Clyfford Still and the natives

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Clyfford Still's pastel and graphite on paper works from 1926 show the artist's work to document and explore the culture at the Colville Indian Reservation.
Coutesy of City and County of Denver

Before he became the creator of explosive and epic-scale abstract expressionist paintings and then an artist so reclusive and elusive that he nearly wrote himself out of the art history books, Clyfford Still was a graduate student and instructor at a college in Washington state who went along with a colleague on a search for compelling subjects for portraits. That journey took them to the high plains of northern central Washington and the Colville Indian Reservation. They rode the prevailing sentiment at the time that Native American tribes were vanishing cultures and there was a need to document them before they were gone forever, chased landscape features Still described as second to none and spent their summers on the reservation. In addition to precise, reverent portraits, Still made sketches of teepees, cabins and grain silos.

The work Still created, having not yet found his way to those cloud-like forms and vast canvases in single colors that would dominate his later works, shows him both stumbling that direction and indulging in a kind of plainspeaking documentation of the people he encountered. He fixated on their native costumes and customs, drawing their clothing and shoes in detail, as well as their homes and even a fishing trap. Work that shows him forging a path toward abstraction and those precise drawings are hung together in Clyfford Still: The Colville Reservation and Beyond, 1934-1939 at the Clyfford Still Museum.

“He thought these people were on their way out, that it would be very difficult for them to preserve their culture under what he could see were extremely harsh economic conditions that were tough anyway, and then we’re in the middle of the Depression and people are being sustained by powdered milk that they get from the Indian agencies and so on, so he was very pessimistic about their future,” says Patricia Failing, art history professor emerita from University of Washington and guest curator for the exhibition.

Alongside his portraits and studies of the tribes, he painted the rising foundations of the Grand Coulee Dam. He couldn’t know how right he was that the way of life that these people had practiced for, by some estimates, 10,000 years, was about to be wiped out, or that in painting the mile-wide stretch of the concrete dam, he was documenting the instrument of their destruction.

Still and his colleague at Washington State College (now Washington State University) Worth Griffin sold the university on the idea of supporting a summer artists’ colony at the Colville Reservation from 1937 to 1941, in the hopes of building an inland art movement. Those who came, mostly, were art teachers with summers off and an interest in using the time to hone their skills. They rented rooms for about $10 a month.

1936 PD-95_Regester2015_MRCourtesy of City and County of Denver

The exhibition of 30 works on paper and eight oil paintings are joined by sketches, photographs and even the letter pitching the artists’ colony to Washington State College. The cumulative effect shows Still moving back and forth between two modes of thinking — from the precise, graphite on paper portraits he makes of tribal leaders and figures and delicate pastels of Native American women in headdresses adorned with a pair of feathers, to the broad, rough, dark earthy tones for figures with elongated hands, faces, bare breasts, all of it stretched out as though time has worn all the elasticity out of these humans.

As with many of the exhibitions at the Clyfford Still Museum, the archives have yielded dozens of these works never publicly exhibited before this first study of Still’s formative years.

“What’s intriguing about this early material is that he’s finding his artistic person, he’s finding out how to make painting do what he wanted it to do,” Failing says. “And by the time he gets to the mid-’40s, he’s got it pretty well figured out, and then he can move on to making the kinds of decisions and the kinds of shifts in his practice that you can see in the rest of the galleries.”

Still turned a documentarian-type eye to the costumes worn by the tribes, recording details in the gaudy shawls and skirts in many cases worn to the town of Nespelem to visit friends or conduct business at the Indian Agency there. The colors he was exposed to in the Native American clothing seemed to have made a lasting impression on his palette. His sketches and studies show the artist’s mind working away at the phenomena of color in the Native Americans’ shawls and dresses — he draws a study of the figure and his or her attire alongside patches of color in which the human figure has evaporated, and Still plays only in the colors, using pastels to see what emerges from a layer of violet and yellow with a little red band, or purple with blue over the top.

“There’s just a new chromatic range that comes in in a very factual way because those are the colors that he experienced there,” Failing says.

It’s no accident that the painting hung on a gallery wall glimpsed from the gallery hosting this exhibition is a yellow field with a bolt of red through it.

The change doesn’t occur immediately — it’s not that he goes, sketches native costumes and his colors immediately change, but there’s a slow build that emerges throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s.

“From my perspective, I feel very comfortable that this is one lasting effect of this period and this work,” Failing says. “In terms of the many other ways in which it could have influenced him, it’s still a big question mark.”

Courtesy of City and County of Denver

Because so much of Still’s work from this era is lost — an inventory of portraits from a 1936 session lists 22 works, but the museum has only three of those described — it’s tough to draw sweeping conclusions about what influences extend from that era, but Failing says there’s enough evidence at least to pinpoint that sense of color — the “chromatic va-va-voom,” she says — carried forward for a lifetime, long after Still had since moved on to the other places his career would take him: California, New York, Maryland.

“If we could see it all, we might have some different ideas about how we might describe it or what he chose to focus on,” she says. As it is, there’s no way even to know how much of what he made has been saved.

The exhibition includes paintings that show only the hints of the levels of abstraction that will become Still’s trademark — those wavering lines and cloud-like patches over fields of color. A painting of what can only just barely be disassembled into two interlocked human figures finishes the exhibition — though, it’s important to note, not chronologically. That painting and works like it were done at the same time Still was completing those precise graphite landscapes and portraits.

“I think this is a painting that’s very important for showing what’s next, but it also has a family resemblance to what’s going on here,” Failing says, gesturing to the landscapes and portraits.

“That’s why it’s a challenging selection of material for people to assimilate because you would assume that he went from this way to that, but that’s not how it worked at all. He’s working in both directions simultaneously,” she says. “He’s not someone who’s work goes in a kind of teleological trajectory from point A to point B. He said his development was more like a pattern of flames than a successive series of ocean waves, and he’s always going back, returning to ideas and forms and clarifying them or setting them aside, or extending them in some way, and integrating various eras of practice and various ideas over a period of time.”

Curatorial staff laments that the exhibition can’t travel; drawing a little more attention might pull a few more of the lost works out of the woodwork.

“I’m assuming that now the word is out, people are going to start peeling through their archives and looking for lost Still paintings,” Failing says.

At the very least, the exhibition opens the door to additional study.

“Once you do the first round, that raises a second round of questions. … There are other avenues now that would make sense to explore to see if there’s more that one could bring in to fill out the picture,” Failing says. “I think this is the introduction to the time and the project.”

Fellow abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman also drew inspiration from Native Americans, but Still was the only one among them to have prolonged contact with tribes. In the terse diary he kept during his initial tour of the reservation, prior to pitching the artists’ retreat to the college, he wrote little about them. He did at one point describe them as “beautiful, tragic people” whose lives were “wretchedly impoverished.”

Within a handful of years, all of it would be forever changed. In 1939, the last year Still returned to Nespelem, the Grand Coulee Dam cut off the salmon migration with a mile of cement barricading their way up the Columbia River. The dam provided electricity and irrigation water, but its completion exacerbated poverty on the reservation by depriving Colville tribes of a key food source and, at its completion, flooding entire communities into oblivion. By blocking the natural flow of the river, flooding acres of land and covering over houses, schools and cemeteries as well as traditional fishing and foraging grounds, the way of life practiced by tribes in that area was eradicated.

Courtesy of City and County of Denver

Still documented the Grand Coulee Dam in photographs, sketches at at least one oil painting, which shows the skeletal infrastructure of scaffolding over the stream of water.

The reservoir created by the dam, Lake Roosevelt, covered over one of the most important tribal fishing areas on the Columbia River, Kettle Falls. The last salmon were taken from the river there in 1939. Tribes that had formerly run communal fish traps and distributed salmon to each family, based on its size, were offered canned salmon and a little cash in place of the river that had been central to their way of life economically, culturally and ceremonially.

“The whole project involved a ruthless disregard of Indians as human beings. The result can only be called a disaster for the Colville people,” former University of Washington anthropology professor Verne Ray, who spent 17 years with Colville Indians, says in a film produced by the tribes on the damage done by the dam.

The Colville Reservation is still home to 12 tribes. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation reports that many of the reservation’s 5,000 residents live below national poverty standards, lack adequate and affordable housing, home water systems, electricity and usable roadways.

Long-promised compensation for land lost to Lake Roosevelt wasn’t delivered until the mid-1990s.

As an artist who spent much of his life out of public view, working in his barn in Maryland or cramped apartment in New York City, Still left few relics in the real world, other than his paintings. There are the universities where he taught, and the galleries where he exhibited — even the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a career retrospective for the artist, shortly before he died. But in some ways, those spaces are so heavily trammeled, they’ve lost whatever psychic residue lingered from the artist’s brief stays.

Here, somehow, is the feeling of his fingerprints. Failing raised her camera, just this past December, to photograph a general store in town. Still once mentioned rewarding children who sat for portraits with candy; it’s likely he purchased it at that store.

For an artist so removed, so aloof, the pieces of his time in Colville channel a period that feels oddly tethered to the reality around him. They’re a welcome way to walk in his footprints, and through them see a world that has, like so many other things, been lost to time.

ON THE BILL: Clyfford Still: The Colville Reservation and Beyond, 1934-1939. Clyfford Still Museum, 1250 Bannock St., Denver, 720-354- 4880. Through September 13.