A new documentary on the life and work of abstract expressionism’s invisible man, Clyfford Still and the quest to reclaim one of his paintings in an auction at the Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale

A few minutes after four and the day slipped into darkness, signalling stagehands at the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale to finalize their preparations. A workman checks the projection of currency conversions on the front wall. Another turns off the red laser light used to align the seats in a perfect grid. In a few minutes, the chorus of auction directors manned their telephones, some of whose clients at the other end of the line might still be having morning tea in their pajamas. The congregation had barely settled in their seats when Oliver Barker, chief of contemporary art, began his spiel with a distinctive flair, sounding like a cross between a Shakespearean actor and prosperity gospel preacher. Notwithstanding his commanding presence, everyone’s attention was riveted to the painting behind him, lot number 11 entitled PH-433, an oil on canvas by Clyfford Still measuring roughly the size of a supper table for six. 

A thick incongruous yellow line cuts through the mostly monochromatic composition. The paint is textured enough that the method of application can be deduced. It has the wholeness of a traditional Chinese shan shui landscape from its solid delineations and color interaction: the earth is yellow, the water is black. Another landscape that comes to mind is Monolith, the half-face of Dome by Ansel Adams. As in both the Chinese landscape and the photograph, the painting is more than just the visual but a vehicle for visualization. Clyfford Still has always measured his work against such lineage of artmaking, and saw his work, as a path to illumination.

The message was not lost to players in the high-society spectator sport also known as the art auction. The painting was placed where a crucifix would normally be if this were a chapel.  In the middle of the chatter punctuated by the beating of the hammer, I ventured to spot the personalities and their agents present, people with unimaginably powerful means and vested interests to acquire and shape the economy of art and, to some extent, its history. The last known Clyfford Still painting to be auctioned was eight years ago and it sold for 61 million USD, not a world-record, but an event that sparked a twenty-minute battle between two telephone bidders. There are speculations that the painting was won by a Saudi prince, who also purchased Salvador Mundi, the record-breaking and doubtful last obra of Leonardo da Vinci.

Like Salvador Mundi, lot number 11 has its own share of intrigue. The artist’s one-page will prohibits the sale of any of his paintings, though no legal impediment has ever been known to curb the appetite of the auction house devotee. Quite the contrary, the build-up for the sale increased with each passing week, culminating with the release of a documentary only two nights ago. “Lifeline”, which premiered at the DOC NYC film festival in New York drew from previously unseen reels of Clyfford Still taken in the 1960s. The documentary was part of a concentrated effort from the last ten years or so to alternately assess and enliven the legacy of Clyfford Still through the publication of books, exhibitions, previous documentaries, and the opening of his own museum in 2011 in Denver. Such efforts led many, including reputable art historians, to believe that the main thrust of abstract expressionist painting began with Clyfford Still. His shift from representational to abstract painting in 1938, earlier than his colleagues like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, who continued to paint in figurative-surrealist styles well into the 1940s, laid the groundwork for the movement we now recognize as the most American of painting forms. 

These crucial notes are kept in a neat file by one of tonight’s bidders, Fred Ossorio IV. People around him joke that his wealth is as old as it can get because it was inherited. Compounded in diverse investments over generations from when his great-great-grandfather took control of haciendas and became one of a dozen sugar barons who had practical monopoly over the export of Philippine sugar. He attended both Yale and Harvard, for art history and business respectively. After a brief stint as a professional polo player and some non-descript executive position at his family-owned conglomerate of malls, airlines, hotels, condominiums, and a cannery of corned beef, he went back to his life’s passion: collecting first edition books and pistols. He likes to tell the story of his grandfather, a member of the Monuments men, a group of art historians who helped reclaim many paintings stolen under Nazi Germany. His grandfather retrieved Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, Field of Poppies near Auvers-Sur-Oise c. 1890, from the Lauffen salt mine and delivered it to the Munich Collecting Point. He had seen so many great works of art but only a few that he wanted to truly possess. It crossed his mind to take the Van Gogh for himself but he had a firm belief that paintings should find their way into the homes of their rightful owners. His presence here tonight can be explained by the belief that he was the rightful owner of the painting. This can be explained further by his other distinguished relation; Alfonso Ossorio, a pioneer patron of the ab-ex all-stars and a painter in his own right, who once owned some of the paintings, including the Clyfford Still behind the auctioneer’s pulpit. The name affords him a VIP invitation with access to the champagne room during art fairs, and personal calls from the director of the auction house. Compared to the other bidders whose wealth is much more cosmopolitan and immense, from Qatar Emirs and silicon bay tech moguls, and maybe even Mexican drug lords, Fred’s war chest seems modest. But he is armed with a weapon more powerful than any other–that of an intimate, almost pious knowledge of Lot number 11. It’s the kind of affinity with the piece that can squeeze out a few hundred thousand dollars to stand a chance in a winner take all money contest. 

When the lot was projected onto the screen, Fred took a deep breath and stared at the thin stack of papers that were kept stable by a gently oscillating knee. The opening bid started at ten million. Taking one sheet by its soft and crumpled edge, he cleared his throat and read typed up notes about the painting. Some scrawls were from the documentary he saw the other day: “He had to get away from the corruption of the art world.” This was uttered by Sandra Still Campbell, one of Clyfford Still’s daughters. Fred remembers how Clyfford Still was burdened by the corruption even until his death. His last will and testament was signed on May 2, 1978, two years before his death. The key to the will lies in its fourth item, which reads: “I give and bequeath all the remaining works of art executed by me in my collection to an American city that will agree to build or assign and maintain permanent quarters exclusively for these works of art and assure their physical survival with the explicit requirement that none of these works of art will be sold, given, or exchanged but are to be retained in the place described above exclusively assigned to them in perpetuity for exhibition and study.”  For the next three decades, hundreds of canvases remained rolled up in a barn, sealed away from the public and researchers, until the city of Denver finally won his widow’s approval. But it faced a big problem: how to raise endowment funds. The city deemed it had no other option but to go against the artist’s wishes and put several paintings from Still’s estate on the block. Legal battles ensued, but the auction was allowed to proceed; one painting sold for $61.7 million. The entire sale brought in more than $100 million.

He raised his paddle and Mr. Barker instantly recognized him but just as quickly he turns the other direction: “Do we have eleven million five hundred, Yuki? Mr. Barker signals to Yuki Terase, Head of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art in Hongkong, who is mumbling figures into the phone. She didn’t nod or wink, no elaborate gestures. She just gave off a look to Mr. Barker, and just like that, the price was up twelve million.

With Yuki Terase and Benedict Carter on the phone, Fred was certain he was bidding against another Asian and perhaps the Saudi Prince that snatched up Salvador Mundi. The competition was expected to be ruthless but at this stage, it may still come down to who wants it more. With a construction boom in all the major capitals in that part of the world, this Clyfford Still painting is probably headed for an executive office or a private museum. It’s not a very compelling reason to want a painting. Fred is also counting on the fact that the artist’s market has been erratic, in part because so few significant works are in circulation. Those that do circulate are not always in line with contemporary tastes. PH-916, a six-foot-tall painting that carried a high estimate of $20 million, failed to sell at Christie’s last year. 

My thoughts wander to a dinner conversation in the Hamptons, where Fred told me he was an audience to Still describing the bands of color that snaked up and down his monumental canvases as “Lifelines”. Fred asked him, “What is this thing about a lifeline?”. The artist told him that when he was a young boy, his father farmed “on very bad land up in Canada.” One day, Still’s father dropped him down a new thirty-foot-deep well, head first, to check if the water was reached. Still was held by a rope tied around his ankle. “And he said, ‘It was such a traumatic experience, it remained with me all my life.’”

Fred had a chance to visit Clyfford Still in his studio at West 23rd Street in 1961. The paintings were being arranged for moving out, some going to galleries, others to a new studio in Maryland. All of them were logged and numbered, even the cans of oil paints and palettes. It was typical of an artist who wanted to exercise total control over his works inside and outside of the studio. Fred once overheard a museum director recount how he drove them crazy installing exhibitions. That director was Philippe de Montebello, who in 1979 would host a sprawling solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art shortly before the death of Clyfford Still. 

A few years back, on a rainy day in 1958, Still walked into the house of his grand-uncle who was planning to send a Still painting overseas against the artist’s wishes. Still found the painting, pulled out a knife, and cut out a piece in the middle of the canvas. “He referred to it as “I cut the heart of the painting out,’” says his daughter. 

The cutout now resides at the Clyfford Still museum in Denver, along with the artist’s archive, about 830 paintings, and more than 2,300 works on paper and sculpture. The museum holds approximately 95% of Still’s total output. “He knew that at some point the world would come to him,” says Fredl, “And, of course, it did.”

Earlier at the re-opening of the MoMA, Fred lamented the lone painting by Clyfford Still that was on display. It hung beside the more prominently displayed Jackson Pollock painting. Painting 1944-N is a powerful early example of Still’s mature style. The surface is a black impasto, enlivened with knife marks. A jagged red line cuts high on the canvas, and is intersected by two vertical, irregular, pointed shapes before plunging downward to the bottom edge. The size of paintings like this one, its largely empty expanse, and the lightning-bolt quality of Still’s line have led some to see in his work a vision of the broad spaces of the Western prairies, where he grew up. But he himself believed that such associations only diminished his work. Fred was the person who told me how the painting was just a copy of a painting and that Still intentionally gave it to MoMA as a gesture of how low he thinks of the museum. In a letter to Gordon Smith, former director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and a long-time friend, Still wrote that he secretly sold them a replica of 1944-N. “Since they were only after my name, I deliberately made the replica very slight and willfully of indifferent quality. In other words, I was willing to stab myself to defy and teach this monster my contempt of it.” The original 1944-N is now on exhibit in Denver and is only a little bit larger, but it’s significantly more finished looking.

Still commanded a new kind of abstraction, free from decipherable symbols. The tarry surface of Painting 1944-N concentrates attention on itself, denying the illusion of depth, and the intensely saturated hue carries emotional force without relying on associative imagery. More programmatically than any of the other Abstract Expressionists, Still consciously tried to erase any traces of modern European art from his painting, and to develop a new art appropriate to the New World. “Pigment on canvas,” he believed, “has a way of initiating conventional reactions. Behind these reactions is a body of history matured into dogma, authority, tradition. The totalitarian hegemony of this tradition I despise, its presumptions I reject.”

All auction bidders have a ceiling on how much they are willing to bid on their earmarked items. I’m certain Fred has one but as the prices have crossed the nineteen million mark, I sensed from his grimace, as though an arrow has nicked his side, that he has now surpassed that ceiling price. A photo of the artist with the painting is what Sotheby’s director Yuki Terase calls “the money shot”. In 1959, The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo held a seminal exhibition of paintings by Clyfford Still. This was his first large-scale survey and it remains amongst the most important exhibitions of his career, When the New York Times photographer asked Still for a photo, he chose to stand before PH-399, cementing the status of the present work as a singularly iconic representation not only of his own celebrated output, but also of the mythic narrative and development of postwar painting. 

Fred knows that Clyfford Still probably didn’t think much about it. A painter posing beside a painting doesn’t mean it is a favorite. As much as Still put so much value into his paintings, he was always its worst critic. This extended to his criticism of himself and the American art establishment. He famously wrote in the catalog essay for his survey, that the New York Museum of Modern Art  was a “cultural gas chamber” and that art galleries were “brothels.” And it wasn’t something he said as a rebellious young artist. He repeated this statement in his 1979 Met retrospective, a year before he died: “The galleries of the ’40s and ’50s, with their “gas-chamber white walls,” were nothing but “sordid gift-shoppes”.

But Fred knew that Clyfford Still was fond of at least two art galleries—presumably Art of This Century and Betty Parsons. The documentary confirms what Fred told me. Clyfford said that these galleries showed “the few truly liberating concepts man has ever known. There I had made it clear that a single stroke of paint, backed by work and a mind that understood its potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for subjugation.”

But Still is more known for his deliberately scathing critiques. Once, he sent this pair of rubber baby pants to art critic Emily Genauer after she reviewed his work unfavorably in the Sunday New York Herald Tribune. In the attached note he said: “Hoping this will aid in concealing your Sunday afflictions. With the compliments of Clyfford Still.” According to Fred Ossorio, Clyfford Still never mentioned this incident but Ms. Genauer never forgot. When she died in 2002, the tiff with Still was one of the few things mentioned in her New York Times Obituary.

As a family of collectors, the Ossorios had a complicated friendship with Still for many years. There were times when, after buying some of his paintings, the artist suddenly broke off contact with the family. Puzzled, Alfonso looked at the last letter they sent Still and noticed his secretary misspelled Clyfford “Clifford” by mistake. He confronted Still with this, asking him how he could give up a long friendship for such a trivial reason. Fred said Still was so contrite that he gave him a painting. 

Another bond Fred had with Still was their mutual love for baseball. Clyfford Still was a semi-pro player in his youth) and Fred swears that there are photos of Still at a game but I haven’t found them. Even when playing baseball, Clyfford Still was thinking about the lines that also figure in his paintings. In a baseball game in the Hamptons, Still pointed to the foul pole and said “the foul line is my line of force.”

Until I met Fred, I had not really known much about Clyfford Still but I was able to share a story with Fred, something that he didn’t know first hand. I told him about Richard Diebenkorn who taught with Still at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in the mid-1940’s. Diebenkorn said everyone there was in awe of Still and intimidated by him. Diebenkorn finally gathered up the courage to invite Still to look at his art. Still showed up on the dot wearing a suit and tie and not wanting to bother with a drink first or any niceties. Diebenkorn said Still looked at his art for a long time without saying a word, making him feel more and more uncomfortable. Finally Still said “that’s a good painting,” and Diebenkorn said he was so relieved and flabbergasted he foolishly, said to Still that he had trouble with the red. Well, Still stomped out yelling “Art isn’t about red! It’s about meaning and feeling!” (these are my words, but the rant went something like that). Diebenkorn said he was thoroughly humiliated. Clyfford Still thrived on his negativity and Diebenkorn was somehow motivated by it.

Fred gave up bidding at twenty-one million, and it wasn’t because he didn’t have more money, but because he finally realized that he was up against a bidder who didn’t have a ceiling and had probably issued a carte blanche to one of the directors to bid as necessary to get the painting. It is not uncommon for agents to exceed the given bid by any buyer, as much as double what they agreed on. Fred has probably exceeded double of what he intended to spend on tonight’s auction battle. I didn’t risk losing any money that night but I remember how dry my throat got at every trickle of a few hundred thousand dollars. I was sweating from inside my thighs. I imagine what Fred must’ve felt. He says there is nothing like buying at an auction, like having the adrenaline to lift a two door refrigerator. A bidder is part of the show, and every conclusion of a big sale is a public victory. The perception that you have “won” works and on very special occasions you’re applauded for losing a shitload of money. I have no real basis for comparison, but this feeling is perhaps the common knowledge that you value most what you most suffered for.

The win or loss of PH-433 leads to the same thing: more suffering as the work is turned into a sentimental relic. Fresh out of college in 1976, Fred had been vacationing in his grand-uncle’s villa in the Hamptons when he saw the painting being wrapped to be shipped and sold. Fred was hoping the painting would become part of his inheritance. In the Ossorio family, it was not unusual to receive one’s inheritance even while the person bequeathing it was still alive. In place of a will-reading, the family held raffles.  Last will and testaments are too undemocractic, the Ossorios felt, and so they saw to it that everyone got as close to a fair share as possible. Alfonso Ossorio’s health had been unsteady after surviving his second by-pass surgery in two years. He had issued no direct heir so Fred was trying to ingratiate himself to his grand-uncle. The heart condition never bothered him because his family’s pockets had always run deep. That’s why it completely surprised him when Alfonso Ossorio, with some bitterness, chose to draw the last of his aces not for his medication but to continue funding his lucrative projects. He decided to sell off a collection of early works by some of his erstwhile painter friends that included Still, De Kooning and Pollock, among others. 

Since the lost of the painting, Fred’s would-be inheritance became a mission, one that flowed through his veins, that propped his head up and filled his eyes with gold. His uncle was labeled in 1997 by Newsday as a “Man Who Had Too Much.” “For all his accomplishments, his wealth was often a major distraction, the money obscuring his talent, spreading his reputation as a dilettante; his cultured manners disguising his passion,” the article noted. “His work was purchased by only a few collectors who liked his particular style. But, of course, he didn’t have to sell anything to make a living. The result was a poor little rich kid never quite taken seriously.” Fred inherited no wealth or asset from Alfonso Ossorio who left everything to his lover, Ted Dragon. But he did get his comeupance: his reputation as a dilettante with cultured manners, the poor little rich kid who wanted anything but what he already had.

Reeling from loss, Fred stood up and excused himself. He said, he had another appointment that evening, which I’d like to believe was true. I avoided asking him about what he felt and made an effort not to bring up the name of Clyfford Still. I’m sure I will have to for a long time. I guess there’s something traumatic about realizing once again that someone else will always be more filthy rich than you are. With Fred’s early exit, I walked alone through the revolving doors into the cold New York air after witnessing the rest of the lots sell without a hitch. The elder Ossorio’s words about paintings finding their homes, about belonging to their rightful owners, continue to play in my head. Prosperity gospel preachers would end Sunday service with a collection of tithes and offerings amidst empathetic singing. In comparison, the auction ended without fanfare. There was no grand finale, no clapping, just another rap of the hammer and a quick “Good night” from Mr. Barker. Droves of people walk and talk their way out of the room. I fantasized about having a surplus of 24 million dollars and the things I’ll do with it. None of them involved buying a Clyfford Still painting, although I truly admire his works. There was a reason why he didn’t like selling his works after he died. He knew that with his status, only the very rich whom he hated with a passion can afford his works. Like a lot of people here tonight who were initially lured into the auction room by a love of art, I find myself guilty of participating in a spectacle where the monetary value of any work of art has practically muted its other meanings.

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