At home in Aspen: Filmmaker Dennis Scholl streaming Clyfford Still doc online
IF YOU WATCH …
‘Lifeline: Clyfford Still’ is streaming via Kino Lorber at kinonow.com
Clyfford Still was Abstract Expressionism’s man of mystery for decades, having retreated from the public eye as friends and rivals like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock embraced their midcentury fame.
His largely unseen paintings finally got their due with the viewing public when the Clyfford Still Museum opened in Denver in 2011, the institution resulting from the artist’s dying wish that all of his work be given to a city that would preserve it and show it in perpetuity. Some 3,400 Still works are now in the popular downtown museum that helped the former cow-town transform into an art destination.
But as hundreds of thousands make their way through the halls of the museum devoted to Still, the man himself has remained an enigma.
Aspen- and Miami-based filmmaker, art collector and philanthropist Dennis Scholl begins to unravel the mystery of the man in his new documentary, “Lifeline: Clyfford Still,” which is now streaming.
“I was always interested in Still as a psychological study,” Scholl said in a recent phone interview.
Why did he walk away? Why didn’t he sell his work? Why did he write in his will a demand that kept some 2,000 artworks hidden until a city agreed to build a museum worthy of them?
“Lifeline” finds some answers, through interviews with Still’s daughters, scholars, curators along with contemporary artists and collectors, and through the revelations in 34 hours of newly resurfaced audio tapes of Still himself.
“It showed he wasn’t so much a bitter guy as an independent guy, somebody who felt that integrity was the most important thing,” Scholl said. “The tapes tell you that. And he gave up so much for his integrity.”
The tapes came from the Still archive in Denver, where they’d been stored away and had gone untranscribed until Scholl came looking for material.
“It was just a motherlode,” Scholl recalled. “It’s late in his life. He’s sitting on the porch in Maryland. You can hear the glass clink a little bit, so he’s sipping a scotch or something. And he picks up the mic and goes, ‘Rothko? He was a pimp.’ … The tapes tell you exactly how he felt about the art world.””
If Still’s judgments are harsh, the film argues, they weren’t out of jealousy or competition, but out of that rare sense of integrity. Still felt that an artist should make art. He was actively antagonistic toward the commercial art world and the hype machine that propped it up – scorning galleries, museums and critics along the way.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Jerry Saltz reads aloud some of Still’s choicest burns on critics (he dubbed them “pimps” and once said “I consider the fauna called art critics the least desirable of those who have gained access to the work.”)
Saltz is one of several interview subjects in the film that Scholl interviewed in the Aspen area – the poet Tom Healy and artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel were also recorded here. Schnabel, the long-reigning king of art world rebels, fondly recalls meeting Still as a young artist. Still recalls it in the film as well, on an audio tape where he tells of his encounter with the 25-year-old unknown Scnhabel.
Dean Sobel, who left his post as director of the Aspen Art Museum in 2005 to become the founding director of the Still Museum, is also prominently featured.
Still and Rothko had met in 1946 when both were teaching at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Rothko helped stretch paintings for Still’s first show and encouraged him to come to New York. When he arrived, critics and curators in the film argue, Still’s raw aesthetic became the prime mover of the Abstract Expressionist movement, changing the way the famed New York School painted, from Ad Reinhardt to Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman to Jackson Pollock.
His canvases were overwhelming and enveloping, filled with jagged vertical lines and fields of color – abstracts often reminiscent of mountain ranges or oscilloscope readings. Still himself called the lines “lifelines,” and the film reasons they may have been inspired by Still’s hardscrabble childhood on the Canadian prairies when he would be lowered to the bottom of a well on a literal lifeline.
“When I hang a painting I would say, ‘Here I am,’” Still says in a recording featured in the film. “If one does not like it, he should look away. For I am looking at him.”
Describing Still’s aesthetic in the film, artist Mark Bradford says: “You saw his hand, you saw the struggle.”
When his cohort of artists skyrocketed to fame and grew competitive with one another over shows and sales after the tectonic “15 Americans” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1952, Still stepped away. In the years that followed, he refused sales and exhibitions with rare exceptions; he turned down reproduction rights and said no to inclusion in the Venice Biennale at least three times, calling it a “carnival.”
His sparse and powerful late period paintings, beginning in 1961, were largely unseen for decades – some 375 paintings that have only in recent years started to be viewed by the public and the academy in Denver.
Still thought friends like Rothko and Pollock had sold out, that they stopped growing as artists as a result. Some speculate in “Lifeline” that Still blamed both of their early deaths on their loss of artistic purity. Unsurprisingly, he hated the Pop art that followed in the Abstract Expressionists’ wake.
Scholl’s film doesn’t touch on the current state of the contemporary art world. It doesn’t ask what Still himself might have thought about how the market has soared into the billions as living artists and their work are commodified. But you can guess.
After he died in 1980, Still bequeathed his life’s work “to an American city that will agree to build or assign and maintain permanent quarters exclusively for these works,” explicitly banning sales and loans of the work.
“It was a 20-year quest to find an American city that would agree to those terms,” Sobel says.
The film lists 26 cities that tried to get Still’s wife, Patricia, to give them the collection between 1983 and 2000, when Denver finally signed a deal.
Then-mayor John Hickenlooper tells the story of going to see Patricia at her house in Maryland to discuss bringing the collection to Denver, and seeing the treasure trove of art there: “I couldn’t help but having my mind run away with, ‘Wow, I wonder what is in all those rolled up canvases?’”
“Lifeline” premiered in November at DOC NYC, and was set for a 50-city screening tour at museums this spring, culminating in a June event in Denver. After one stop, at Parrish Art Museum in the Hamptons, the tour halted in mid-March along with most public life in America due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Scholl and his distributor quickly pivoted to a streaming release through Kino Lorber, where audiences worldwide are now finding it.
“We didn’t know when we’d be able to go back to live screenings, so we decided to put the film out on streaming and people are responding,” he said.
Instead of touring with the film and discussing Still, Scholl has spent the COVID-19 quarantine period in Miami focused largely on the new artist emergency relief fund he’s administering through the nonprofit Oolite Arts, which brought 14 artists to Snowmass Village for an Anderson Ranch Arts Center residency this winter.
Though he’ll never own a Clyfford Still painting, the artist has been Scholl’s favorite since 1979, when he saw one of Still’s rare late exhibitions, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The experience began a lifelong love affair with art that led Scholl to his place as an influential collector and arts leader.
“I’m gobsmacked by the majesty and the power and the ability of the viewer to step into the paintings,” he said. “That has never left me.”
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