Welcome to Sundays With Clyfford Still. I’m your host, M.K. Hajdin.
This is number 5 in the series. You can read the other posts here.
This week on Sundays with Clyfford Still we will be talking about a little known but vital part of Clyff’s life and work: his wife, Patricia.
Patricia Still, like so many other wives of Great Artists, was an artist herself who got subsumed into her husband’s life and work. As happens with so many other wives, all of her energy and lifeforce went into sustaining her husband, until she lost her own identity and became part of him. After he died, she managed his estate and made sure his last wishes were carried out. The Clyfford Still museum in Denver was the result of her labor.
I couldn’t find a single image of her work anywhere. (If anyone knows where I can find some, please contact me.)
However feisty and independent these women may be, as wives they are sucked into the gravitational pull of the genius male and are overshadowed, if not obliterated altogether.
This phenomenon is accepted uncritically by many male historians and critics who assume that women and their work are naturally inferior and that they are glad to shed their own lesser talent for the opportunity to be part of a legend, although a legend with a man’s name and a face that is not their own.
These women were not weak, foolish or unwise. They are the products of a society that systematically deprives women of resources until they are forced to align with men for survival — then demands their submission, their energy, their will and even their very lives as payment.
Is it Clyfford Still’s fault? No, I can’t say that it is.
Contrary to the popular idea of artists as being wayward, romantic substance abusers, Still was a quiet, responsible family man. The process of subsuming another human being and holding them in subjection is ubiquitously held as tradition in our culture; he alone cannot be held responsible for it – though it could be asked: since Still rebelled against so many other institutions, why didn’t he rebel against that one?
My answer is this:
He couldn’t rebel against the very thing that kept him alive.
The erasure of women artists is not the fault of any single person, but the result of an oppressive framework which must be identified, targeted and dismantled before all of us have the freedom to be full and complete humans in our own right. Only then will women stop disappearing.
Today’s painting is from 1937, when Still was still painting figuratively. Still’s work was deeply influenced by his father’s life as a poor farmer. The viewer can almost feel the aching backs of these these laborers as they scratch a meager living from an unwilling earth that will eventually swallow them whole.
I went to the Clyfford Still museum today in Denver and had very much the same reaction: that the man was on a fruitless quest to find his own self, which he could not do as long as he used a woman to keep himself alive. Kind-of ridiculous, when you think that this whole career of art was devoted to something he could have had if only he had been raised in a less sexist home and led a less sexist life.
Boys have a difficult time developing a concept of self, including access to a full range of emotion, when they are brought up in sexist homes. Dorothy Dinnerstein, Kyle Pruett, numerous other psychologists have pointed this out.
Girls in these homes have analogous problems: of personal agency and certain emotions as well (usually anger in their case, while boys have trouble with sadness).
How different would the art of Clyfford Still and his wife have been if they had been able to mature into adults.
Thanks for your comment.
I don’t really know how Clyfford could have grown up in a “less sexist” home or led a “less sexist” life. Sexism is everywhere; the only variable is its level of overtness. Benevolent patriarch or knuckle-dragging wife-beater or polite liberal pin-up lover; none of them is any less sexist than the others.
Yes, the laws of the time undoubtedly meant that the family he grew up in was sexist (male control of resources, female-dominated and -dependent childhood).
Lots of people do have nonsexist families now, of course.
We’re living in a sea of misogyny. There’s nobody in this sea that isn’t wet.