American Clyfford Still, Painter of Great Unseen

In a recently published study of abstract painting called Paths to the Absolute , the English art

historian John Golding described the American painter Clyfford Still

(1904-1980)-currently the subject of an important exhibition at the

Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.-as “an

artist [who] remains in a sense the great unseen.” To the extent that this is

still largely true, both here and abroad, more than a decade after the artist’s

death, the fault-if it is a fault-is entirely Still’s. For the artist himself went

to great lengths to make it difficult for his work to be exhibited on any terms

but his own.

Whether his deeply apprehensive attitude toward the

exhibition of his paintings may best be characterized as morally fastidious,

mistakenly protective or, as some believe, simply paranoid, Still was adamant

in restricting access to the large parts of his enormous oeuvre that were under his legal control during his lifetime. And

as many of those same restrictions continue to be enforced by the executors of

his estate, there is still no possibility of mounting a definitive

retrospective exhibition of his work anywhere.

This is one of the reasons why the exhibition that has now

been organized at the Hirshhorn Museum by its director, James T. Demetrion- Clyfford Still: Paintings 1944-1960 -is

something of an event. This is not, to be sure, the retrospective that has long

been needed to provide a comprehensive account of the artist’s achievement. It

concentrates instead on what the museum describes as “Still’s most intense

period of groundbreaking and creativity,” and it consists of 39 works drawn

from museums and private collections that are not subject to the legal

authority of the Still estate. As everyone in the museum world will recognize,

this is no small feat in itself, and Mr. Demetrion is to be congratulated for

persevering where so many others have feared to tread. For as Mr. Demetrion

himself delicately acknowledges, “There are aspects of this show that Still

might not have liked.”

No doubt one aspect of the show that Still would have

greatly disliked is the documentation-photocopies of the artist’s letters and

photographs of the artist himself-that accompanies the paintings in this

exhibition. My guess is that there were probably two reasons why this abundant,

humanizing documentation was thought to be necessary in a show that, for a

younger generation of viewers, is likely to serve as an introduction to the

artist’s work.

One is that Still, owing to his own peculiar machinations,

remains for much of the art public the least familiar of the painters who

created the New York School in the 1940′s and 50′s. Another, however, is the

stubborn fact that his paintings are not of a kind that offer easy pleasures to

the eye. While often huge in their physical scale, the crusty, clotted facture

in these paintings is consistently dour and insalubrious, and their jagged

forms-described by David Anfam in the show’s catalog as “abysses”-tend to be

forbidding. As Mr. Anfam also observes: “They force the vision from one

limit-situation to another and reify a mood of threat and otherness …. The

illumination ranges from twilight to a scorched blast.”

They are not, then, exactly viewer-friendly pictures, nor

were they meant to be. With his penchant for intimidating hyperbole, Still himself

declared that “These are not paintings in the usual sense …. They are life and

death merging in fearful union.” Notwithstanding such dubious rhetoric, a

homemade pastiche of William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche, it is only as a

painter, not as prophet or thinker, that Still makes a claim on our attention,

and in this regard he was certainly one of the most original abstract painters

of his generation-though not, perhaps, as original in every respect as Mr.

Demetrion claims.

In his introduction to the catalog of the Hirshhorn show,

Mr. Demetrion writes that “Of all his colleagues [in the New York

School]-Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Franz

Kline-Still was the first to paint in a heroic scale and the first to break his

ties with the past by painting with no discernible subject matter.” In my view,

there are at least two reasons why this claim remains unpersuasive. First, take

the question of “heroic scale”-an imprecise term, to be sure, but commonly

taken to refer to the physical size of the painted canvas. On that score, the

real pioneer among the painters of the New York School was Richard

Pousette-Dart, with a painting called Symphony

No 1: The Transcendental (1941-42), which measures 90 by 120 inches and is

now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Still didn’t

attempt anything near this scale until 1944 at the earliest.

There is no reason to doubt, moreover, that Still would have

been well-acquainted with Pousette-Dart’s work, for they were both exhibiting

at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Still may also have found other

elements in Pousette-Dart’s Symphony

painting to admire: its deeply textured, encrusted facture, and a palette

dominated by blacks, grays, browns and off-whites, with only slight touches of

primary colors. As much as Still and Pousette-Dart may have differed in other

respects, they were often alike in such matters, and it was Pousette-Dart’s Symphony that set the pace.

Mr. Demetrion’s second claim-that Still was “the first to

break his ties with the past by painting with no discernible subject matter”-is

somewhat more complicated. While it is true that Pousette-Dart’s Symphony contains a plethora of what

appear to be hermetic or mystical symbols, they are all given abstract form,

and their exact “subject matter” is no more or less “discernible” than that of

those ragged-edged archipelagoes of matted color we find in Still’s abstract

paintings. And Still’s abstractions are, after all, clearly derived from the

bleak and vacant landscapes the artist knew in his hardscrabble youth in North

Dakota, the Alberta province of Canada and Washington state.

What constitutes a “discernible subject matter” in abstract

painting is often debatable-but not, I believe, in Still’s case. The unforgiving

landscapes of memory haunted him like a curse, leaving room for no other

subject or impulse. It became the governing myth of Still’s abstract aesthetic.

It determined the scale he favored, the dour pictorial facture he allowed

himself and the unnerving repetition of pictorial form that makes any sizable

exhibition of Still’s abstract paintings a trial to get through. It was as if

Still had dedicated himself to the task of making us, the viewers of his work,

relive or suffer by proxy all the deprivations and denials of his youth and

early manhood. This may have been what John Golding had in mind when he spoke

of the role played by “hatred” in Still’s abstract painting.

This is, of course, a perfectly legitimate subject for an

artist, but it is not one that promises much in the way of pictorial pleasure

or spiritual reward. Visiting the current Still exhibition in Washington the

other day, the writer I was most often reminded of was the American poet

Robinson Jeffers, another Nietzschean anti-humanist who remained fixated on the

vastness, the cruelty and the impersonal, uncaring force of the natural world.

All the same, Clyfford

Still: Paintings, 1944-1960 is an exhibition that everyone with an interest

in the history of abstract painting will want to see. I think Still was

mistaken in claiming that his paintings were never influenced by anybody, but

his own paintings have undeniably been an influence on a great many other

artists, and no comprehensive understanding of the history of the New York School

is possible without a close acquaintance with his work. In my experience,

anyway, the show that Mr. Demetrion has mounted at the Hirshhorn Museum is the

best exhibition of Still’s work to be seen anywhere, and its accompanying

catalog is admirable, too, especially for David Anfam’s illuminating essay.

But make no mistake: Clyfford Still’s paintings are not for

everyone. For some viewers, certainly-and I include myself here-they can be a

very dispiriting experience. New Yorkers not yet familiar with his paintings

might want to have a look at the 10 paintings on permanent view at the

Metropolitan Museum of Art-a gift from the artist’s widow-before venturing to

Washington in the summer sizzle. You will know at once whether you want to see

more, and if you do, then the Hirshhorn exhibition is a must. It remains on

view in Washington, its sole venue, through Sept. 16.