Ben Heller was a legendary collector of Abstract Expressionism who supported the movement early on, at a time when few other collectors or institutions did. His Central Park West apartment was visited by thousands, who came to see work by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still. In 1990, he organized an exhibition on Still’s work at Mary Boone Gallery in New York, renewing interest in the artist who had died ten years earlier. Still left behind a complicated will that stipulated how his estate—the bulk of his entire artistic production—should be preserved. Below, in a piece from our December 1990 issue, Heller evaluates the various terms of the will, weighing its pros and cons, and giving recommendations for how it can be honored. We’re sharing this essay in conjunction with a new profile on Heller. —Eds.
Ten years after Still’s death, the disposition of his estate remains unresolved. Herewith some speculations on the future of this huge cache of important work.
When I expose a painting I would have it say, “Here am I; this is my presence, my feeling, myself. Here I stand implacable, proud, alive, naked, unafraid…“
—Clyfford Still, May 1951
A great joy surges through me when I work. … With tense slashes and few thrusts the beautiful white fields receive their color and the work is finished in a few minutes. … And as the blues or reds or blacks leap and quiver in their tenuous ambience or rise in austere thrusts to carry their power infinitely beyond the bounds of the limitating field, I move with them. … Only they are complete too soon, and I must quickly move on to another to keep the spirit alive and unburdened by the labor my Puritan reflexes tell me must be the cost of any joy.
—Clyfford Still, February 1956
Clyfford Still, one of the great painters of the Abstract Expressionist period, died in 1980 at the age of 75. He left an art estate whose size and character are unique in our time. The estate and the way it is being handled raise important issues which have troubled us in the past and will continue to trouble us in the future. We wonder: What are the different rights of the deceased, the heirs, and the public in that estate? What is the best way to dispose of so major an art estate?
The Still estate is large in and of itself and unusually large in relation to the total body of work produced: it retains approximately 95 percent of his total output. According to Mrs. Still, it consists of 2,209 works of art: 750 oils on canvas, many very large (110 are wider than 12 feet, 210 are wider than 10 feet, and 198 are wider than 8 feet), and 1,459 works on paper. In his lifetime, Still sold only about 81 works; he gave 59 to two museums (31 to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and 28 to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), and his widow, Patricia, gave 10 to the Metropolitan Museum after his death. Thus the estate is diminished from his total oeuvre by only 150 works and is representative of every aspect of his work.
During his lifetime, Still frequently expressed his deep desire that his work be seen and experienced solely on its own terms. This desire is embodied in, is the determining thread of, his will, and establishes the conditions under which his work will be held and shown. Yet this desire may well be more impeded than assisted by the will, for the conditions of the will are exceedingly hard to meet and the requirements of his widow are similarly hard to satisfy. Worse yet, while time passes and events unfold, the work may presently be stored under conditions which make it highly likely that serious loss will occur. It is ironic that Still and Rothko, colleagues and friends, each may have prepared wills that were self-defeating. While Rothko’s will led to a widely publicized lawsuit that was ultimately resolved in court, the final disposition of Still’s estate is yet to come.
Still was a complex and highly individual creator who produced a complex and highly individual body of work. He was also an extraordinarily difficult man who made extreme demands upon everyone in the art world, and most of all upon himself. Exhibiting, selling, even writing about his work involved overcoming immense obstacles. As a result, he had few exhibitions (only 15 in a long and productive career), is well represented in only a few museums and private collections, and has been the subject of no books, no monographs, and few critical essays. The museum catalogues of his exhibitions and gifts are hardly helpful, for they are full of sycophantic praise (a necessity with Still) and contain biographical chronologies written by Still himself in the third person. That Still has as great a reputation as he does is a tribute both to his canny way of working the art street and the originality and majesty of his work. Yet his reputation should be even greater, and no one is more responsible for this than he.
I propose here to briefly evaluate and explore the requirements of Still’s will, to assess the possibilities that its requirements will be met, to offer some alternative suggestions, and, unhappily, to warn that the reputation that Still sought and earned, as well as the work itself, may well be at risk in the present circumstances.
A Highly Unusual Will
Still’s will provided for individual bequests to his two daughters and left the balance to his wife—a modest share intended for her personally, the remainder, the “gift portion,” destined for a single institution willing to exhibit and store the works of art by themselves, en masse and in perpetuity. As the individual bequests represent a relatively small percentage of the total works in the art estate, as Mrs. Still is reportedly treating her own bequest as if it were part of the “gift portion,” as there is no record to date of any foundation having been formed prior to or subsequent to Still’s death, and as few if any sales appear to have been made since his death by either Mrs. Still or the daughters, the residual estate must be identical with or very close to that left by Still at his death.
Item Fourth of Still’s will states:
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.
By “exclusively” is meant a space totally dedicated to Still: his works cannot be hung next to or with works by any other artist, living or dead. By “retained” is meant that no works are (ever) to be loaned.
Inasmuch as the recipient cannot be other than a city, the possible number of recipients is reduced to very few: to the rather limited number of existing museums which are city owned (is city maintained acceptable?); to cities which would think of setting aside especially dedicated (old or new) space that would function solely as a Still museum or a Still area within a museum; or to cities which might create a new museum that would incorporate a designated Still wing.
The least likely recipients of the estate’s holdings are at opposite ends of the spectrum: the largest and most prestigious institutions, which currently possess major collections and operate major programs; and small, new, or still unformed entities which are unlikely to satisfy Mrs. Still—presently the estate’s sole decision maker—as to reputation, standards of quality, and long-term stability. The most likely recipients would be those in medium-sized cities with small collections and available space or access to inexpensive and adjacent land.
High Ideals and the Institutional Culture
It is important to recognize, and to emphasize, that the Still family has taken a position markedly different from that of most heirs. However weak the art market may temporarily be, the current value of the Still estate is many, many millions of dollars. Considering the size and marketability of the estate (marvelously large from a dealer’s point of view, large enough to sink one’s teeth into, to control and create a large worldwide market, but not so large as to be unwieldy), the paintings alone must represent a present value well in excess of $250 million—and this is before exhibitions, publishing, promotion, and the ensuing worldwide recognition that would further raise their value. If even a few paintings were sold from the family members’ individual bequests, the beneficiaries could realize considerable personal wealth. But that seems not even a remote possibility here, since Mrs. Still and her daughters do not appear to have the slightest interest in commercial gain. Rather, they are irrevocably committed to achieving their understanding of what Still would have wanted. Therefore, the observations, suggestions, and criticisms that I have set forth here are made with real understanding of the hard choices and responsibilities facing the heirs. Anyone who carps and criticizes does so in the face of the extraordinary dedication of the Still family.
The attitude of the family makes it clear that examples we are already familiar with, such as the Pollock and Gottlieb estates [see A.i.A., July ’90], are not viable models here. There is absolutely no likelihood that the Still estate will be liquidated and the money used for charitable purposes, or that some works will be sold, some given to selected institutions, and the remainder used for a combination of personal living expenses and the achievement of various philanthropic objectives.
It takes only a brief glance at Still’s writings to realize that his interest (and therefore that of his heirs) was solely in his own work, and that his primary objective was to gain proper understanding for that work. It is also clear that he abhorred the art world and its inhabitants, and that he was totally against what he called the “Institutional Culture.” But if that is the case, why would Still require that his works be left to a city?
First, if one is forced to go “institutional,” better a city than an art museum, art museums being, in his words, “prisons of concrete and steel,” museums being “automatically suspect … [and] strongholds of arrogance and stupidity.” Rather a city, too, than a university, for “there is no correction nor virtue in toleration of what universities have become and stand for. With all the cynicism by which they are supported and the faith that gilds them with immaculate presumption, they must literally be obliterated from the face of the land.” Inevitably one asks why “institutional” at all, then, when Still so fulminated against everyone and everything to do with that world? The answer is simple. Still wanted people to experience his work, to see and feel its growth and change. As Thomas B. Hess wrote [ARTnews, Dec. ’69], “He thought exhibitions should be single experiences to which each picture contributes, collective unitary demonstrations of the artist’s aims and means, ideas and sensations. The single picture, he implied, was a fragment of experience.” Still himself wanted people to “look at the work itself and determine its meaning to them. I prefer the innocent reaction of those who might think they see cloud shapes in my paintings to what Clement Greenberg says that he sees in them.” Whatever his complaints, Still wanted the world to revere his painting. And the only place to achieve that goal is within an institutional setting.
Second, Still was a man of contradictions. He consistently acted in opposition to his own vehemently stated positions when it suited his purpose. For Still to instruct his heirs to place his life’s work in the type of institution he supposedly abhorred—a museum—was to be no more than he had always been—consistently inconsistent. One should also ask whether Still was as adamantly opposed to museums as he said he was, for he was a master at gaining his own, often unstated, ends. He was also a master of PR. The fact is that he adroitly sought and gained the support of museums in his struggle for recognition and preeminence. Of course, other than his own pronouncements, there is no reason he should not have striven and succeeded within the “Institutional Culture,” for he was a master painter and earned every decibel of applause he received. Thus, however contradictory and ironic it may appear to be, Still’s paintings will necessarily end up in a museum of some sort; the distribution of the estate’s assets will be made to glorify his work, his name, his stature; and what he sought will be achieved: he will be deified by the “Institutional Culture” he so derided.
A Still Museum: Some Pros and Cons
Almost a decade has passed since Still died. Every museum that wanted or thought it had a chance to get the estate and was willing to meet the required conditions has had the time both to assess its position and to approach Mrs. Still. Mrs. Still has been and remains ready to speak to all qualified and interested parties. She has even drawn up plans for the necessary storage and exhibition facilities. But nothing has yet happened. Why?
Clearly, the Still estate would put any fledgling museum on the map, give focus and raison d’etre to any fund-raising drive. Clearly, too, taking on the Still estate would present many problems. First among these would be the cost of the project. Mrs. Still’s estimated storage requirement is 25,000 square feet, and an effective exhibition area should occupy an equivalent area. Present construction costs for properly climate- controlled storage and exhibition space are $150 per square foot. Therefore, an institution wishing to consider this undertaking must either have 50,000 “extra” square feet to make available to the Still area, be willing to take away that amount of space from present usage, or be prepared to invest at least $7.5 million in initial hard costs.
Also to be dealt with is the present and future condition of the works, many of which, according to knowledgeable art-world observers, have been, and may still be, stored on rolls, several paintings to each roll. It is likely that the works need to be stretched, conserved, and catalogued. Personnel must be hired to handle everything from visitors and rotating displays to future conservation problems. It is not unreasonable to assume an additional $5 million of capital funds is needed. This means a minimum overall requirement of $12.5 million in new dollars, or a proportionate reallocation of present dollars if the space and personnel are taken solely or in part from present use.
Any recipient institution might also ask itself whether so many works “need” to be in one location. Dedicating so much money to a single artist, a single style, a single moment in time, would permanently affect the entire nature of an accepting institution. Very much at issue, then, is an institution’s estimation of the enduring importance of the artist—that is, whether Clyfford Still “qualifies.”
Supporters of the project could point to several major artist gifts and one-man museums. Closest to hand is Noguchi’s self-funded museum in Queens. In London, there is the John Soane museum, and Turner’s legacy to his country, now housed in its own wing in the Tate Gallery. Or in Paris, there are Monet’s Musee Marmottan, the Musee Rodin, the Musee Gustave Moreau, and the Musee Picasso (with another Picasso museum in Barcelona). There are also the Leger, Matisse, Cocteau, Renoir, and Chagall museums in the south of France. Surely Still’s present and future reputation is comparable to at least some of the foregoing artists. However, none of these cases is similar to Still’s in one crucial respect: that so much of the artist’s total oeuvre would be in a single location—that the world could barely see the artist except in his museum. Such a concentration would have both positive and negative aspects, of which more later.
Can the Conditions of the Will Be Met?
Curiously, the greatest stumbling block to suitably locating the Still estate is not to be found in the rigid requirements of the will. Rather, it is Mrs. Still’s demand, established by her from day one, that the recipient institution fund the physical structure, the conservation, and the annual operating budget—in other words, the entire (estimated) $12.5 million. Surely this demand reflects an understandable desire: everyone who makes a large gift wants the receiver to do something to deserve it, to show real appreciation of the gift received. When the gift represents nearly the entire creative product of a great painter, not to mention a lifetime of family sacrifice and dedication to that work, if the recipient does not spend a substantial sum of money—money representing visible caring in our culture—why shouldn’t the donor wonder if the recipient can be trusted to properly value and take care of something that has been gotten for free? These are problems which have troubled many benefactors.
Clearly, the circumstances surrounding the Still will pose other disturbing, highly unusual, possibly unique questions. Can a responsible public entity accept the rigorous conditions of the gift without jeopardizing its own institutional mandate—the very code by which it lives? Acceptance of the bequest carries a considerable risk: in addition to the financial obligation, the overall balance of any recipient’s collection would be gravely affected. Any institution would have to consider whether the Still bequest can be deemed to have a value that outweighs a broad and variegated collection of art.
Other problems present themselves as well. Realism and trade gossip say that it is highly doubtful that any entity worthy of the gift will be able to accept it, for, to satisfy the conditions of the gift, a city would have to both raise sufficient money and overcome extraordinarily difficult political problems. Especially at this time of budget crunches and unfavorable tax laws, the difficulty of getting political approval for such a project—it would require a vote, after all—makes it exceedingly improbable that the letter of the will can be satisfied. Such practical skepticism is supported by the record of the past 10 years.
While there is always hope, while patience and time can work wonders, experience and knowledge of the circumstances and attitudes of the most likely candidate institutions indicate that the present likelihood for satisfying the conditions of the will is less than slim.
The Perils of Postponement
Since there are no signs that Mrs. Still or her successor(s) will change the ground rules, it does not seem likely that things will be resolved soon. Yet there is much to be lost by further delaying the placement of the art works. Time presses in many ways. Despite Mrs. Still’s assertions that the paintings are well cared for, it is absolutely necessary to consider the question of their storage conditions. They are reportedly not in climate-controlled premises.But skipping temperature and humidity for the moment—which are hard criteria to skip, since these are the most critical and destructive elements to which paintings are subjected—if the paintings are indeed stored, on rolls, several paintings on each roll, this asks for trouble.
Still was a master of touch, and the nature and variety of his surfaces were critical to him. Since he painted with a great deal of linseed oil (which can keep the paint wet under the surface for periods of 10, even 20, years and more), there is risk entailed in leaving canvases rolled one on top of another, each pressing against itself and its neighbor over long periods of time. Imagine the delicate problems involved in unrolling them! It seems likely that there has been and will be deterioration of surface, that pigment, dry and wet, will be pulled, that areas will be damaged when separated.
Indeed, some observers who have seen certain of the works in the estate say they have noted evidence of this kind of loss. Therefore, unless the works have already been relocated or conserved, the very least that should be done is to unroll, conserve, stretch, and properly store them under controlled conditions. Beyond that, attention must surely be given to the condition of the 1,459 works on paper—pastels, watercolors, drawings and a few prints—notoriously difficult mediums to keep stable over time.
Time is a problem for the executor as well. Strong and healthy as she is, as Mrs. Still waits for the ideal situation, she grows older. She must know that, however committed her successor(s) may be, they could well be subjected in the future to cruel pressures, for new circumstances may arise which could compromise their intention.
And finally, perhaps the most inevitable temporal concern of all is taxes. When Mrs. Still dies, the marital deduction expires and the estate is subject to taxes at the full rate of its then market value. That tax would be enormous (the federal rate alone is 55 percent) and would virtually destroy Still’s entire plan. The only means of avoiding this devastating tax would be by gift: Mrs. Still would have to give away the works to a tax-exempt institution—a museum, a foundation, or some entity she could create that would come into being upon her death. She could certainly, for example, specify her daughter(s) and others in whom she has confidence as trustees of a foundation. But, as happened with the Barnes and Rothko foundations, if that foundation does not function fully and truly as an independent public entity, its actions could be liable to attack in court and its trustees replaced.
Are there other possibilities that might have satisfied the pharaonic desires of Clyfford Still? Still left separate individual bequests to his wife and daughters. By using her own bequest, or joining with her daughters, Mrs. Still could completely resolve her (and the estate’s) problem: she could totally fund the gift herself. While $12 to $15 million is a large amount of money, difficult for a public institution (or a city) to raise and to justify spending to house a body of work by a single artist, to Mrs. Still the sum represents no more than the sale of four or five paintings out of 750. If she were to take this approach, she could have her choice from among a number of cities, institutions, and locations; come to any potential recipient entity with all the power and control her husband would have desired; and begin the all-important work of conservation immediately.
Or, if we are to believe Clyfford Still’s rage against the “Institutional Culture” was really directed at it and not merely at its treatment of him, then why not take him at his word, avoid that culture entirely, and build and fund a separate, independent Still museum, and locate it in the city or the country, in the East or the West, in Maryland (where Mrs. Still currently lives) or anywhere else?
Another possibility would be for Mrs. Still to create and fund an adjunct structure to house the works, an independent entity to be allied to an institution of her choice, an institution whose professionalism would assure her that the work would receive continuous and informed attention, and that private viewing would be available to artists, scholars, and public alike. The “parent” institution need not be a museum (although it was for Robert Lehman); it could be any other stable institution satisfactory to Mrs. Still.
If Mrs. Still is to maintain the kind of absolute control she wants over the works themselves, as well as over the disposition and publishing of the works and collected papers—control past her lifetime and indeed past her children’s lifetimes—she has virtually no choice other than to create some form of private museum, for it is probable that the combination of the will’s rigid controls and her own demands make the gift unacceptable to a significant public entity for all the reasons I have set forth above.
By using her own funds, Mrs. Still would no longer have to worry about the motives and actions of politicians, or of movers and shakers of any sort. She certainly has every reason and right to use her own funds to achieve what her husband and she wanted—every reason to put to best use the work he separately left her for her own use. She would thus fulfill her husband’s and her own deepest desires, and see the dreams of a lifetime come true in her own time.
But if she uses her own bequest (and her children’s, if need be) to fund a Still center absolutely free of any outside control, she faces enormous problems. Under this private format Mrs. Still and the center would have to forgo all tax benefits: art works would have to be sold to fund the structure and the operating costs of the center; taxes would have to be paid on the sale of those works and on any taxable income produced by the resultant capital; worst of all, when Mrs. Still dies, the art works—owned by her, not by a tax-exempt entity—would be subject to full estate taxes. The project’s cost would be more than doubled, and the estate’s holdings would be decimated—all this when she does not wish to sell a single work to achieve her goal. Therefore I believe this solution at this price would be unacceptable.
Mrs. Still has no other option: whether during or after her lifetime, she must use a tax-exempt vehicle to protect the corpus of the estate. She must donate the works either to a tax-exempt institution that already exists, thereby losing some element of control, or to one that will be formed (during or after her lifetime) solely to suit her purpose and reduce, hopefully, her loss of control. Should she wait until the very last in the hope that the perfect solution will appear, she risks having no say in the destination of the gift. It seems almost inevitable, then, that Mrs. Still will at the very least create her own foundation by testament, which foundation, with its requisite independent trustees, would review all possibilities before arranging the final disposition of the art works.
The “Wisdom” of the Will
In my view, Clyfford Still’s will is an unwise and impractical instrument. I do not believe his wishes as set forth by the will can ultimately be carried out, but, even if they could, would placing his entire estate in one single venue gain him the exposure, the appreciation, the fame that he sought? I think not. In a single institution, no matter how important that institution might be, worldwide recognition could well be diminished by difficulty of access: practical obstacles to the study of the works would include the hardship and expense of travel—and especially of repeated visits.
At first glance, a single site, a shrine, to house virtually his entire oeuvre may be exhilarating to contemplate, but it is a weak concept that would take away from, rather than strengthen, Still’s reputation. A one-man museum works only when set within a framework of worldwide knowledge. With a narrow framework, an artist is seen as narrow—he seems, even perhaps becomes, parochial. The example of the School of Paris is worth considering here. One of the strengths of that school is that there is not only a great deal of marvelous work to see in Paris, but that there was—and still is—more than enough material to send around the world to fill museums and collections, to acquaint people with the work, to make them, ultimately, want to go to the source. Broad circulation encourages—makes necessary—a visit to Paris.
For this reason, a group of Still centers throughout the world would surely be a better approach than a single location. There could be, for example, two in the United States—one in the East and one in the West, one serving as the lead center and retaining the papers. There could also be two in Europe, and perhaps two in the Pacific—Japan and Australia would be likely places. All would be able to house a sufficient number of works of art to show Still’s range and evolution. This wider distribution would bring about a wider appreciation of Still’s accomplishments. And for the truly serious student, multiple pilgrimages to the various sites would result in the accumulation of greater experience and insight. From a financial viewpoint, the sharing of costs among a number of institutions would make it easier to gain support for the project. In an age of blindly competing institutions, the sharing of understanding, knowledge, conservation techniques, and costs of all sorts would represent a refreshing and enlightened art-world experience.
The Power of the People
Artists create and do as they choose with what they make—so long as they remain alive. After that, government enters. Try as they may, artists’ heirs cannot avoid government, for government represents the will of the people through its power to tax, and to establish and limit copyright protection. In our society, the ownership and rights of private property are radically diminished by death. It may be wiser, then, when an estate must “go public,” for its executors to accept the inevitable and direct rather than resist the public’s interest. As I have pointed out, Mrs. Still’s choices, while broad in some respects, are in fact restricted. Taxes actually limit her choices to: 1) making a gift prior to or upon her death to reduce taxes; 2) determining in her lifetime where the works will go, or yielding that decision to a foundation that will make that choice after her death; or 3) totally changing direction, and reducing the size, cost, and unwieldiness of so immense a gift by spreading the wealth around the world, thereby enhancing Still’s reputation in many ways.
While Still’s will established us, the public, as his heirs, there is no presently accepted legal framework that allows us to participate in the decisions that will establish how we will receive our inheritance: by law we must remain passive. Yet I suggest that we, that public, have some sort of obligation to consider the issues, to express ourselves, and to participate, at least in a limited way, in the process of resolution. Clearly, this is a very delicate matter, one without established precedent. But there are complex problems here, some of which, as I pointed out, will be exacerbated by waiting. We can view these problems to be ours precisely because Clyfford Still did that which he set out to do: to become an artist so important that he is ours.