'Lifeline': Film Review

Clyfford Still Archives
An essential story in 20th century art, frustratingly told.
11/22/2019

Dennis Scholl's doc focuses on Clyfford Still, the titan of Abstract Expressionism who deliberately stepped out of the spotlight.

Clyfford Still, the greatest of the Abstract Expressionists, didn't become a household name like his peers Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. He didn't inspire biopics or Broadway plays, or have his style imitated by cheap consumer goods. To some extent, that was by choice: While in the thick of the New York art world, Still chose to withdraw from it, refusing to sell or exhibit his work, with few exceptions, for the last decades of his life. This decade has seen a rebirth of interest in his work, and Dennis Scholl's Lifeline sets out to explore his life as well. But while he offers enough images of Still's fiercely colorful canvasses to sell newcomers on his distinctiveness and enough anecdotes to pique their interest, Scholl proves more enthusiast than storyteller, offering a frustratingly vague account of biographical facts and faring little better in assessing Still's combative personality. Though useful to art lovers in the absence of a better film, it will disappoint many who've known the artist's work and want to learn more about the man.

For some reason, the film opens with footage of an auction. Surely Still, who left commercial galleries in a huff and turned away fans who wanted to buy directly from him, would hate to see a $55 million closing bid used as a way to establish the present-day importance of his oeuvre. An opening quote from Pollock is better: Self-effacingly, the most famous Abstract Expressionist said Still "makes the rest of us look academic." (Current art stars including Mark Bradford and Julie Mehretu will soon share their own impressions.) Still's paintings — jagged, unruly bodies of color through which "lifelines" often struggle upward — are as identifiable as those of his contemporaries, but are staggeringly diverse, and still feel alive 60 or 70 years after the paint dried.

Giving just enough about Still's childhood on "tough Canadian prairies" to inform a search for biographical metaphors in his abstractions, Scholl introduces the painter's daughters Diane Still Knox and Sandra Still Campbell, who, when telling stories about their dad, seem to channel some of the cantankerousness he exhibited while fighting for his personal artistic ideals. One is dismissive of the peers Still once respected — "they all stopped growing," she says; a narrative of Still's close friendship and rivalry with Rothko explains how personally he took stagnation and sellouts.

One coup here is the doc's access to 34 hours of personal audiotape, often functioning as a diary in which we can hear Still's opinions directly: As his artistic circle dropped out of fashion, listen to him lament the presence of Warhol and Claes Oldenburg in "sacred" galleries of art. Other tirades we have to get second or third hand: Art writer Jerry Saltz is brought in to read some of Still's thoughts about critics who understand nothing; Saltz's hammy reading probably entertained the reader more than it does the audience, but he makes his point.

Saltz reappears later to discuss a dispute regarding legacy, but this is one of several points at which the film wants to sidle into a biographical plot point without ever just coming out and reporting what happened. Still gave large collections of work to two museums, in New York and California, expressing strong desires about how they'd be shown. Scholl tells us a bit about those desires, then shows Saltz explaining how he feels about the difficulty of living up to them, but never actually says what the museums might've done to upset the artist.

What is very clear is how Still ultimately handled his desire to control the way his art was seen: When he died, his will offered to give the thousands of artworks he owned to an American city that would devote a space to them and them alone. Three decades passed before such a place opened: Denver's Clyfford Still Museum, a starkly beautiful modern building that likely won't be able to show every painting it owns in our lifetimes. While the artist mightn't appreciate the way his art and likeness have been merchandised in the gift shop, he could hardly have expected a better place for his vision to live on.

Venue: Doc NYC
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Director: Dennis Scholl
Producers: Marlon Johnson, Konstantia Kontaxis, Dennis Scholl
Director of photography: Ed Talavera
Editor: Konstantia Kontaxis
Composers: Shelton G. Berg, Jake Hartmann

77 minutes