An episode of the Antiques Road Show television program last winter stirred some memories across the Palouse and brought to mind one of the most influential alumni to graduate from Washington State’s fine arts program.
A woman from California brought in a painting of the Grand Coulee Dam under construction dated 1937. It was by Clyfford Still, an artist who taught at Washington State College from 1933 to 1941 and who earned his master’s of fine arts here in 1935. Still was a product of the West, having spent his childhood in Spokane and on his family’s farm in southern Alberta, Canada. While studying and teaching at WSC, Still co-founded the summer Nespelem Art Colony near the Grand Coulee Dam in 1937. Less than a decade later he had become a leader in Abstract Expressionism, working and living in the company of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning.
When he departed Pullman for San Francisco, Still didn’t leave much behind. An exception was this work that surfaced on the public television program. According to the writing on the back of the canvas, the artist gave the painting to a professor in another department. Years later that faculty member passed it on to a colleague as a housewarming gift. That man, who as a student had taken a class from Still, and his wife have cherished the work ever since, hanging it prominently in their homes in Pullman and later in California.
Washington State Magazine contacted the family for this story, but because of concerns about publicity surrounding the valuable painting, they asked that their name not be published.
While it is a good representation of the gritty style of that era, it’s not typical of the work for which Still is famous, says Chris Bruce, director of Washington State University’s art museum. “But it is a style very common with American art in the 1930s.” Bruce describes it as “expressionist, realist, almost Ashcan School.”
“It’s a product of the Depression,” he says. “It would be very interesting in a retrospective of his work.”
That this family has one of Still’s paintings is rare, indeed. The artist gave away very few of his works. He only sold about 180 pieces. Just a few museums, including the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and the Art Institute of Chicago, have Stills in their collections.
Still disliked the commercialization of art, shunned galleries, and after spending part of the 1940s and 1950s in the New York art scene, grew increasingly reclusive. In 1961 he moved to a farm in Maryland. He cached away his completed works, leaving more than 800 paintings and 1,500 drawings in his estate when he died in 1980.
In 2004, Still’s widow, Patricia, opened the collection to be viewed by a select few to ensure they were being stored in safe conditions. Works dating from the 1920s to the 1970s that had been hidden for decades were unfurled from their tubes. In good condition, they showed details of how the artist developed his style and ideas moving from the realism of the 1930s to the large abstract forms representing concepts like life and death.
The city of Denver has agreed to the strict terms of Still’s will that the entire collection goes to a museum built only for his art, that none of his pieces would be sold, and that no other artist’s work would be exhibited alongside his. Architectural plans for the museum have been completed and fundraising is underway.
Because of Still’s stringent rules about the art in his estate and because there are so few out there in the general public, it is unlikely any of his pieces, even those he made while at Washington State, will ever come back to Pullman, says Chris Bruce.
But some folks here in Pullman can’t help but wonder if there may be one more Clyfford Still painting hanging on a wall or tucked away in an attic somewhere around town.