Monday, May 14, 2012

Clyfford Still - Part 2, The Art

By Charles Kessler

“Still makes the rest of us look academic.”
— Jackson Pollock, 1955 (quoted in Sam Hunter, Masters of the Fifties).

Clyfford Still, 1944-N No.1 (PH-235), 1944, oil on canvas, 105 x 92 ½ inches (Clyfford Still Museum, photo: Harholdt).
Let’s get this out of the way: Clyfford Still was first! Several months ago I compared what the other Abstract Expressionists were doing in 1944 with what Still was doing.
Left: Barnett Newman, The Blessing, 1944, oil crayon and wax crayon on paper, 25 ½  x 19 ⅜ inches (MoMA).
Right: Mark Rothko, Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, 1944, oil on canvas, 75 ⅜  x 84 ¾ inches (MoMA).
About the only artist in Still’s league was Jackson Pollock, and a case can be made that Pollock’s work, great as it was then, was not yet his mature work. The others didn't catch up until 1949-50.
Left: Jackson Pollock, Gothic, 1944, oil on canvas, 84 ⅝  x 56 inches (MoMA).
Right: Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1944, oil on canvas, 46 x 32 inches (Metropolitan Museum).
Still was the first of the Abstract Expressionists to go completely abstract. For that we not only have the evidence of his mid-1940's exhibitions, but also the testimony of Robert Motherwell, one of the first-generation Abstract Expressionists:  “His was the show, of all those early shows [referring to Still’s 1946 and 1947 New York exhibitions] that was the most original. A bolt out of the blue.” And: “Most of us were still working through images toward what ultimately became Abstract Expressionism. Baziotes, Pollock and I all had some degree of figuration in our work, abstract as our work was; whereas Still had none.” (Summer 1967 interview with Sidney Simon in Art International.)

Still was the first to make large-scale paintings. This is a somewhat complicated issue because many artists made an occasional large painting: Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, etc. But Art Historian Meyer Schapiro, a brilliant scholar and a friend of the Abstract Expressionists, identified the relevant issue when he told me in a 1972 interview that Still was the first because he was the first to have an exhibition composed solely of large paintings [at the Art of this Century Gallery in New York in February 12 - March 2, 1946] and thereby was the first to make large scale a characteristic of his art. [My emphasis.]

Actually, while researching my MA thesis on Clyfford Still, I came across evidence of an earlier exhibition of his, at the Richmond Professional Institute in 1944, in which all the work was large. (A letter to me from someone who witnessed this exhibition is re-printed in Still's Metropolitan Museum 1979-80 exhibition catalog, p.182.) Admittedly Richmond is out of the way, but by 1945 Still moved to New York and was friends with most of the first-generation Abstract Expressionists. It's certain they would have seen this work in his studio.

And finally, after a talk he gave at UCLA in the early seventies, I asked Motherwell who was the first to do large-scale paintings, he said it was definitely Still.

Perhaps more significant, Still was the first to do away with figure/ground distinctions. Even Monet kept the distinction between figure and ground in his water lilies, however subtle; and Picasso never went all the way with it. But by 1944, certainly 1945, shapes and forms in Still's paintings were simultaneously figure (object, shape, form, etc.) and ground (background) and neither.
I never wanted color to be color, I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit. (Clyfford Still in an interview with Katharine Kuh and reported in her book, My Love Affair With Modern Art.)
Still managed to have it all ways by maintaining an ambiguity as to whether or not something is a unique, self-contained irregular shape or a fissure in a field of color revealing part of another field of color underneath. As a result, there is even ambiguity as to how big a shape is or where its edge leaves off.
Clyfford Still, 1947-R-No.1, 1947, oil on canvas, 69 x 65  inches. (This painting recently sold at auction for more than $21 million.)
This is important because it allowed shapes and forms to float in space rather than pile up, flatten out and clog up the surface. In fact, space in a Still painting can be so palpable that many people report the vertiginous feeling of falling into a deep, breathtaking cavern, then being thrown back to the painting surface, only to see it dissipate again. (A lot of people hate Still’s art, and I suspect it's because they don’t see the spatial illusions; they only see the work as thick paint on canvas.)
Detail: Clyfford Still, untitled  (PH - 1049), 1977, oil on canvas.
Related to this merging of figure and ground, Still was the first to employ large fields of color — color unattached to shape or form. Weightless fields of airy color (or unpainted canvas functioning as another field of color) become transparent, expand and glow. And color itself becomes ambiguous — is it the local color (the color of the shape or form) or is it a color showing through from behind?

Another innovation is what I think of as the narrative quality of Still's work. Like Minimal Art (Stella's Black Paintings, for example), Still paintings can be taken in all at once; but, like calligraphy or Chinese landscape painting or scrolls, they can also be experienced over time, bit by bit. As you scan the surface of the painting, the strokes of paint float in space, move rhythmically, and coalesce into a flowing dance.  See video below for an example of what I mean.
VIDEO: Clyfford Still, untitled  (PH - 1049), 1977, oil on canvas, 114 x 172 inches (The Clyfford Still Museum).
Not only did Still innovate, but he could execute. Still studied art from an early age, and he was a skilled draftsman. (I haven't been able to find a good photo of his early work, but take my word for it, his Self Portrait, which he did at age 18, currently on display at the Clyfford Still Museum, is surprisingly masterful.) In his mature work, Still's drawing ability allowed him to keep the space in his paintings activated — it never feels empty, even the unpainted parts. In fact, I think drawing was his main gift, more even than color, as important as color was to him. (Still's early work, shown for the first time in Denver, should dispel the foolish notion that Still's inventions were due somehow to a lack of technical facility.)

Still's art also has a wide expressive range — it's not all dark and dour, the way many people think it is. He used different amounts of oil to vary the shininess of the paint surface and employed unexpected colors: pink, lavender, aqua. Some of his later work is even playful, loose and light. He might even have had a classic late style — I hope some day the museum will have a show of his late work, and we'll find out.
Clyfford Still, untitled, 1971, oil on canvas, 93 ¾ x 155 inches (SFMOMA).
Of course, Still's innovations and technical facility mean nothing if that’s all there is. But the innovations aren’t spurious, and, along with his skills as a painter, they serve an expressive end, allowing him to express profoundly deep meaning and feelings. I believe Still was a hero in the existentialist sense, and his work, in a direct, immediate, right-to-the-gut way, embodies the existential ideal.

This obviously needs some explaining and context:

A representational painting looks the way it does because that’s what the thing it represents looks like. But how does one make an abstract painting look right and not just arbitrary? The Abstract Expressionist offered two very different possibilities: one was to make it look as if it were done by chance, typified by Pollock; and the other was to make it look pre-determined, typified by Newman (i.e., to fit into a grid or because of the given shape and size of the canvas, etc.).

Of course, neither was made in a random or pre-determined manner. Newman freely chose the size and shape of his canvases, and chose to put his stripes where they are; and Pollock’s drips and de Kooning’s brushwork were in fact controlled (aside from their skill, they could always choose to keep an accident or change it) — it’s just that we don’t experience them that way, nor are we meant to. (In 1970, Clement Greenberg told a group of us from UCLA that when he visited Pollock’s studio one time, Pollock kicked a turkey baster under a chair to hide it from him.)

According to existentialist philosophy, all decisions are free — but Still's paintings embody this in a visceral way. They aren't experienced as restrained by a pre-conceived structural organization, be it the need to create a representational image or the necessity to fit into a cubist grid or some other pre-determined, a priori organization.
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.)
Still overcame the “Euclidean prison” — the power of the shape, size and limits of the painting surface to determine the structure of the painting — because his configurations appear to continue beyond the edge. And figure-ground distinctions are ambiguous so contours aren’t defined and therefore don't need to be aligned with the edge of the canvas or with each other. As a result, Still was free to place his shapes wherever he willed them.

Nor do we feel as if Still painted according to his whims or caprice. On the contrary, to the viewer a pallet knife is experienced as more controlled than poured paint or a loaded brush, and the work, as a result, is felt to be considered and deliberate.

Submitting to chance or a priori necessity means relinquishing responsibility for decisions. It is a denial of freedom because it implies the artist had no free will. (The existentialist term for this is  “inauthentic” or “in bad faith.”) This has nothing to do with how good or bad the art is — it has to do with the experience and meaning of the work. We may no longer believe in the subject matter of most religious or royal art from past centuries, but it can nevertheless be great art that we love.

I love Still's art for the power of the willfulness, the free willfulness, I experience in his work. The fact is, Still’s bombastic posturing isn’t empty boasting and hyperbole — what he said is precisely true:
By 1941, space and figure in my canvases had been resolved into a total psychic entity, freeing me from the limitations of each, yet fusing into an instrument bounded only by the limits of my energy and intuition. My feeling of freedom was now absolute and infinitely exhilarating. (Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 1963.)

This is part 2 of three posts on Clyfford Still. Part 1 was about the person, and the next will be about the Clyfford Still Museum.


Carl Belz said...

On the issue of edges: It's been my experience with Still's pictures that what happens at the edges is altogether different when you're looking at the pictures themselves, in the flesh, than when you're looking at reproductions of them. True of all pictures, I know, but Still's in particular, because: in reproductions it's easy to see the whole picture at once, and what you see at the edge when Still positions a flash of color there and it continues past the edge, well, it can often look "arty" and "designed" and self-conscious. Whereas, when you're face-to-face with the real thing, its sheer size and physical presence enable all of the parts of the picture to present themselves with equal force and credibility, and what happens at those critical edges in turn feels vital, meant, trenchant, not just decorative. As to freedom, well, I'll have to work on that next...

Charles Kessler said...

Good point. There are so few of his works available in reproduction that I never realized how different they are in person. I did find out that they're almost impossible to photograph -- at least for me. The color, for one thing, looks entirely different in a photograph.

smellofpaint said...

Even being one of the people who can't stand a Clifford Still, I still enjoyed your post on his art.
The reason I personally do not enjoy his work (ever since the 1970's huge retrospective at the Met), is that so much of his work did not seem to have survived well aesthetically --> the visual points he makes look trivial to my eye, and at a grand scale at that... -- something that I can never say about a de Kooning, or even a Frankenthaler... .
Personal (dis)tastes aside though, your discussion of his contributions to the early course of AbEx is enlightening. I wonder however about any sort of primacy claims for his going over to complete abstraction. Certainly all of future AbEx artists were aware of large abstract work by, say, Kandinsky (20's and 30's)... but perhaps even more interestingly, there was a whole society of American Abstract Artists, whose 1930's contribution to American painting is under-discussed and really under-appreciated!
--Philip Gerstein

Charles Kessler said...

Philip, I'm glad you like the post anyway. It seems a lot of people I respect feel the same way. From Carl's comment he seems to have a similar problem with Still -- at least in reproduction. I just find the work thrilling.

Of course you're right about Kandinski and the AAA artists. But what Still offered was large-scale abstraction that broke from cubist composition -- Art that's experience more like an environment. I should have made that clearer.

Analuiza said...

Excellent post. Still was one of the most important painter in the history of art.