Clyfford Still - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, November 16, 2016 | Phillips
  • Video

    Hellfire Rising: Looking at Clyfford Still

    “You can turn the lights out the paintings will carry their own fire.” Our Worldwide Co-Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art Robert Manley quotes and expounds upon the work of Clyfford Still, whose 'Untitled' canvas from 1948-1949 is a highlight of our upcoming Evening Sale.

  • Provenance

    Collection of Edward and Edie Dugmore, Minneapolis (acquired directly from the artist)
    Estate of Edward Dugmore, Minneapolis (by descent)
    Manny Silverman Gallery, Los Angeles
    Edward Kitchen, Houston
    James Corcoran Gallery, Los Angeles
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    “You can turn the lights out. The paintings will carry their own fire.” Clyfford Still, 1960

    Dr. David Anfam is an independent art historian, curator and Senior Consulting Curator at the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver. He is the preeminent authority on Abstract Expressionism, having most recently co-curated the current Abstract Expressionism exhibition at The Royal Academy in London.

    A Touch of Hellfire: Clyfford Still’s Untitled, circa 1948-1949

    With the opening of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver in November 2011, the full scale of the artist’s achievement at last became clear. In fact, through this final gesture the notoriously reclusive Still effectively rewrote the history of modern American art from beyond the grave. Holding more than 95% of Still’s oeuvre, the collection contains some 850 paintings and over 2,500 works on paper. Chronologically, the first canvas dates from 1920 and the last pastel was executed in 1980, the year of Still’s death. This output extending over precisely six decades restores Still, after years when his reputation went into eclipse, to his rightful place as one of the foremost pioneers of Abstract Expressionism. The present untitled canvas from 1948-49 represents a moment when its maker – based then in San Francisco and teaching at the California School of Fine Arts – was at the height of his powers.

    From his earliest years on the prairies, Still associated the vertical with the assertion of a living presence amid what he called the “awful bigness” of the land dominated by its seemingly endless horizontality. During the 1920s and 1930s upright protagonists, massive monoliths and other ominous motifs embodied this vertical impulse. By the early 1940s, these vectors coalesced into macabre and increasingly shredded anatomies. The veritable talons of black and ocher in the leftward section of Untitled are the final residues of this simultaneous apotheosis and destruction of the body. Furthermore, lest such readings appear implausible, we need only look to other canvases of the period, such as PH-200. (1948, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver) There, leaping black silhouettes (at right) and three horizontal marks (at lower left) suggest the faintest echoes of a figure and its rib cage, albeit torn asunder by ubiquitous crimson expanses. A similar animism is evident in the analogous reds of Untitled. Manifesting both dire emptiness and chromatic fullness, this encompassing hue hints at Still’s old fixation on the horizontal, decimating wastes of the prairies – now charged with a fiery magnitude – even as it challenges the rising, clawing passages to its left. If black is traditionally a color of death in Western culture, while red suggests ardor and vitality, then we are facing a rare synthesis wherein the two intermingle. Aptly, in 1950 Still stated that his pictures were “life and death merging in fearful union.” The mordant textures of Untitled, applied fiercely with the palette knife, give tactile impact to this merger. Likewise, the painting’s chromatic heat and concomitant luminosity lend it more than a touch of hell fire, a reminder that in 1946 Still described his work as being of “the Earth, the Damned, and of the Recreated.”

    Another factor that distinguishes Untitled is that Still – by that time living in New York – gave it to Edward Dugmore in 1951. Dugmore had been one of his leading students at the California School of Fine Arts, and had proved to be a most accomplished artist in his own right. Examination of Untitled reveals intriguing pentimenti, probably dating from this year and perhaps a sign that he wished to radicalize the painting further before it left him. Namely, at least two crooked elements, mostly in the rightward half, which Still subsequently overpainted with red. Still’s editing of his work in this manner recurs elsewhere, notably in PH-137, in which certain layers were added or finessed in 1951. These changes are a testament to Still’s close scrutiny of his own practice, as he decided to efface and/or reinforce elements he had already laid down on the canvases. In Untitled this overpainting plays a significant role. On the one hand, it amplifies the potency of the redness as it engulfs what – provided we know Still’s intense iconographical vocabulary and how he progressed it – were once down reaching, arm-like thrusts. On the other hand, the now effaced and attenuated “limb” at far right points to an outburst of white, ocher and black at its lowermost termination, enlivened by the subtlest éclat of blue at the core. In turn, these incidents answer to the white and greens at upper left, hinting that there is a strange equipoise to this extraordinary jigsaw of vibrant color, crafty draftsmanship and haunting, half-seen painterly wraiths. What bold syntheses could be more appropriate for a work that straddles Still’s figurative past and the raw, visionary plane that his art attained by mid-century?

    The singular originality of Still’s abstract style reflects two fundamental points. First, that much of his earlier life unfolded in the remoteness of Washington state (he studied and taught in Spokane and Pullman during the 1920s and 1930s) and on the prairies of southern Alberta, Canada (where his family farmed from 1911 onwards). Consequently, Still – who was at heart an autodidact in whatever he did – developed far the from the milieu and artistic influences of New York City. These circumstances go a long way towards explaining the sheer idiosyncrasy of his art. Second, the iconoclastic pitch of abstraction that Still’s work attained during and immediately after the Second World War nevertheless stemmed from the most deep-seated involvement with representation and the human presence. It is this back story that lends Untitled an uncanny aura, as though its torrid surface had erupted from hidden dramas within.

    Surveying his overall artistic trajectory, Still once memorably declared: “The figure stands behind it all. It is like stripping down Rembrandt or Velázquez to see what an eye can do by itself, or an arm or a head – and then going beyond to see what just the idea of an eye or an arm or a head might be.” A close reading of Still’s early artistic evolution confirms the accuracy of his remarks. Throughout the 1930s and into the first few years of the 1940s, monstrous figures – the progeny of Still’s study of Picasso as well as diverse primitivist sources – are at once reduced to craggy contours, fragmented into painterly parts and then reconstructed as progressively more audacious jigsaws of color and texture alone. There is also a constant dialogue or even war between figure and ground, body and field. The visceral, interlocking shards of Untitled constitute the furthest reach of this pictorial odyssey. Scant wonder that in 1950 Still wrote to his dealer Betty Parsons that he was exploring “new hypotheses in experience or sensibility… explosive forces.” Indeed, Still elsewhere revised this last point, saying that he was involved with an “implosion of infinities.” The sense of compression that Untitled conveys – with its dark forms tearing inwards from the left of the composition – goes together with the impression that the redness and the white areas are expanding beyond the frame. As such, the image is at once impacted and centrifugal, its margins appearing to possess a dynamic of their own.

  • Artist Biography

    Clyfford Still

    Much mythologized for his saturnine demeanor as much as for his searing artworks, Clyfford Still pioneered a unique form of abstraction influenced by the windswept plains of the barren Canadian prairie where he spent much of his childhood. Contrary to other leading Abstract Expressionists, Still applied paint to the canvas in thick, violent sheets using a palette knife, creating austere artworks marked by vulcanian veins of bright tones that rise turbulently out of fractured darkness. Still’s works emanate both a transcendent radiance and a studied fury, betraying the roaring sublimity and irascible intellectualism of the artist’s practice. He forged a singularly evocative visual language and quickly rose to great prominence in the art world; at the height of his success, however, he retreated into the Maryland countryside in monastic solitude and cut off all ties with his gallerists, as he was unwilling to compromise his artistic vision for monetary gain and skeptical of those who he thought might exploit it.

    While Still’s self-imposed exile greatly limited outside access to his art, he did forge valuable relationships with leading institutions that he thought might appropriately and respectfully honor his legacy: he gave a multitude of works to such institutions as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. A majority of his works, however, remained in Still’s possession until his death in 1980 and were earmarked for inclusion in a museum for the artist, which holds over 95% of the artist’s production and opened in Denver in 2011.

    View More Works



oil on canvas
55 1/4 x 41 3/4 in. (140.3 x 106 cm.)
Painted circa 1948-1949.

$12,000,000 - 18,000,000 

Sold for $13,690,000

Contact Specialist
Kate Bryan
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+ 1 212 940 1267

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 16 November 5 PM EST