Artists' Egos < Deep Thought Thursday

The Clyfford Still Museum opens in Denver tomorrow.
The Abstract Expressionist painter who retained most of his work out of a loathing for the art establishment is finally getting what he wanted in life: a museum showing only his art – 95% of his life's work.

Clyfford Still Museum
Installation view of the Clyfford Still Museum inaugural exhibition. Photo by Raul J. Garcia. Image courtesy Clyfford Still Museum.

There's no doubt that Still's ego was ginormous.
But there has been debate since Still's death in 1980 over the part of his will that left his paintings to any city (city – not museum!) that would build a museum for them. The strict guidelines made it impossible for most cities to consider such an undertaking.
The winning city turned out to be Denver – a city he had no strong connection with. Read more.
Thirty-one years after Still's death, many works that have never before been seen will make their debut in the Clyfford Still Museum.


You can choose which deep thought to respond to:
What if every artist had his or her own museum? How do we choose which artists get their own museums?
What role does ego play in an artist's success?
Is it worth leaving a legacy like this if you don't enjoy success during your life because you've kept all of your works to yourself?

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23 thoughts on “Artists' Egos < Deep Thought Thursday”

  1. Alyson, As an artist I think having an ego helps in the creation of the work. We have things to communicate and are egocentric enough to think others will care and find it fascinating. You have to have an ego in order to sacrifice things others consider important because you are focusing on your work. Sometimes just carving the time out of the day is selfish, and if you are a more selfless sort it will never happen. So I say Viva La Ego!

    1. I think that you have to have some amount of ego to be successful as an artist. This is not the field for the self-doubter!
      I was rather shocked to find out that Still was “forgotten” — living in Buffalo, NY, home of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, I have viewed his work with admiration for as long as I can remember. The AKAG always had a room dedicated to his work — half a dozen or so paintings. I have always loved them and always figured that everyone knew of Still’s work in the same way they know of, say, Rothko.
      Well, I say, good for Still. Why shouldn’t he have his own museum? 😉 Too bad he was not around to enjoy it.

  2. I wonder if Joseph Campbell would consider following one’s bliss to be a selfish act…
    “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.
    Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
    — Howard Thurman (American Theologian, Clergyman and Activist. 1900-1981)
    I love that Clyfford Still was so confident in the quality of his work that he could ask that a museum be built for it. It feels to me like something beyond just personal ego.
    And actually he was recognized and successful during his lifetime, when he sold 150 works, some of which are now in the Metropolitan Museum in NY (I saw them there in the 60’s) and the San Francisco Museum of art. According to Wikipedia, in 1979, the year before Still’s death, NY’s Met put together the largest survey of his work that had been done up to that point, which was also at that time the largest exhibition ever given by the Met to the work of a living artist.

    1. I was able to talk with Ms.Patricia Still Cambell, one of the artist’s daughters on opening day.YAY!!!!
      I was told that CS and family lived very frugally and CS would sell some work to continue to live and work.
      I even got Ms.Campbell to autograph one of the CSM visitors guides.
      It was a good art day indeed.

  3. I should add that for me I want to be known while I’m still alive AND have a museum devoted to my work. ;D Clearly CS was important enough an artist that someone thought enough of his work to want to devote a museum to it and that counts for a lot.
    Seems to me a legacy needs to be appreciated by someone at some point and I think it doesn’t really matter when that time is (despite my wanting to be renowned now).

  4. A: What role does ego play in an artist’s success?
    Alyson, it would be cool to someday give you an art lesson, just a simple still life – to take you deeply inside your vision, in which, seeing the form, the light, and depth transports you into enormous universe. Where energy, truth, and seeing make you the conduit for the energy of life. This is an artist’s ego, not the one most people normally associate with it.

    1. Michael: I don’t quite know how to take this.
      It sounds like my question is being interpreted as an opinion – since you addressed me in this manner – as if I didn’t understand the artist’s path.
      I have had years of art lessons. I started college as a painting major and (at least I believe) excelled at life drawing.
      Because I think I know you, I’m going to assume this wasn’t written to be misunderstood in the way I read it. But you can correct me if I’m wrong.
      So tell me a little bit more about your last sentence.

    2. Alyson,
      You didn’t take offense did you? “Success” and “ego” are automatically hot buttons, lol, and the question seemed…off, to me. An answer could be: yes, success is engaging the ego on epic scale…sounds horrible doesn’t it? So I tried to flesh out the “in the moment” experience of art creation. But, you are right, I didn’t intend to imply you were insensitive to artists. Gosh, facilitating art is a huge part of your life.

  5. victoria pendragon

    #3 – The question begs another…What is one’s personal definition of success?
    Mine happens to be that I have the very delicious opportunity to be creating work that thrills me when I see it. That’s it. I finally got – decades after graduating art college – to where I want to be with my work, to where I always knew I could be. I am now, finally, successful in my eyes.
    Public recognition don’t mean a thing to me if my legs don’t go weak when I see what I’ve done.

  6. #3:
    As this was introduced – he was someone “who retained most of his work out of a loathing for the art establishment” and so I think he was very content to keep his work and really enjoyed NOT sharing. Of course, as we know, he did share – he had great successes – and so he was clearly (in his world) getting the best of both worlds.
    If I knew that every piece of art I created (ego) was completely authentic and remarkable and made me slightly gasp out loud each time I caught a glimpse, THAT would be very rewarding. If he believed (as he apparently did) that getting it out into the public (into the “art establishment”) might compromise or prostitute the message, then creating a legacy of work and instructing its future display might have been the perfect way to be pure and remain content to just keep working and saving 95% of my work of my lifetime for that eventuality.
    Driven by ego? Or just driven by an un-compromising view of each creation’s importance? Perhaps he just believed in his message. And I for one wish that some of my other favorite artists had his vision – it would be amazing to be drenched in the life’s work of Jim Dine or Miro or my good friends here on Maui, Lori Koprowski ( or Brad Huck ( who both work on large scales and would be so appropriate for an entire museum.
    SO! I now have Denver on my list of places to visit! I have always loved his work.

  7. You know this is very interesting post. For some reason reading this reminded me of Albert C. Barnes and his collection. I understand that you are talking about different things here…and I’m bringing up artist vs. art collector. But in a way I believe that for some reason they are connected in the “keeping all the work to yourself”. I find it a bit selfish. I have seen Still’s work at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery as well ( a few pieces) but coming from another country did not know too much about him or his work even though I knew a lot about his contemporaries.
    I believe that work is created to be shared but that is my opinion of course.
    That’s where I connect Stills with Barnes…They both probably had very big egos as most of us do as well in our ways.
    I am lucky enough to live in Philly and was able to go to the Barne’s foundation 2 times because it is (was) so hard to get tickets…etc…I am happy that the New Barne’s will now have much better public access.

    1. victoria pendragon

      How coincidental, I lived next door to the Barnes Museum as a kid, in a house that had once been a part of the complex, but was outside the wrought iron fence. My father was one of his friends. Now there was a match, ego for ego.
      Dora, do you know if they’ve relocated the collection? I know there was a big fuss about it being moved.

    2. Yes, the new building is in construction, in fact almost finished. it is on the Parkway right near the Rodin Museum and the Philadelphia Art Museum.

  8. The great late Da Vinci once said that ‘art does not belong to the artist’. I think this is relevant here as there seems to be a link between the notion of ego and ownership. I have to agree with Da Vinci. I believe that the excessive ego shown in Still’s case is a form of martyrdom and control issue. We survive as an artist through ego but we flourish as a soul expressing artistically through sharing. Of what use is art to the artist if it collects dust until our deaths only to be glorified once we have departed. Some would argue that art is expressed only for the artists sake as self expression. But again, how do we feel about novels being typed and left in cupboards to age without being read? I believe that ego should be removed from true art and left for the viewer to converse with it on their own terms.

  9. AnnaMaria Windisch

    Some artists t paint because they are meant to paint, it is what keeps them alive. Ego does not enter into it. Most artists 🙂 do retain the majority of their collection intact. Consider this tidbit from a very mature point of view.

  10. victoria pendragon

    Having read many/most of the comments and having slept on it as well, the reference to Da Vinci’s quote stayed with me, that art doesn’t ‘belong’ to the artist.
    I have no attachment to my art. For me the creation is what’s key. Once it’s done, though, clearly it’s not to be wasted. Something sort of wanted to come out of me and find its way into the world so my job becomes, in a sense, exposing the work to the world so that the person or people who, for some reason, needs to respond to them, can. And so I take part in exhibitions, take advantage of opportunities as they arise, so that they can do what they came here to do. It’s like I’m the bus/driver and they’re all the passengers. My job is to get them where they’re going so that they can do what they need to do. Sometimes its validating a fleeting feeling for someone, sometimes it’s to become a part of their lives because they need or want to be with that energy, or they need a reminder of some sort.
    The people who need my work will find it, wherever it is. That’s how life works.

  11. Alyson, sounds like you opened a topic for discussion about which a lot of artists are passionate.
    My thoughts on establishing a museum for my work are this: It has never entered my mind that I should have a museum for my work. What has entered my mind is how to appoint someone who knows about artwork, to do something with my artwork after my death, so my beloved family members don’t toss it into the trash or sell it at a garage sale.
    It also angers me that so many people in our society rush to museums to see the work of dead popular European artists, while never even pausing to learn about the current art scene and who the live contemporary artists are.
    I am not sure what this says about my ego.

  12. I am a fan of Clyfford Still, he was man of conviction. Visual artists are often relegated
    to the bottom of artistic discipline. If people want to interpret an artist’s decision to be in charge of their own artlife, as ego, so be it. I have driven my own art career for years and will continue to do it as long as I am able.
    I often think of Clyfford Still and his independence. I am glad the Clyfford Still museum is in Denver.
    PS- I am fortunate enough to have several examples of my work in th Kirkland Musuem of Fine and Decorative Art in Denver.

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