Painter's works draw crowds, controversy


NEW WINDSOR -- When Clyfford Still died more than a decade ago, he left behind a legacy of vibrant streaks and splashes of color that once set the art world spinning.

He was among the founders of American abstract expressionism, but the bulk of his 2,200 works remains hidden. His widow, Patricia, who lives here in the home they shared, will not say where most of the art is stored -- not even whether it is somewhere in Carroll County.

The artist worked here in relative solitude for 19 years until his death in Baltimore's Sinai Hospital in 1980. The barn outside of New Windsor that was his studio has been torn down.

His palette knife strokes and his drawings continue to stir admiration and controversy among those who see them in a small number of museums in the United States or scattered among the private collections of fellow artists.

Mr. Still's vehement refusal to show his works with those of other artists earned him a reputation as a temperamental, difficult talent. And he chastised those who he said valued art not for its own sake but the money and power it could attract.

Frustrated, Mr. Still shunned what he called "the bureaucracy" of the New York art scene and moved his family -- his wife and their two daughters -- to Carroll County in 1961. Here, few seemed to care or even to be aware that a world-renowned figure lived in their midst.

His widow says would-be entrepreneurs, with visions of dollars in their heads, still travel to Carroll County to inquire about the hidden art collection.

But the Still legacy -- some of it on rolls of canvas and including both wall-sized paintings and sketches on pads -- will stay in an unidentified "safe place" until the artist's last request is fulfilled, she said. That dream is that a museum will be built for the exclusive study and exhibition of his work.

This plan set forth in her husband's will was never meant to deny the world his gift, Mrs. Still said recently, explaining that the cancer-stricken artist hoped to protect his work after his death from the critics, dealers and others he believed tried to manipulate him for their own profit while he was alive.

"Still wasn't trying to withhold his ideas or his work; he just didn't want to sell them to the kind of person who was buying them just for an investment. He just wanted people to like the paintings and appreciate them and love them like he did," she said.

"He was a man stating his own creativity, and he felt strongly that if one put forth the best within himself, he would be giving the greatest gift to the world," she added.

The widow's eyes glazed over as she reminisced about her first introduction to Mr. Still, the artist and the man, born in Grandin, North Dakota.

The first meeting, she said, was not a face-to-face encounter but an exhibit in the 1930s at the college that is now Washington State University.

"There I was, a young, green kid from the country," recalled the Washington State native. "I thought I was an artist, but then when I saw that painting, my knees started shaking. . . . There just wasn't any art like it. His paintings are not symbols for anything or illustration. Their meaning is contained within themselves."

Patricia Still's eyes sharply refocused on the abstract canvases that contrasted with the tweedy and flower-printed furnishings of her parlor.

On a wall hangs a dark, brooding lithograph of a painting, the original of which is part of a collection of the artist's work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Still other paintings, about seven feet high, are framed by two sets of double doors in a hallway.

"There are some people who obviously would like to get their hands on the collection so that they can do what they want with the paintings -- like break up the collection and send parts to different museums," Mrs. Still said.

"Some people are just greedy," she continued. "They know the value of the collection and that it would be a tremendous attraction to people all over the world. But that will never happen."

In a room just off the parlor stands yet another labor of love: a doll-sized model of a two-story complex Mrs. Still hopes will be built in memory of her husband. She carefully slides away a paper roof to reveal a maze of rooms that would display five decades of Still art.

The cardboard walls are adorned with more than a hundred intricate miniature replicas of her husband's paintings that took the widow months to complete. In the middle of the exhibit, a cut-out paper critic stands, grinning, his arms folded across his chest.

Mrs. Still's voice sparked with excitement as she explained plans to reserve the first floor of the complex for classrooms and storage bins where young artists could study Mr. Still's work exclusively.

It's the way he would have wanted it, she said. "Everyone knew he didn't like group exhibits. He always said, 'You can't see a man's work when it's part of a group. All you see is his work as a piece of a lot of others.' "

For now, the Still museum remains as abstract as his work.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. -- which each received about 30 paintings personally dedicated by the artist -- continue to attract a steady stream of the curious, the perplexed and the delighted.

Curators from both galleries are preparing to lend some of the paintings for a European exhibit of Mr. Still's work scheduled next year in Basel, Switzerland.

However, no museum or foundation has been able to comply with the precise terms of the will envisioning a new institution located in an American city for exclusive exhibition of the Still work. Its organizers would not be able to sell, exchange or give away any of the paintings.

"It's just not financially or ethically possible for most museums to comply with the terms of the will," said Lowery Simms, a curator of 20th century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where there is a permanent exhibit of 10 Still paintings.

"Still is of a generation when American art first became marketable wholesale to art institutions and museums," the curator said. "In a system that would seem to favor critics, dealers and art directors, Still had some very specific ideas about who should have the last word in terms of how an artist's work was presented.

"In a funny kind of way, he succeeded in making himself all the more desirable." And he still has the last word, the curator said.

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