Looking at Still's work today, it may be hard to see how radical and cutting-edge it was, because expressively painted color fields have become almost ubiquitous in the work of many other abstract artists. But Still was at the forefront of a generation of American painters, most of them working in New York, who, in the decade after the Second World War, rewrote the history of art by coming up with the abstract-expressionist style.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, artists from Europe, especially Paris, came to New York after fleeing the Nazis. This upped the ante for contemporary art in America, which, with certain notable exceptions such as the work of Stuart Davis, was pretty conservative and derivative of the art of Paris -- only the U.S. was ten years behind the French.
In response to the new awareness of European art -- the inevitable product of all those Europeans being here -- American artists, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell and Still, began to experiment. First, they all explored surrealism, and then they each came up with individual approaches to non-objective all-over abstractions. It was these paintings, later called abstract-expressionist, that made them famous.
Abstract-expressionist paintings are essentially about putting paint to canvas, and nothing more. This phenomenological and reductivist approach was a spectacular discovery that put the United States in the big leagues, art-wise. It's an inexhaustible method with tons of possibilities for unique expression. I guess that's why abstract expressionism is a stylistic mother lode that's been successfully mined by artists up to the present day.
Given the watershed quality of abstract expressionism, it's no surprise that paintings by the great ones, like Still, cost a fortune. In the announcement about the promised Still gift to Denver, city officials cited a Still painting that recently sold for more than $3 million at auction. Presumably, the paintings Still kept for himself represent his best efforts and are worth even more. When you consider that there are more than 700 canvases in the collection and over 1,000 works on paper, we're talking about a value of between $500 million and a billion dollars -- the latter being the number the mayor has been tossing around. But any estimate of worth is as abstract as Still's paintings: According to his will, in order to receive the gift, the City of Denver must promise never to sell one. That makes Still's paintings priceless in more ways than one.
Still was born in the farming town of Grandin, North Dakota, in 1904. He later moved to the Pacific Northwest. In 1924, Still made his first trip to New York to check out the art scene. After that, he took up residence in Washington state and attended Spokane University off and on until he earned his bachelor's degree almost ten years later, in 1933. After graduation, he taught at what was then Washington State College in Pullman, a job he held until 1941. With the coming of World War II, Still quit teaching and went to San Francisco to work in the defense industry. He found ready success in the Bay Area, and in 1943 he was the subject of a solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Art. That was quite a big deal -- especially then -- for an artist who was not yet forty.
Still's work of the early 1940s was really out there. He used a crude technique to create heavily impastoed surfaces, with paint applied so thick it's almost vulgar. The paintings depicted severely abstracted forms that suggested the sun, the moon, the earth and the human figure. Stylistically, these paintings are part and parcel of surrealism, which had been popular with vanguard artists since the 1920s. But when critics remarked about his surrealism, Still took issue with them; he soon eliminated any reference to recognizable subjects and began doing the color-field abstraction he is best known for.
At about the same time as his solo at the museum, Still met kindred spirit Rothko, who was teaching in the Bay Area. Rothko got Still a show at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of the Century Gallery -- one of the most important New York galleries of its day, as its regular stock in trade was the work of the great modern masters of Europe. This 1946 exhibit marked Still's entry to the New York art scene, but he remained on the West Coast, where he was teaching at the California School of the Arts -- now the San Francisco Art Institute -- until finally moving to New York in 1950.