Art Market

How Clyfford Still Took Control of the Market for His Work

Alina Cohen
Dec 30, 2019 1:00PM

Portrait of Clyfford Still. Photo by Sandra Still Campbell. Courtesy Clyfford Still Archives.

Of all the 20th-century artists who exerted control over their own markets, Clyfford Still was arguably the most forceful. In 1951, the Abstract Expressionist stopped working with galleries and became his own dealer. He continued to paint for nearly three decades, retaining complete authority over his canvases’ whereabouts: Until his death in 1980 at age 75, no one could purchase a Still on the primary market without going through the artist himself. This was no easy task. Content to live and paint in Maryland, selling the occasional work in order to get by, Still made admirers prove themselves worthy of his art.

Lifeline (2019), a new documentary by Dennis Scholl about Still’s life and work, illustrates one such story. Collector and former Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, a huge fan of Still’s canvases, attempted to cultivate a relationship with the ornery artist. It took a letter and an in-person meeting, throughout which Still griped about his painter peers, before the artist relented and allowed Loria to purchase a painting.

Julian Schnabel working at the Clyfford Still Museum, 2017. Photo by Justin Wambold.


In 2019, Still’s carefully cultivated persona and strategies—that of the solitary, self-determined genius who hoards his work like a dragon jealously guarding its gold—look principled at best, and egomaniacal at worst. Still’s efforts, ironically, have proven detrimental to the condition of his artworks and drawn attention to the rare auction that features his work. Because Still stymied critics, scholarship on the artist is limited. His aesthetic achievements remain enigmatic, while his tightly regulated market—now controlled by Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum—has become his greatest legacy and the most legible element of his career.

Still was born in North Dakota in 1904. Living in Spokane, Washington, and the Canadian town of Bow Island, Alberta, throughout his childhood, Still developed an affinity for the jagged landscapes of western North America. After graduating with an MFA from Washington State College–Pullman, in 1935, he painted Surrealist-tinged rural scenes, gray landscapes, and laborers and bodies that merged with machines.

Clyfford Still, PH - 782, 1927. © City and County of Denver / ARS, NY.

Between 1938 and 1942, Still’s style gradually shifted into the abstract mode for which he became famous. His mature paintings often feature craggy shapes; deep, dark hues; haunting, wiry shapes; and vertical “lifelines”—the elements that give Scholl’s documentary its title. “This struggle between the vertical and between empty-field like space is absolutely central to Still’s entire art,” art historian David Anfam explains in the film. Stephen Polcari, another art historian, has written about the metaphorical underpinnings of these elements. He views Still’s abstractions as self-portraits, in which the artist conceived of himself as a Nietzschean Übermensch, superior to the rest of humanity. A feminist reading of Still might find (tiresome, retrograde) anxieties about masculinity and potency baked into the artist’s obsession with these vertical lifelines.

Still exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art (which later became SFMOMA) in 1943 and taught in Virginia. In Berkeley in the early 1940s, he met Mark Rothko, who helped Still secure gallery shows in New York. Still began visiting New York in the 1940s and eventually moved there, staying until 1961. Two powerhouse women dealers—Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons—supported him by showing his canvases at their galleries. Still and Rothko eventually fell out, as Still believed his friend had started to pander to the art establishment.

Tired of critics, the market, and other artists, Still left the art world in 1951 and became his own gallerist, though he worked with New York’s Marlborough Gallery on at least one occasion. He moved to Maryland in 1961, and refused to participate in the Venice Biennale at least four times. He made notable gifts to American institutions that would agree to show his canvases together—he firmly believed an artist’s artworks should be shown together in one space, instead of in dialogue with other artists’ works. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, mounted a large-scale retrospective of Still’s work in 1959, and the artist subsequently donated 31 paintings to the institution. The Hirshhorn Museum collection now boasts nine of Still’s canvases, acquired through gifts and purchases. SFMOMA’s holdings include 30 Stills, most of them gifts from the artist.

Clyfford Still, PH-351, signed and dated Clyfford 40 1940. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Clyfford Still, 1947-Y-No. 2. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

In 1972, the New York Times reported that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had attempted to make a secret trade with Marlborough for a Still. However, the gallery demanded cash in addition to six of the museum’s paintings in exchange, and the museum ultimately declined. Seven years later, the Met gave Still his largest survey show, which was also the museum’s biggest exhibition yet of a living artist. Still passed away shortly thereafter, in 1980. His widow, Patricia Still, gifted the museum 10 of her late husband’s paintings in 1986.

Still left a tricky bequest in his will: He intended that his canvases, in their entirety (aside from the Met paintings, ostensibly), go to an American city that would “agree to build or assign and maintain permanent quarters exclusively” for them. In 2004, Denver’s then-mayor, John Hickenlooper, announced that he’d secured the trove for his city. Under the terms of the agreement, Denver would have 10 years to build the new space. Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture—responsible for the Seattle Art Museum and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis—began planning the new institution, and the Clyfford Still Museum opened in 2011. The collection comprises 95 percent of Still’s lifetime output, or about 3,125 works. The remaining 5 percent is distributed among museums and the rare private collection.

In a major pre-opening fundraising effort in 2011, the museum auctioned off four of Still’s paintings at Sotheby’s. A 1949 canvas, 1949-A-No. 1, sold for $61.6 million and set a record for Still’s market. At the time, works by only 11 other artists had ever achieved more than $60 million at auction. The other three Still canvases sold for $1.2 million, $19.6 million, and $31.4 million. Given their scarcity in private hands, the appearance of four Stills at auction was a major event, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Scholl, in fact, opens his film with a shot of the Sotheby’s salesroom in 2011. By showing his audience that a Still canvas could cost nearly $62 million, Scholl hoped to demonstrate that the artist was revered in his field. “Money is a way of showing what people think of an artist,” he said.

Installation view of Clyfford Still, “Elemental,” at the Clyfford Still Museum, 2019. Courtesy of the Clyfford Still Museum.

Since the museum opened in 2011, its director, Dean Sobel, has led efforts in conservation and scholarship. Many of Still’s canvases, all rolled up in his Maryland barn, were in disrepair by the time Sobel’s team gained access to them. Sobel noted that from the 1980s through 2010, a lot was happening with Still’s generation of painters “in terms of biographies, movies, catalogs.” The institution has had to play catch-up; Still’s archives won’t be entirely processed for years. Right now, Sobel said, he’s writing about the period in the 1950s when “feathery, torn paper forms start to emerge” in Still’s work and “everything starts to get pulled apart.” Still’s aesthetic progression is only now getting the attention needed so that the public can understand his practice.

Over the past 8 years, just 13 Stills have come up for auction, with 11 of them selling. By means of comparison, over 100 works by Jackson Pollock and over 50 works by Rothko, including drawings, paintings, and prints, have been on the auction block in the same period. Only Still’s finished paintings and works on paper appear at auction, while other canonical modernists’ preparatory sketches and ephemera have entered the market. Still ensured this would never happen with his own work.

Clyfford Still, 1949-A-No. 1, signed and dated Clyfford 49. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Clyfford Still, PH-399, signed twice and dated 1946. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Since 1983, in fact, Artnet’s price database shows only 55 auction results for Still’s work—and some pieces have come to auction multiple times over the past few decades. In November, collectors got another rare shot at owning a Still when his 1946 canvas PH-399 appeared at Sotheby’s evening sale of contemporary art in New York and set off a 15-minute bidding war. The work, expected to bring in between $12 million and $18 million, eventually sold for $24.2 million. David Galperin, Sotheby’s senior vice president, attributed the fierce competition to the scarcity of Still’s work at auction. “When a great example comes to market, people recognize that their next chance at one may be a long time down the road, if ever,” he said. No one knows exactly how many Stills remain in private hands, but according to a Denver Post article from 2011, the total is probably fewer than 40.

Galperin interpreted the recent Still result as a “continued boost of confidence in the market and strength,” noting that PH-399 sold for more than double its low estimate. He also pointed out that the canvas was about half the size of 1949-A-No. 1, the record-breaking Still.

The Clyfford Still Museum itself is a feat, but the artist’s legendary restrictions still inhibit curators who might want to show his work in new, enlightening contexts and any interested viewers who don’t happen to live in cities with Still holdings. Critic Jerry Saltz, who appears in Scholl’s documentary to critique Still’s disdain for art critics, offers a strong assessment. He shouts at the camera, as if to the artist in his grave: “You don’t own the meaning of your work!”

Alina Cohen