Sundays with Clyfford Still: Why did he leave the art world? (6)

Welcome to Sundays With Clyfford Still.  I’m your host, M.K. Hajdin.

This is number 6 in the series.  You can read the other posts here.


Clyfford profile in color

A rare color photo of Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still turned his back on the the art world and went on rejecting its elitism and snobbery for the rest of his life, only to be embraced and immortalized after his death.  It’s a genius strategy, because after you’re dead nobody can argue with you.  Nobody wants to disrespect the dead.   Still was perfectly aware that artists who have starved in obscure garrets all their lives are suddenly pounced upon as soon as they die, gobbled up and assimilated into the world of the “culturati”.  He just didn’t want that process to happen while he was alive, because being part of high society is fucking tiresome.

Rich people problems

Rich people are like bored children.  Their immediate survival needs are taken care of, so life loses its sense of urgency and danger, and boredom takes over.  Boredom means that you’re happy, really.  But no one can tolerate happiness for long, because aside from a few weird people who are naturally optimistic (I am convinced they are the minority and the rest are faking) happiness is not a realistic life goal.

Happiness is a mouthful of cool water while you’re running a marathon;  it is a few hours of blissful sleep after a long day.   Happiness is small and fleeting.   It refreshes your energy so you can go on.   It helps.  But it’s not a goal.  Aiming for it is heading straight for a mirage.  The state of ultimate happiness can never be reached and frustration only builds and builds.  That, by the way, is why advertisers like to promise you happiness – because they know you can never achieve it and will never stop trying – or buying.

Lamborghini Limo

Take a ride on the hedonic treadmill

 Survival is the first priority for all humans.  When that’s secure,  the survival instant doesn’t abate.  It just changes focus.  In place of survival, the brain seeks challenge and excitement.

Rich people problems

If the life is secure and dull, as most rich people’s lives are,  they compensate by seeking stimulation.  They sleep around and develop drug habits.  Or they live vicariously  through the creativity of others who do struggle for survival: through their books, movies… and art.

Which brings us to the question:  why does creativity and privilege seem to be inversely proportional?

Rich people have too much of everything and are used to having their own way all the time, and it’s not good for them. They get tired of things so easily, they are always seeking new distractions.   Without sticking to one thing long enough to get good at it, good art cannot be made.

Rich people buy and hoard the creations of others, but often cannot create themselves.  (Unless they got rich by their own creative efforts – but once they this happens,  their creativity declines. )    They want what others create precisely because they cannot create themselves.

Their own lives lack challenge – aside from the self-imposed challenges and hedonic experiences which they pay for, and have nothing to do with survival therefore are not real challenges.  Without real challenge, good art cannot be made.

This is not to defend starving in garrets.  Extreme deprivation crushes creativity as often as it squeezes coal into a diamond – but a life of idleness and comfort does not result in great art.  Balance between safety and challenge must be found.  This is unlikely to happen in the upper strata of society as it is in the garret or the ghetto.

Starving poet

Starving poet commits suicide in garret, the usual Romantic death.

Clyfford Still did not live a bohemian existence.  He did not starve in a garret.  He did not hobnob with elitist snobs.   He was a family man with a quiet, outwardly normal life.  He liked to potter around in his garage and fix cars, not much different from your next-door neighbor.

Why did he turn his back on the art world?  Because he knew he could not live among bored, spoiled, privileged people without being chewed up and swallowed by them. Because that’s what those people do to everybody and everything.  The golden cage of the 1% is sterile inside, and anyone who enters may abandon all hope.

The very normalness of Still’s life fed his creative work.  He needed outward calm to balance the storms inside his soul. His home and family were his anchor.

Still’s contemporaries, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, lived the artist’s life.   They were part of the art world.  They were embraced by the elite.

Jackson Pollock by his car. Photo by Hans Namuth

Jackson Pollock by his car

Pollock crashed his car in a drunken stupor, killing not only himself, but one of his passengers.  Rothko slashed his wrists and died in a pool of blood on the floor of his own studio.

Photo from the play "Red" about Mark Rothko

A scene that foreshadows Rothko's bloody suicide. From the play "Red".

Their deaths are chalked up to mental illness or the instability of the creative temperament,  not the pressure of living the Great Artist myth and of trying to please a bunch of privileged snobs. (Except for this piece, but it still blames Rothko for not “growing with the times”.)

Still had the foresight to see  what would become of himself if he followed that path, if he allowed himself to be made into a performing seal for wealthy patrons.   He couldn’t stand it. So he left and struck out in his own direction.  And this is why he didn’t self-destruct as the others did.

There’s something inherently soul-destroying about being a performing seal, unless one never had a soul to begin with.  Artistic integrity demands that artists be true to their inner vision;  the  world demands that artists do what the world wants:  The struggle between the internal and external is eternal.  Still is the only artist I know of who may have won.  He won at great cost to his friendships,  and never reaped the full measure of his talent during his life, but he knew he would have the last word after his death –  and he had the deep inner satisfaction that only comes from staying true to oneself.


If I ever become one of the “culturati“, please shoot me.


Today’s painting is one of the rare Clyfford Still paintings with a title: “Jamais” (“never” in French)

Jamais by Clyfford Still

Jamais by Clyfford Still. (Photo credit: Guggenheim)

Here’s a snippet of what the Guggenheim museum has to say about Jamais:

” Here the figure is barely particularized, appearing as a black flame or cleft in the blazing environment that surrounds it. Later it was to disappear entirely within the craggy, tenebrous abstractions for which Still is best known. The sphere, which interrupts the thrusting verticality of his tense lines in several of these early works, was also to vanish.”

Read more here.

Many of Still’s paintings are vertically rather than horizontally oriented.

In handwriting analysis, an emphasis on verticality shows aceticism, high ideals and standards,  as opposed to the horizontal, which suggests calm, tolerance, laziness.   Still had a very vertical hand, as you can see below.

Clyfford Still signature

Clyfford Still's signature. (photo credit: Smithsonian)

Both writing and brushwork are gesture captured on paper, and they can be interpreted as indicators of personality in the same way.


Questions? Comments?  The reply box below is just for you.

5 thoughts on “Sundays with Clyfford Still: Why did he leave the art world? (6)

  1. Great post. But wasn’t Still, by locking himself/leaving the art world becoming an elitist himself? He rejected titles, associations, gallery showings, the commerciality of art. He was focused on his ‘own’ art, his stringent rules especially those pertaining to his will and his estate, put him out to me more of an elitist than anything else. He hoarded his work, he didn’t sell his to collectors because they ‘wouldn’t understand it’. Anyways just opinion. T

    • I see what you’re getting at. I think he wanted total control over his art, for fear other people would somehow ruin it. But I don’t think that was elitism. He wasn’t trying to appeal to a ruling class. He despised the ruling classes.

      • Cheers for the response. I might be thinking more towards Still as an elitist artist, thus leaving the art world because his elitism. I suppose just different perceptions. Looking forward to more Sundays! 🙂

      • I don’t know if it’s possible to be an elitist loner. I think elitism needs a group of people on the inside, so it doesn’t function well with just one.

        I’ve been slack on updating Sundays but hopefully I’ll have more material soon. My offline life is a bit complicated at the moment 🙂

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