable figures at all. Clyfford Still painted only the drama of bold areas of color crashing into each other on the canvas. He once referred to his paintings as "life and death merging in fearful union."

From 1946 to 1950, Clyfford Still taught at the California School of Fine Arts wielding tremendous influence on the West Coast art world. In 1950, he left California to live in New York City for the next decade.

Disillusionment With the Art World

In the 1950s, Clyfford Still became increasingly suspicious of and disillusioned with the New York art establishment. He engaged in criticism of fellow artists. The battles resulted in the loss of long-term friendships with Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Barnett Newman. Still also broke his ties with Manhattan galleries.

The quality of Still's work did not suffer during the period. He produced paintings that appeared more monumental than before. Pieces like "J No. 1 PH-142" were impressive in size and stretched nearly 10 feet high and 13 feet across. The color fields set in opposition to each other stretched, in some cases, from the top to the bottom of the painting.

clyfford still ph-142
"J No. 1 PH-142" (1957). rocor / Creative Commons 2.0

In addition to his separation from colleagues and critics, Clyfford Still began to make his work more difficult for the public to see and purchase. He rejected all offers to participate in exhibitions from 1952 until 1959. In 1957, the Venice Biennale asked him to exhibit his paintings in the American Pavilion, and he turned them down. For most of the rest of his career, he refused to allow his work to be shown alongside the paintings of other artists.

In a final escape from the New York art world, Still moved to a farm in Westminster, Maryland, in 1961. He used a barn on the property as a studio. In 1966, he purchased a house in New Windsor, Maryland, less than 10 miles from the studio, where he lived until his death in 1980.

Later Work

Clyfford Still continued to produce new paintings until his death, but he chose isolation from other artists and the art world that he loathed. The colors in his works grew lighter and less intensely dramatic as he aged. He began to allow large segments of bare canvas to show through.

Still did allow a few exhibitions where he had firm control over the circumstances of the display of his pieces. In 1975, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened a permanent installation of a group of Clyfford Still paintings. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York presented a retrospective in 1979 that included the most extensive single collection of Still's art ever shown in a single place.

clyfford still ph 77
"PH-77" (1936). Mark Byzewski / Creative Commons 2.0

Legacy and the Clyfford Still Museum

After Clyfford Still died in 1980, his estate closed off a collection of over 2,000 of his works to all access by the public and art scholars for more than 20 years. The artist wrote in his will that he would bequeath the works that he still owned to a city that would dedicate permanent quarters for the art and refuse ever to sell, exchange, or give away any of the pieces. In 2004, the City of Denver announced its selection by Still's widow, Patricia, as the recipient of the art in the Clyfford Still estate.

The Clyfford Still Museum opened in 2011. It includes the artist's personal archival materials in addition to approximately 2,400 pieces from paper drawings to monumental paintings on canvas. A Maryland court ruled in 2011 that four of Still's paintings could be sold at auction to create an endowment to support the Clyfford Still Museum in perpetuity.

clyfford still museum denver
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The restrictions on access to Clyfford Still's work delayed comprehensive assessments of his impact on the development of painting by more than two decades. In the immediate wake of his death, most discussions focused on his antagonistic relationship with the art establishment instead of the impact and quality of his pictures.

As one of the first major American artists to embrace complete abstraction, Still had a significant impact on the development of abstract expressionism in New York. Through his teaching, he influenced students on the West Coast, and he strongly influenced the development of painting in the San Francisco Bay area.


  • Anfam, David and Dean Sobel. Clyfford Still: The Artist's Museum. Skira Rizzoli, 2012.
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Lamb, Bill. "Biography of Clyfford Still, Abstract Expressionist Painter." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Lamb, Bill. (2020, August 29). Biography of Clyfford Still, Abstract Expressionist Painter. Retrieved from Lamb, Bill. "Biography of Clyfford Still, Abstract Expressionist Painter." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).