Grandiose, imperious, and irascible, Clyfford Still (1904–80) walked away from the commercial art world in 1951. By that point, his work had been featured in successful shows at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery (1946) and at the Betty Parsons Gallery (1947, 1950, and 1951). He had been a part of MOMA’s influential 1952 exhibition “Fifteen Americans.” Clement Greenberg called him “a highly influential maverick [and] an independent genius.” Jackson Pollock said, “He makes the rest of us look academic.” Acknowledged by Mark Rothko as a “myth-maker,” Still had succeeded with Pollock, Barnett Newman, Rothko, and William Baziotes, among others, in proving that America, rather than Europe, was at the forefront of modernism.

But his success smacked of...


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