Clyfford Still - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Monday, December 7, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Featuring a chromatic intensity and emotive depth characteristic of Clyfford Still’s finest works, the incendiary crimson expanse and jagged black and blue forms of PH-407 pulsates with an enigmatic energy. Painted in 1964, three years after Still left the New York art world for good for the tranquility and quietude of the countryside, this monumental masterpiece stands as a superb example from the artist’s previously overlooked chapter in Maryland. This period was recently the subject of a 10-year long research project by some of the most prominent experts on Still—and is currently being celebrated in the exhibition Clyfford Still: Late Works at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. Formerly housed in the collection of the Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden, PH-407 arrives on the market during an auspicious moment in scholarship that indexes a larger art historical reconsideration of the artist’s mature period.

    "[There has been] a significant milestone in the understanding of an artist who, over the course of the last 20 years of his life, shrouded his production in mystery… Still’s late paintings and drawings reveal a body of work that is far richer and more complex than previously understood."
    — Dean Sobel, Founding Director of the Clyfford Still Museum

    One of the pioneering forces of Abstract Expressionism, Still strove to retain complete control over every work he executed—betraying a steadfastness and dedication that are often attributed to his harsh, physically taxing upbringing as the son of a Canadian farmer in Alberta. As a result, he withdrew all of his work from public exhibition in 1951—with very few exceptions for galleries and museums—and Still’s paintings rarely enter the market: only a few dozen are estimated to still be in private hands.


    Still’s American Aesthetic


    It is nearly impossible to exaggerate Still’s influence on Abstract Expressionism and modernism. When Still relocated to New York in 1945 at his friend Mark Rothko’s urging, his peers—including Jackson Pollock, Rothko, Barnett Newman—were still unable to relinquish the constellations of automatist forms in their works that they had inherited from the Surrealists. 


    [left] Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1960. Collection of Kate Rothko Prizel, Photo credit Christopher Burke / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York [right] Jackson Pollock, Free Form, 1946. Museum of Modern Art, New York, Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

    While his peers were still preoccupied with European modes of representation, Still was crafting an aesthetic that was entirely his own. Even when he did live in New York, he always kept one foot out of the city, travelling frequently between the West and East coasts of America in order to avoid any influence from the contemporary world he could while still continuing to make a living. According to Rothko, while “working out West, and alone,” his friend had entered the realm of “Myth” with “unprecedented forms and completely personal methods,” arriving into an entirely new dimension of painting.i It was not until Still introduced them to his open and evocative approach, and in a sense aesthetically liberated them, that the New York School began interrogating the expressive fields of color that seem so inherent to the movement now.


    Despite his widespread influence during his time, Still’s process was particularly unique. Instead of filling canvases with expressive yet momentary gestures—such as Pollock’s drips or Frankenthaler’s stains—the artist would gradually build up the surface of his works layer by layer, forming complex expanses of paint and emotion. While the blood red field the composes much of PH-407 may appear monochromatic at first glance, upon further inspection the tonal nuances and brushstrokes begin to reveal themselves. Continuously shifting in color and texture, PH-407 is emblematic of Still’s extraordinary approach which forever altered the course of art history.


    You can turn the lights out. The paintings will carry their own fire."
    — Clyfford Still

    A Monumental Shift


    Executed an hour out of Baltimore and far from the chaos of New York, Still’s work in the 1960s began to “empty out” as well. “I had taken [densely worked paintings] as far as I could go,” the artist explained, “and felt I was coming up against a dead wall of abstraction, manipulation, and device.”ii Just as Agnes Martin’s forms were reduced to horizontal bands of color in her final years, Still shifted his focus to only two or three hues and their relativity, betraying a return to some of the fundamental questions of abstraction that he first investigated in the early 1940s. According to Dean Sobel, the founding director of the Clyfford Still Museum, these paintings such as PH-407 “explore basic figure-ground relationships and the relationship of these patches to each other. The forms appear to float on the canvas and rise to the front of the picture plane, stressing the flattened, two-dimensional space that characterizes Still’s paintings, those of the other Abstract Expressionists, and nearly all avant-garde, post-Greenbergian painting of the 1960s.”iii

    "Space in a Still painting is conceived to be infinite in its dimensions."
    — Hilton Kramer


    What truly defines Still’s work from this period, however, is the sense of flickering movement that permeates PH-407. Towards the bottom of the painting, a black form evoking a flame flickers, emitting a vibrant cobalt ember and white smoke: the inverse composition of a scarlet flame blazing in the night. This dynamism—lent to the work not by one form but by the relationship between multiple forms—is characteristic of Still’s mature canvases, which coalesce kinetic energy with a reductive approach.


    Still’s Final Years


    In 1961, Still relocated with his wife to an approximately 25-acre overgrown ranch in rural Maryland, coming full circle and returning to his agrarian roots; for the first time since his childhood, he felt the solitude and interconnectivity with nature experienced on farmland. Though he had already disconnected himself from the New York art world, in order to keep developing his craft and to continue growing as an artist, Still felt he had to establish empty physical space around him to fill with his work—which, over 200 miles from Manhattan, he was finally able to do. He converted a barn on the homestead into a studio, and in letter to a friend in 1962, expressed his renewed and refreshed drive to paint. “My setup here has arrived at a point which permits me to relax a bit. The house is comfortable and a big studio is ready to work in [on] any warm day,” Still said. “The isolation has proven reinvigorating to an extent I had not imagined. The fresh air has strengthened the spirit and cleared away tensions that never should have been borne.”iv

    "[I] look out again on the green of the trees and the grasses, the clarity of the almost cloudless sky, to feel the refreshing wind and the delightful snack with Pat on the porch. It is a brilliant and beautiful day—typically, of Maryland at its best."
    — Clyfford Still

    Clyfford and Sandra Still pose before the artist's farmhouse in Westminster, Maryland, circa 1961. Courtesy the Clyfford Still Archives.

    Still went on to spend the last two decades of his life in Westminster, Maryland, which was unequivocally the most fertile period in the artist’s life: between 1961 and 1980, he executed approximately 380 paintings and 1,100 works on paper, more than he had created in the forty years prior. Some of the pictures from this time shared compositional affinities with earlier drawings; the pastel study for PH-407, now housed in the Clyfford Still Museum, was actually executed five years prior, but he waited until settling in Maryland to translate it onto canvas.


    [left] Clyfford Still, PP-2, 1959. Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Artwork © City and County of Denver / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York [right] Barnett Newman, Black Fire I, 1961. Private Collection, Artwork © 2020 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    [left] Clyfford Still, PP-2, 1959. Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Artwork © City and County of Denver / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York [right] Barnett Newman, Black Fire I, 1961. Private Collection, Artwork © 2020 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Most of these works remained in his collection and are now held in the Clyfford Still Museum, as he refused to part with them and rarely trusted others with his work, preferring to rarely exhibit them and to even less frequently sell them. When he felt financially strained, however, he would very occasionally sell one or two paintings to friends just in order to sustain himself, and in 1969 sold about 35 works on canvas spanning his entire career to Marlborough-Gerson Gallery—the only time his works entered the commercial art world following his disassociation from his gallerists in 1951. Of those 35, only seven were from his period in Maryland, as he preferred to keep especially these to himself. Formerly in the collection of the Museum Frieder Burda, PH-407, is one of this grouping; other works from this seven are in the collection of the Hirshhmorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; the Kreeger Musem, Washington, D.C.; and the New York State collection in Albany.


    In 1979, the Metropolitan Museum of Art honored Clyfford Still with the greatest highlight of his career, a monumental retrospective, for which he selected 79 paintings to include from his own collection. With his health rapidly declining during the planning of the exhibition, which was held during the last year of his life, Still took the show as an opportunity to reflect on a life spent interrogating the potentiality of paint. The Met retrospective’s emphasis on Still’s time in Maryland illuminated how the artist regarded this period as the culmination of his oeuvre: almost half of the paintings exhibited were from the last two decades of his career. At the show, which astonished art historians, Still devotees, and the general public alike, Lee Krasner claimed to have had the greatest experience with art in her life. “[There has been] a significant milestone in the understanding of an artist who, over the course of the last 20 years of his life, shrouded his production in mystery,” Sobel elucidated. “Still’s late paintings and drawings reveal a body of work that is far richer and more complex than previously understood.”v


    Reimagined in VR: The Malborough Paintings, 1960s




    Collector’s Digest

    "One of the greatest influences on some of the most significant artists of the 20th century, including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Still’s work is most desirable to collectors. As there are estimated to only be 30-40 of the artist’s paintings in private hands, the arrival of one at auction is an exceptionally scarce opportunity."
    — Miety Heiden, Deputy Chairman, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

    • As the Clyfford Still Museum holds approximately 95% of his production—and numerous others are in museums across the world—Still’s work is extremely rare to market. 


    • His Maryland works are especially rare as he only had one gallery show in the last two decades of his career. Only one Still from his time there in the 1960s has arrived at auction, and it achieved $20,885,000 in 2013.

  • PH-21, 1962.

    Achieved $20,885,000 in 2013

  • i Mark Rothko, “Introduction to First Exhibition Paintings: Clyfford Still,” 1946, reproduced in Miguel Lopez-Remiro, ed., Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, New Haven, 2006, p. 48.

    ii Clyfford Still, quoted in Dean Sobel, Clyfford Still: Late Works, exh. cat., Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, 2020, p. 17.

    iii Dean Sobel, Clyfford Still: Late Works, exh. cat., Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, 2020, p. 17.

    iv Clyfford Still, quoted in Dean Sobel, Clyfford Still: Late Works, exh. cat., Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, 2020, p. 16.

    v Dean Sobel,  “Clyfford Still: The Late Works Catalog Investigates the Artist's Late Works in Painting and Drawing,” Art Daily, September 2, 2020, online.

    • Provenance

      The Artist
      Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Inc., New York
      PaceWildenstein, New York
      Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Westminster, The Artist's Studio, Private Exhibition, 1964 - 1965
      Mexico City, Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporáneo, Pintura Estadounidense, Expresionismo Abstracto, October 11, 1996 - January 12, 1997, no. 107, pp. 528, 573 (illustrated, p. 529)
      Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno; Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, À Rebours: La Rebelión Informalista 1939-1968, April 20 - October 11, 1999, p. 287 (illustrated)
      Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, Sammlung Frieder Burda, October 23, 2004 - February 20, 2005, no. 20, p. 49 (illustrated, p. 48)
      Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, Bilderwechsel III - Amerikanische Malerei, September 24, 2005 - February 19, 2006, no. 2
      Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, Bibel-Bilder. Arnulf Rainer - Gustave Doré / Einblicke. Werke aus der Sammlung Frieder Burda, November 11, 2006 - January 21, 2007
      Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, German and American Paintings from the Collection of Frieder Burda, October 20, 2007 - January 6, 2008
      Riehen, Fondation Beyeler, Action Painting: Jackson Pollock und de Geste in der Malerei, January 27 - May 12, 2008, no. 53, p. 103 (illustrated, p. 102)
      Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, Lebenslinien. Stationen einer Sammlung, March 18 - May 15, 2011
      Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, 40 Jahre Sammlung - 10 Jahre Museum Frieder Burda, July 12 - October 26, 2014, p. 56 (illustrated, p. 57)
      Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, Bilderwechsel, November 8, 2014 - February 15, 2015
      Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, Gerhard Richter. Birkenau (& Grosse Abstraktion), February 6 - May 28, 2016

    • Literature

      Clyfford Still, exh. cat., Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Inc., New York, 1969, no. 41, p. 80 (illustrated, p. 81)
      Germano Celant and Lisa Dennison, New York, New York: Fifty Years of Art, Architecture, Cinema, Performance, Photography and Video, Monaco, 2006, no. 54, p. 120 (illustrated)
      Götz Adriani, Unternehmer. Kunst. Sammler. Private Museen in Baden-Wurrtemberg, Stuttgart, 2009, p. 44 (illustrated)

    • 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

Property of an Important American Collector



signed and dated "Clyfford 1964" lower left; signed, inscribed and dated "Clyfford — 1964 P.H. 407 2 Westminster Md." on the reverse
oil on canvas
114 x 75 in. (289.6 x 190.5 cm)
Painted in 1964.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate On Request

Sold for $18,442,500

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278 


20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020