"Clyfford Still: Paintings, 1944-1960," June 21-Sept. 16, 2001, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. 20560.
Clyfford Still was somewhat arrogant, not to say grandiose, but he did produce important painting, as the current retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum makes clear. Somewhat delusionally, Still declared his paintings were "fragments of a means to freeedom,"(1) and what he wanted to be free of was "the combined and sterile conclusions of Western European decadence," evident in the ideas of "Hegel, Kierkegaard, Cézanne, Freud, Picasso, Kandinsky, Plato, Marx, Aquinas, Spengler, Einstein, Bell, Croce, Monet."(2) Quite an incoherent if impressive list! One wonders if Still read any of these thinkers -- even just a paragraph or two -- and if he understood what he read.
Still was born in North Dakota and grew up in Alberta, Canada, and the state of Washington. If he were alive today, he would no doubt feel comfortable living in Idaho, home to many pure-bred, self-righteous Americans with deep roots in the land. (The poet William Carlos Williams once said such patriotic types sooner or later go mad. One has to continue to feel like an immigrant -- even a displaced person -- to remain sane in America, that is, to survive the rootlessness of American life.)
So Still was a good old boy of the prairie -- that is, a provincial -- and his work has in fact been repeatedly compared to the rugged Western landscape. Indeed, the recurrent jagged edges in his paintings seem like so many riffs on a raw terrain -- Idaho, after all, may have been on his mind, for his edges seem to echo the eastern border of that glorious state -- and the broad, seemingly limitless flatness of his paintings has been compared to the wide open spaces of the prairie. The great emptiness of the American West is no doubt the antidote to the poisonous decadence of all those European thinkers and artists. It's that old therapeutic miracle of the outdoors, and where is there more pure outdoors than in America? (I've never been to Siberia, which may be healthier.)
It has become customary to find the frontier landscape in the breadth and grandeur of all-over American paintings -- most famously in those of Pollock (born in Wyoming, and a wearer of cowboy boots; it's a toss-up whether he or Still was the John Wayne of American painting) -- as though to prove that however bizarre they seem they are subliminally American.
It is also common to link them with 19th-century American landscape painting, also overrun with heroic landscape -- still unexploited nature. Indeed, one can argue that Still's paintings are nostalgic abstract reprises of the kind of American abandonment to the cosmic embrace of sacred Mother Nature that one finds in Emersonian Transcendentalism. They are attempts to keep the mystery of nature alive by making it abstract, as though it was still a terra incognita.
One can argue that Still's works are a celebration of American expansionism: America begins in New England, with the uptight Thoreau at Walden Pond, and ends on the West Coast, with the unbuttoned Still surveying the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, the crucial years in his development occurred in San Francisco, where he taught at the Art Institute. Dare one say that 1950-H No. 1 (San Francisco No. 1) and 1950-M No. 1, both painted the year Still left San Francisco, are abstract renderings of the Pacific Ocean in different "moods" -- in different states of atmosphere and luminosity? The American dream of a continental country -- a land from sea to shining sea -- is fulfilled in Still's abstract fantasies of oceanic space. They are in effect the climactic rendering of the infinitely open beyond of the Romantics.
Still has said that his paintings are allegories of "life and death merging in fearful union," but I suggest that they are abstractions of earth and ocean clashing as they come together on the California coast -- something that also inspired primitive, self-important feelings in the poet Robinson Jeffers, with whom Still has more than his fair share of affinities. It may seem irreverent to say so, and to question Still's assignment of important meaning to his paintings, but what else are the weirdly fluid shapes in 1947-J and 1948-A (among many other works) but the rush of receding foam? Still's paintings look like so many flattened waves -- eccentric splashes seen from above. There is a peculiar lack of force in them, as though the conflict of the elements has dissipated in memory. We are left with the wake of the wave -- lightning-like traces of its explosion, but not the thunder.
This doesn't deny that Still's pictures have a primitive rough-and-ready look -- that they're residually tough and flinty, which is what Still wanted to prove himself to be, like a good Westerner. Is his work really Western landscape painting in abstract disguise? 1938 No. 2 (Untitled [Hoodoos]) fetishizes primitive shapes derived from the Western landscape -- a "hoodoo" is a rocky outcropping, found in the badlands of the West. (Hoodoos can be found at the badlands of Drumheller, which has Indian burial grounds and extensive dinosaur remains, and Writing-on-Stone, both within a hundred miles of Still's Bow Island homestead.)
1938-N No. 1, once titled Totem Fantasy, is also a bizarre, "surreal" figure, with a certain Picasso-like cast to it. In fact, Still collected "totems and strange images, both two- and three-dimensional" -- a visitor to his Richmond house noted the cult-like atmosphere -- suggesting that his work shared the modernist dependence on so-called "savage" art, savage by reason of its non- or anti-Western look and what was taken as its emotional directness, that is, "savage expression."
Culture as well as nature -- especially a culture which was thought to be closer to nature than our own -- supplied Still with his "edgy," peculiarly grotesque shapes -- shapes that seem improvised and sculpted, whether by erosion or seemingly unskilled hands, but left unfinished, that is, unrefined, and so presumably authentic. His abstract works in effect distill them, refining them into an esthetic end in itself, discarding -- in effect "transcending" -- the strange bodies in which Still first saw them. What we have are contours without substance, or rather substance that has been reduced to planar tissue, as though pressed between the pages of memory.
Writing to Betty Parsons on Dec. 29, 1949, Still declared, "The pictures are to be without titles of any kind. I want no allusions to interfere with or assist the spectator. Before them I want him to be on his own, and if he finds in them an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look to the state of his own soul." In other words, the paintings are a kind of Rorschach test -- and why not, seeing that unconscious imagery is impossible to escape, that we are always subliminally in a dream state?
But the point is that Still was covering his tracks, denying his history, declaring his freedom from the American environment. It was yet another extravagant, impossible, absurd Rousseauean attempt to throw off the shackles of civilization and recover the freedom one presumably had at birth -- another example of the revolutionary attempt to wipe the slate clean that has led to so much social and political inhumanity.
With the arrogance of a fanatic, Still claims that his paintings will "restore to man the freedom lost in 20 centuries of apology and devices for subjugation." They will liberate us from "all cultural opiates, past and present." They "create a free place or area of life where an idea can transcend politics, ambition and commerce." The hyperbole of this is not unfamiliar to readers of the self-justifying statements of those who think of themselves as the founding fathers of avant-garde art (it is still being founded, according to some contemporary artists).
It certainly goes beyond the more modest and justified claims for the evocative power of an art, that is, its subjective significance. Ad Reinhardt blew the whistle on Still. "It is not right," Reinhardt wrote, "for the artist to make his bag of tricks a matter of life and death. Artists who send chills, however delicious, up curators' spines with warnings like, 'Let no man undervalue the implication of this work or its power for life, or for death, if it is to be misused,' should be charged with arson and false alarm."(3)
Still may have experienced a personal sense of freedom in 1941, when "the figure in my canvases had been resolved into a total psychic entity," affording a "feeling of freedom ... absolute and infinitely exhilarating," but this hardly means that it was a universal feeling, or that his canvases liberated one from Western European decadence.
The fundamental error of ambitious American artists is that they think it is possible to avoid decadence -- which has its upside of idiosyncratic individuality as well as its downside of social irrelevance -- and to sidestep European art, un-American by definition. Still's attempt to dispense with it might be called the Boston Tea Party syndrome, eloquently formulated in Harold Rosenberg's essay Parable of American Art.
Blowing aside Still's delusional bluster, which was no doubt necessary to his heroic sense of himself, that is, his belief in what he was doing, what does Still have to offer aficionados of painting? How are his paintings innovative?
First, he meant to have his pictures seen in groups, rather than individually. This is more than a matter of moving beyond the easel painting to the mural, as Clement Greenberg said, but the grand realization of Wassily Kandinsky's idea of being "surrounded on all sides by painting," so that one seems to be "strolling" in painting. Kandinsky had this feeling in the Russian Orthodox churches of Moscow and the Catholic chapels of Bavaria and the Tyrol. And I have had this sacred feeling walking through an allée of Still's paintings.
They are the grand climax of the religion of art that Jacques Barzun has described so eloquently (and critically): Still wants us to have the same hushed, worshipful, awed reverence in a chapel composed of his paintings as we would have in a sacred space. In other words, they are to mediate a religious experience -- a feeling of transcendence of "exterior necessity" by way of recovering our sense of "interior necessity," to use Kandinsky's words. I think they succeed in this, assuming one gets attuned to them and immerses oneself in their "otherworldliness." In other words, Still's paintings are among the last vestiges of what Kandinsky called the spiritual in art.
Secondly, and more technically, his best paintings are simultaneously grand and intimate in scale. One has a sense of cosmic space but also of nuanced touch. Abstraction and empathy are in effect brought together. One seems simultaneously to be witnessing the flux of the cosmos from a great distance but also able to touch it -- close enough to the infinite to study it in detail yet far enough from it to take it in as a whole. Indeed, the sense of excruciatingly particular detail -- slippery, nuanced, throbbing, subtly differentiated gestures, not instantly elided into general space even as they constitute general space -- is the core of Still's work, and what makes it uncanny.
There is a sense of restless movement of intricate detail, sweeping across and reaching beyond the canvas, confirming the openness beyond it, even as the openness within it is disclosed. In other words, it is the sense of process -- metamorphosis -- that is crucial to Still's paintings, as is typical of Abstract Expressionistic painting. But what makes them special is the way the gestures in process stand out with unnerving precision. (They tend to blur together in Pollock's all-over paintings, and seem more incoherent, indeed, in the process of disintegration, rather than, as in Still's paintings, re-integration.) It is as though Still deliberately enlarged his marks, turning them into specimens even as they streak across the canvas, like pieces of a comet's tail seen in slow motion from the earth.
In short, it is not simply the cosmic sweep of Still's works that counts, but their ever-changing detail -- their oddly visceral, quivering inner edges. They have an oddly organic look, suggesting their surreal ancestry. These irregular, amorphous shapes, discontinuously spread through space, are the vehicle of Still's impulse to freedom. But they also seem to churn and float futilely in space. They are straws of freedom grasped by an artist drowning in his feeling of being abandoned and betrayed by a world he hates.
"The manifestoes and gestures of the Cubists, the Fauves, the Dadaists, Surrealists, Futurists or Expressionists were only evidence that the Black Mass was but a pathetic homage to that which it often presumed to mock," Still wrote. "And the Bauhaus herded them briskly into a cool, universal Buchenwald. All the devices were at hand, and all the devices had failed to emancipate."
Do Still's paintings emancipate? Is America emancipated compared to Europe? Never mind the brutal unfairness of Still's attack on European artists -- not to say the viciousness of his association of the Bauhaus and Buchenwald -- which raises the question whether avant-garde art can make a social and political difference, indeed, whether any art, however revolutionary, can change the course of history.
The question is whether Still's paintings, for all their esthetic sophistication and sacred sentiment, are an expression of American yahooism. Are they simply an artistic version of America First -- America being the self-declared land of freedom (and Still is very American in his assertion that he has freedom and the decadent Europeans don't) -- or are they paintings that are so pure, in Greenberg's sense of giving their all to the medium, that we can forget the shrill stupidity and know-nothingism of Still's barbaric statements about European artists and thinkers, which seem to liquidate them à la Buchenwald?
(1) Clyfford Still, "A Statement by the Artist," Clyfford Still: 33 Paintings in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo: 1966), p. 18
(2) Clyfford Still, "Letter to Gordon Smith," Jan. 1, 1959, in Paintings by Clyfford Still, exhibition catalogue (Buffalo: Albright Art Gallery, 1959), n. p.
(3) Ad Reinhardt, "The Artist in Search of a Code of Ethics," Partisan Review, 42 (1975):284
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.