Clyfford Still has not been easy to “get.” The notoriously controlling artist limited the presentation of his work, famously turning down not only sales, but also gallery representation for an extended period (1951 to 1969), and even an offer to exhibit at the Venice Biennale in 1957. To be sure, there were major gifts of his work to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo (31 paintings in 1964) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (28 paintings in 1975). But for some years after the artist’s death in 1980, at a time when the estates of Pollock, Rothko, Gottlieb and Motherwell were vigorously promoting those artists, Still’s widow rejected all requests for loans of paintings to exhibitions and reproduction rights, even to scholars. Although there are also significant holdings of Still’s work in New York and Washington, D.C., as recently as the year 2000 John Golding called Still “the great unseen.”[i] David Anfam argues that Still was then “in near total eclipse.’[ii]
In addition to the difficulty in actually seeing Still’s art, the paintings can be slow to reveal their quality. Living in Toronto in the 1960s – 90 minutes away from Buffalo – I long remained unmoved by his work in the Albright-Knox. But in later years I was frequently surprised by the high quality of a Still painting here and there: in Basel, Berkeley, and Chicago. In my experience it is a mark of excellence when an artist is not easy to appreciate at first.
Moreover, the reception of the artist has sometimes been negative enough to vitiate his reputation. In 1971 Walter Darby Bannard wrote in Artforum, arguably the leading art magazine in the English-speaking world at the time, that Still “unlike Pollock and Newman… has not succeeded in very large scale.” Bannard had a particular distaste for those works in which Still “pulls the shapes apart, lets them lie on top of a field and keeps plenty of air between them.” In Bannard’s view, there was a “failure of Still’s art since the middle ’50s,” and the cause was the “dispersal” of Still’s forms and the incompatibility of Still’s small, “random, rough-edged, uneven touch” with working on a large scale.[iii] In 1980 Clement Greenberg, who had previously acknowledged Still as “one of the most important and original painters of our time,”[iv] excoriated Still’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In a remarkably personal diatribe he proclaimed that Still was “arty from the first;” only about four or five of the 79 paintings achieved “success;” the colour from the 1950s on was “declamatory,” and the wider paintings were frequently in need of cropping.[v]
The counter to these arguments, based as they were on purely visual close criticism and a commitment to quite different, more apollonian painting by artists like Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, would have been a trenchant analysis of the genesis of Still’s art in the struggles of his life, especially the difficulties of his youth on what Still described as “the burned and wind-swept plains” of his “lostland” in depression-era Alberta and eastern Washington state.[vi] That analysis was not forthcoming.
But now Still is in the news and being revealed as never before. In November of 2011 a 1949 painting by Still sold for a lofty 61.7 million dollars at Sotheby’s in New York City, and in the same month the Clyfford Still Museum, designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, opened in Denver. The Museum is devoted solely to Still, with about 2,400 works willed to it by the artist’s widow and his estate, along with a considerable array of archival materials. Many of these paintings had been rolled up for decades in the Stills’ house in New Windsor, Maryland. Then in October of 2012, a new book[vii] on Still was released with thoroughly researched texts by the Director of the Clyfford Still Museum, Dean Sobel, and its adjunct curator, David Anfam, who discuss numerous works never seen publicly before. It’s a revelation, exposing two quite different artists from the signature Still: a tortured realist of sorts in the 1930s and a surprisingly joyous, and even ecstatic, painter in the 1970s, with much of the “lightness” that Bannard and Greenberg had previously found lacking in his work.
The Museum, together with Anfam’s research, raise a number of questions, not all of which can be answered now. Tellingly, Anfam often puts forward tentative speculation, such as, “Cezanne and/or Munch may also be relevant” to the gutted steers in Still’s paintings of 1934 and 1935.[viii] A rich trove awaits scholars as the wealth of archival material in the Museum is being catalogued.
One such question is the relation of Still to his art-historical sources. Still was notorious for denying influences and once improbably asserted, “My work is not influenced by anybody.”[ix] Anfam aptly describes such assertions as Still’s “imaginative parthenogenesis.” He finds the influence of Rembrandt – whom the artist “esteemed above all”[x] – in Still’s early self-portraits and an admiration for Turner in Still’s landscapes of the late 1920s. He notes that Still did a Master’s thesis on Cezanne in 1935, but attaches more importance to Van Gogh. Both the Dutch artist and Still signed their work without the patronym: Vincent, Clyfford. In their early careers both painted “the wretched of the earth.”[xi] A comprehensive exhibition of Van Gogh at the neighbouring Denver Art Museum[xii] has been thoughtfully exploited to support Anfam’s contention. But the newly revealed figurative Still of the mid-1930s relates only tangentially to any of these putative influences, and while Still’s motifs of workers in the field are sometimes similar to Van Gogh’s, he clearly lacks the vigorous handling and buttery surfaces of Van Gogh.
As for the mature Still, a case can be made, as Sobel does, that the innovative, nine-foot-high PH-235 (1944) is the first quintessential Abstract Expressionist painting [see above]. That remarkable work has the large scale, the disdain for mere facility, the resolute rejection of not only representation but also figuration, and an aloof independence from both Cubism and – except perhaps for Miro – Surrealism. It is this kind of advanced work that earned the respect of Still’s fellow Abstract Expressionist painters. Pollock once exclaimed, “Still makes the rest of us look academic.”[xiii] Pollock’s remark is telling. There is no parallel in Still for the “all-together,” synthesizing quality of signature Pollock. While the apogee of Pollock’s career in 1947 to 1950 is a truly great accomplishment, William Rubin has rightly found a considerable array of art-historical sources manifestly brought together in it: late Monet, analytical Cubism, Mexican muralism, Surrealism, and so on.[xiv] Still’s resolute independence and insistent Americanism is of another order entirely.
A second question would be, When is Still at his best? I’m tempted to leave aside the early and mid-1930s work as depressive juvenilia, which Anfam describes as “pastorals from hell” and “tortured phantasmagorias,”[xv] although they could perhaps be defended to some degree as Still’s determined effort to escape his facility in drawing, as evidenced by PH-672 (1923), a self-portrait done at age 18.
Some excellent transitional paintings of 1936 and 1937 transcend the misery of the earlier work. PH-342 (1937) has not yet fully moved beyond figuration and seems to owe something to both Surrealism and Kandinsky, but it is almost lyrical in comparison with what had come immediately before. It is a telling link in the development of Still’s art to his mature, fully non-objective, signature work.
Bannard argued that “Still’s paintings are best when they are overwhelmed by colored paint, when they are flooded and stuffed.” If Bannard was pointing to those works in which one field of colour pushes urgently against another, envelops it perhaps, producing an almost claustrophobic sense of pressure and confinement, then I would agree. Certainly some of Still’s greatest works are of this type, although there were surprisingly few such paintings in Still’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. Prime examples include PH-11 (1954) and PH-173 (1955, also known as 1955-K ).
Some of the greatest Stills are of a second type, in which vast monochromatic fields are punctuated by one or two thin, vertical lines. Still had an extraordinary gift for monochrome, and those vertical filaments, which he called his “lifelines” had, as I will argue, a special significance for him. The most famous of these is the great, nine-by-thirteen-foot PH-246 (1951-52, Art Institute of Chicago), which Still called the “black monster.” It was a key work in the 15 Americans exhibition of 1952 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and one that I think of as a truly great masterpiece. The Clyfford Still Museum owns a variant of it, not quite as good as the “black monster,” but impressive in its own right: PH-1078 (1951) [illustrated at the top of page].
And yet, there remains a third mode of highly successful paintings, those same more open works with “shapes pulled apart” that Bannard rejected. To be sure, there are many such works that fail, but I believe there are also a number of great ones. Still left expanses of raw canvas in his paintings as early as 1947, e.g., PH-118, and he clearly moved back and forth between two poles of his art: a dense, almost claustrophobic, closed-in pole and the looser, more lyrical and more open work like PH-118. I particularly admire some works of this third type, such as PH-73 (1949, private collection, also known a 1949-F).
Nonetheless, I am not arguing that Still’s best work necessarily fits into one of these three categories. A particularly powerful work in the Clyfford Still Museum, PH-191 (1951), like so many other excellent paintings, doesn’t fit easily into any of them.
One might wonder if the late, more lyrical works, such as PH-1082 (1978) achieve the same heights as Still’s best work of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Perhaps most do not, but many major artists’ greatest work is concentrated in a peak period. Picasso was probably at his best before World War I, when he was working closely with Georges Braque, but one need not – Clement Greenberg notwithstanding – dismiss the bulk of his work after that. While I concede to Bannard that Still was probably at his very best in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I agree also with Anfam that in the late Stills there can be a suggestion of “air in motion, breath, wind” and colour can “float aloft, etched and ecstatic.[xvi]
A third question – perhaps the most resistant to resolution and yet the most important one – is, What are the sources for Still’s creativity and how do they affect the emotional valence, and – ultimately – the aesthetic quality of the work?
One of the most ambitious accounts of the emotional valence of the work is that of Robert Rosenblum. In “The Abstract Sublime”[xvii] he analyzed the impact of Still in terms of an awesome confrontation with great “boundlessness” that linked him to both Turner and his contemporaries Newman, Pollock and Rothko; together with Still they were cited as the four “masters of the abstract sublime.” But Rosenblum did not enquire why Still produced the work he did, what adversity he might have triumphed over in his art.
Anfam’s answer to that question focuses on the hardships of Still’s early life on his father’s farms. He adduces numerous instances of Still’s youthful travails in his “lostland,” e.g., the death of the artist’s baby sister at the age of merely four days, Still’s shocking wheat until his arms were “bloody to the elbow,” the “constant killing” of chickens and various farm animals.[xviii] Anfam finds “the ubiquitous verticality’ in Still’s art embodies “the aspirant life force necessary to defy the horizontal, voided prairies.”[xix] This argument has some merit but would be more persuasive if those lifelines were not so often tenuous and if the reasoning were less a-theoretical.
Strangely enough, Anfam does not consider one key biographical fact. The Clyfford Still Museum website observes that apparently Still’s “father once… tied a rope around Clyfford’s ankles and lowered him headfirst into a newly built well to assess its status.”[xx] Still referred to that rope as his lifeline. Still also told San Francisco Museum of Modern Art director Henry Hopkins that his father would occasionally “drop him down a well as a sort of punishment.”[xxi] In my view Still’s experiences with his father’s well, as dark and frightening as they must have been, are a valuable clue for understanding the impetus behind Still’s art. The classical theoretical text is by British aesthetician Edward Bullough,[xxii] who argued that the making of art always involved a cathartic “detachment” from intensely personal.
experience. Similar ideas can be found in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Walter Pater, Benedetto Croce, and others. We should not be surprised then, that many of the best Stills can feel closed in, have dark and earthen tones, and are marked by that ubiquitous “lifeline,” and yet suggest a transcending power and vitality that is lacking in the clearly under-distanced, near-despairing work of the mid-1930s, such as PH-414 (1934-5).
So what, then, is the status of Clyfford Still? Dean Sobel places him at the forefront of Abstract Expressionism. The distinguished Canadian painter Otto Rogers prefers him to Rothko,[xxiii] and I much prefer Still to de Kooning. Now art lovers around the world are in a much better position to decide for themselves.
[i] John Golding, Paths to the Absolute. Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman and Still (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000), p. 232.
[ii] David Anfam, “Still’s Journey” in Dean Sobel and David Anfam, Clyfford Still, The Artist’s Museun (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2012), p. 59.
[iii] Walter Darby Bannard, “Touch and Scale: Cubism, Pollock, Newman and Still,” Artforum, 10 (June, 1971), pp. 58ff.
[iv] Clement Greenberg, “American-Type Painting,” Partisan Review, XXII:2 (Spring 1955); reprinted with revisions in Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon, 1961), pp. 208-229. There have been other such disparagements of Still, e.g., Kenneth Baker questioned whether the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art should have accepted Still’s donation of paintings in Datebook (San Francisco Chronicle), April 25, 1993, p. 39
[v] Clement Greenberg, “Clyfford Still,” Arts Magazine, 55 (Oct., 1980), pp. 114ff. In fairness to Greenberg it must be noted that Sobel thinks of Still as the de facto curator of the exhibition after the death of Thomas B. Hess in 1978, and only one of 79 paintings listed in the catalogue is indicated as coming from a private or public collection. A much stronger exhibition could surely have been mounted.
[vi] David Anfam, op. cit., p. 70. Anfam is quoting from letters by Still to Betty Freeman and Barnett Newman of 1961 and 1946, respectively.
[vii] Anfam, op. cit.
[viii] Anfam, op. cit., p. 106 (emphasis added).
[ix] As quoted by Nancy Marmer in “Clyfford Still: The Extremist Factor,” Art in America, 68 (April, 1980), p. 105.
[x] Anfam, op. cit., p. 63. Anfam is quoting from a Betty Freeman typescript in the Smithsonian institution.
[xi] Anfam quotes Van Gogh as recorded in Judy Sund, Van Gogh (London: Phaidon Press, 2002), p. 98.
[xii] Becoming Van Gogh included 70 works by that artist and was on from Oct. 21, 2012, to Jan. 20, 2013.
[xiii] Dean Sobel, “Why a Clyfford Still Museum?” in Sobel and Anfam, op. cit., p. 24 (as cited by Sam Hunter from a conversation with Pollock in 1955).
[xiv] William Rubin, “Jackson Pollock and the Modern Tradition,” I, III, Artforum, 5: 6,8 (Feb., Apr., 1967). The term “all-together painting,” not used by Rubin, owes to Michael Fried.
[xv] Anfam, op. cit., pp. 70 and 83.
[xvi] Anfam, op. cit., p. 99.
[xvii] Robert Rosenblum, “The Abstract Sublime,” ARTnews, 59:10 (Feb., 1961).
[xviii] Anfam, op. cit., pp. 72, 74 and 79.
[xix] Anfam, op. cit., p. 74.
[xxi] As reported by Tyler Green, “Clyfford Still part two: The birth of abex?”, http://blogs.artinfo.com/modernartnotes/category/clyfford-still/ (Oct. 12, 2011).
[xxii] Edward Bullough, “‘Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and as an Aesthetic Principle,” British Journal of Psychology, V (1912), pp. 87-117.
[xxiii] In conversation, May 29, 2013.