Sunday, May 6, 2012

Clyfford Still -- Part 1

By Charles Kessler

This is the first of a two-part three-part (I have more to say than I realized) post on Clyfford Still and the Clyfford Still Museum.
Clyfford Still, 1969.
I did my MA thesis on Clyfford Still at UCLA in 1973, and I have loved his art ever since, so I decided to go to Denver and see the new Clyfford Still Museum. I’ll be writing about the museum and Still’s art later, but here I want to focus on Clyfford Still the person — a pretty intense person indeed, infamous for statements that sound like an Old Testament prophet pouring out his wrath:

I hold it imperative to evolve an instrument of thought which will aid in cutting through all cultural opiates, past and present, so that a direct, immediate, and truly free vision can be revealed with clarity. ... Therefore, let no man undervalue the implications of this work or its power for life;—or for death, if it is misused. (both Albright Art Gallery, 1959)

To be stopped by a frame's edge is intolerable, a Euclidian prison, it had to be annihilated, its authoritarian implications repudiated without dissolving one’s individual integrity and idea in material and mannerism. (Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, 1963)
Clyfford Still, Untitled (PH-118), 1947, oil on canvas, 69 x 53 inches, (Clyfford Still Museum, © Estate of Clyfford Still).
I had made it clear that a single stroke of paint, backed by work and a mind that understood its potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for subjugation. (Letter to the Editor, Artforum, December, 1963.)

As you can imagine from this, Clyfford Still could be difficult to get along with. He was obstinate, and vindictive if you crossed him. He refused to sell work to just anyone (he allowed only about 150 paintings to be sold in his lifetime). He had to believe you understood and respected his work before he’d allow you to own one. In addition, since he owned most of his art, he was able to tightly controlled how and when his work was shown. It had to be exhibited in its own room with no other art; and he had to be in charge of selecting and installing the work himself. He even wrote the catalogs. And this wasn’t just for minor gallery exhibitions or even small museums. This was for major solo exhibitions at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo (1959), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1975) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1979) — where he exhibited an astonishing 79 paintings! It was that or nothing — and he was perfectly willing to wait until he got his terms.

These days I guess people would think he was kind of a pompous jerk and prima donna, but you have to remember it was a different time — just after the traumas of World War II — and Still and the other Abstract Expressionists all felt strongly about the importance and seriousness of the art-making enterprise — and they all were willing to suffer poverty and neglect for the sake of their art.

And keep in mind that these high standards weren’t just for themselves. Still, Newman, Rothko and many of the other Abstract Expressionists felt the work of ALL artists is best seen in the context of the individual artist's own work.  For example, Still’s daughter, Sandra Still Campbell, recently told a writer for Art News that on the night of the opening of the famous 15 Americans exhibition at MoMA in 1952, Still noticed one of his works could be seen from someone else’s room. He went up to Dorothy Miller, the curator, and told her “Don’t do that! Give the artists the chance to be seen for who they are.”

All of them were conflicted about the commercial aspects of the art world and were super-sensitive to any hint of “selling out.”  Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock had mixed feelings about their success, and that conflict may have ultimately contributed to their deaths. Few of them trusted art dealers to represent their work correctly. Still represented himself for most of his life, and so did Barnett Newman after 1950.

While they all believed these things, Still was far more uncompromising than the others, and as a result he has had far less visibility and hasn't received the attention or acclaim he deserves. In addition, he offended powerful people in the art world, most importantly the Museum of Modern Art (which, according to Betty Freeman, he called “the great gas chamber of culture on 53rd Street”).

One of his conflicts with MoMA involved them wanting to buy his painting 1944-N but Still believed his PH-246 (now in the Chicago Art Institute -- see photo below -- you need to look closely to see the different colors and configurations), a large black painting that was shown in their 15 Americans exhibition, was a more important painting, and he was angry they didn’t have the courage to buy it.
Clyfford Still, PH-246, 1951-52, oil on canvas, 118 ¾ x 156 inches (Art Institute of Chicago).
In a letter to Gordon Smith, former director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and a long-time friend, Still wrote that he secretly sold them a replica of 1944-N. “Since they were only after my name, I deliberately made the replica very slight and willfully of indifferent quality. In other words, I was willing to stab myself to defy and teach this monster my contempt of it.” (The original 1944-N is now on exhibit in Denver and is only a little bit larger, but it’s significantly more finished looking.
On the left - Clyfford Still, 1944-N No.1 (PH-235), 1944, oil on canvas, 105 x 92 ½ inches (Clyfford Still Museum, photo: Harholdt). On the right - Clyfford Still, 1944-N No. 2, 1944. Oil on canvas. 104 1/4 x 87 1/4 inches  (The Museum of Modern Art).
There are a lot of other stories about Still’s outrageous behavior. Here are two of the most famous ones:

Still sent this pair of rubber baby pants to art critic Emily Genauer after she reviewed his work unfavorably in the Sunday New York Herald Tribune.
Rubber baby pants, in the Archives of American Art.
The attached note says: “Hoping this will aid in concealing your Sunday afflictions. With the compliments of Clyfford Still.”

Another story is about Still and the artist and collector Alfonso Ossorio. They had been friends, and over the years Ossorio had bought some of his paintings. Still found out that Ossorio sold one or two of them and demanded he return one of his remaining paintings. Ossorio refused, so Still went to his house and, while Ossorio was occupied elsewhere, cut the center of the painting out and left with it. Later he told Betty Freeman that he “cut the heart out of the painting.”

While researching my MA thesis, I was told some more stories:

The collector Fred Weisman told me that he had been friends with Still for many years and had bought some of his paintings when suddenly Still broke off contact with him. Puzzled, Weisman looked at the last letter he sent Still and noticed his secretary misspelled Clyfford “Clifford” by mistake. He confronted Still with this, asking him how he could give up a long friendship for such a trivial reason. Weisman said Still was so contrite that he gave him a painting.

Betty Freeman told me how much Still loved baseball (I seem to remember he was a  semi-pro in his youth but I haven’t been able to confirm it) and she showed me photos of them at a game. She said Still once pointed to the foul pole and said “the foul line is my line of force.”  (A similar story was recently reported by Tyler Green in his post on Betty Freeman.) I don’t know what the hell it’s supposed to mean, but I thought I’d pass it on.

Richard Diebenkorn told me my favorite Clyfford Still story. Although he was a lot younger, Diebenkorn taught with Still at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in the mid-1940’s. He said everyone there was in awe of Still and intimidated by him. (I suspect Diebenkorn was still intimidated because he was concerned Still might be angry with him for telling this story. But Diebenkorn felt that since the story made him look bad and not Still, it would be okay.)
Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1947-48, watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, 23 ¼ x 29 ⅛ inches (SFMOMA).
He said he finally gathered up the courage to invite Still by to look at his art. Still showed up on the dot wearing a suit and tie and not wanting to bother with a drink first or any niceties. Diebenkorn said Still looked at his art for a long time without saying a word, making him feel more and more uncomfortable. Finally Still said “that’s a good painting,” and Diebenkorn said he was so relieved and flabbergasted he foolishly (as he put it) said to Still that he had trouble with the red. Well, Still stomped out yelling “Art isn’t about red! It’s about meaning and feeling!” (or some such rant). Diebenkorn said he was thoroughly humiliated. (Diebenkorn said he thought Still thrived on his anger, was motivated by it, and channeled it into his art.)

I can understand why Warhol and the next generation reacted against this kind of macho posturing and grandiose pretensions, but I admire their heroic ambition and their seriousness, and sometimes I wish we had more of that today.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the Clyfford Still stories. Perfect timing for me as I'm reading the great, informative bio of De Kooning by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. I can't seem to get enough of this period--and of it's characters. Looking forward to part 2.

Charles Kessler said...

I read it during the de Kooning show at MoMA -- great book! It really gives you a feeling for those heroic years.

Kyle Gallup said...

Charles, I was just wishing I had done that! As I'm reading, his paintings and their placement in the MOMA show are popping up in my minds eye! The authors do a very fine job of describing the artistic struggle De Kooning faces as he's painting especially through the 1930's.

Charles Kessler said...

It definetely enriched the show for me. I love the book. I'll probably re-read it.