Clyfford Still, PW-3, 1930 (detail). Watercolor on paper, 10 1/8 x 11 7/8 inches (25.7 x 30.2 cm). Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO

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Introduction: A Visual Diary of Still’s Personal World

Clyfford Still (1904–1980) may have explored the potential of drawing more than any other artist of his time. The sheer volume (more than 2,300) and variety of Still’s works on paper reveal the centrality of drawing within his lifelong creative process. Over six decades, Still explored (and showed considerable mastery of) the entire range of drawing media—graphite, charcoal, pastel, crayon, pen and ink, oil paint, gouache, and tempera on paper—as well as the printmaking techniques of lithography, etching, woodcut, and silkscreen. Examined together, these works on paper tell the story of an artist who never lost an experimental and curious approach to his art, even as his mature work became quintessentially deliberate and monumental.

Still held his drawings in special regard. During his life, he included works on paper in only two exhibitions, his 1946 one-man show at Art of This Century gallery and his 1969 exhibition at Marlborough-Gerson, both in New York. He did not even include drawings in his mammoth, penultimate retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979. In October 1978, art dealer Sidney Janis tried to convince the artist to show a group of his pastels concurrently with the Met exhibition, to no avail. Still wrote to Janis,

It is a most reasonable idea, except for the fact that I have no desire to expose publicly the pastels, or sell them. They constitute a visual diary of a personal world and I have decided that it would be most appropriate to keep them together until the record is finished.1

Furthermore, Still’s magnanimous lifetime gifts to museums—thirty-one works to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, twenty-eight to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and three to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC—only included paintings. These facts, along with the manner in which the works on paper were inventoried and stored by the artist and his family (meticulously interleaved and housed in archival museum boxes), further attest to their privileged status.

The role of drawing in Still’s art is varied, including its traditional function as a preparatory step as well as a wellspring for works in other media. In some cases, paintings and prints grew directly out of sketches or more finished drawings. In other instances, however, the opposite was true: large paintings would spawn small, related drawings, thereby asserting the iterative nature of Still’s art. Lastly, Still’s highly disciplined hand rendered his works on paper heirs to the nineteenth-century French artist Jean-August-Dominique Ingres’ maxim: “Drawing is the probity of art.”

This catalogue closely follows the organization of the exhibition. Both are arranged chronologically to allow for parallel examinations of Still’s stylistic evolution as well as a consideration of large bodies of work in specific media, such as the oils on paper made between 1943 and 1944 and selections from the more than one thousand pastels Still made in the last decade of his life. The selection also includes materials from the extensive Clyfford Still Museum Archives, including anatomical studies and sketches from when the artist participated in wartime shipbuilding in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1941 to 1943. Through the works on view, it also becomes apparent that Still used the activity of drawing as a means to summon and investigate many new ideas, thus establishing that his works on paper are, above all, independent works of art in and of themselves.

David Anfam, senior consulting curator
Bailey H. Placzek, assistant curator and collections manager
Dean Sobel, director

Exhibition Co-curators

 

  1. Clyfford Still, letter to Sidney Janis, 2 October 1978. Clyfford Still Museum Archives.

Citation Information

Chicago

David Anfam, Bailey H. Placzek, Dean Sobel. “Introduction.” In Clyfford Still: The Works on Paper. Denver: Clyfford Still Museum Research Center, 2016. http://pubs.clyffordstillmuseum.org/worksonpaper/introduction/.

MLA

Anfam, David, et al. “Introduction.” Clyfford Still: The Works on Paper. Denver: Clyfford Still Museum Research Center, 2016. 1 Nov. 2016 <http://pubs.clyffordstillmuseum.org/worksonpaper/introduction/>.