Clyfford Still Museum
If an artist were truly worthy of an entire museum dedicated to his work, it’d have to be one who could say with a straight face, “Let no man undervalue the implications of this work or its power for life; -- or for death, if it is misused.” Even better: “Until those symbols of obeisance to -- or illustration of -- vested social structures, from antiquity through Cubism and Surrealism to my then immediate contemporaries, were impaled and their sycophancy exposed on the blade of my identity.” And it would also help if his widow could assert in retrospect that by 1935 the artist “had arrived at a complete mastery of the recording of visual phenomena.”
Sure enough, the American abstract painter Clyfford Still -- who made those immodest statements and whose second wife, Patricia, uttered similar words on his behalf -- decreed that after his death the astonishing 94 percent of his oeuvre still in his hands (about 825 paintings and some 1,600 works on paper) would be bequeathed to an eponymous museum in the lucky metropolis -- the city would own the art -- which agreed to build it. Denver did the deal in 2005, and on Nov. 18, 2011, the $30 million, Brad-Cloepfil-designed Clyfford Still Museum opens in the heart of the Rockies.
From a hard-hat peek I got just last week, I’d say the building stands a chance at being the best piece of architecture among Denver’s three new museums -- Daniel Liebeskind’s overambitious Denver Art Museum, David Adjaye’s hyper-artworldish black-and-white Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Still. It’s more certain, however, to be grandiloquently appropriate for its content.
Like El Greco and Giacometti, Clyfford Still (1904-1980) is one of those artists who are liked by a lot of people for the same kind of reasons teenage girls like television programs about vampires: a spooky, romantic intimation of tolerably distanced tragedy. The late art historian Robert Rosenblum leapfrogged the histrionics and placed Still -- along with Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman -- among painters who dealt in the “abstract sublime,” i.e., Abstract Expressionism light on expressionist paint-flinging and heavy on the abstract, in order to get directly at whatever primal power runs the universe. Imagine the visual roar of Frederic Church’s Niagara Falls, only in non-figurative painting.
Time magazine called Still “the aloof abstractionist,” but aloofness with Still was more like a mania for solitude, both physical and psychological. He spent part of his early life doing farm work on the unforgiving plains of western Canada and, right from childhood, never wanted to be anything else than an artist. Eventually, perhaps the only artist. Looking back on his influential years teaching and painting in San Francisco, Still said, “My interest in the city, its artists, and history was zero.” In New York, Still opined that Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline were “merely dealing with paint”; just about the time his reputation was peaking there, in 1961, he removed himself and his studio to rural Maryland.
Of course, Still dealt with paint, too. From his early work -- in which a chiseled, huge-handed, claymation-like “upright man” walks through gloomy, crop-failure landscapes, only to gradually fold in on himself and have the surrounding space, in turn, in on him -- to his archetypally gigantic, torn-wallpaper-like abstractions, nothing is more apparent than Still’s concern with paint itself. In 1938 (the same year he began to number his paintings instead of titling them), Still started using a palette knife as a tool co-equal with the brush. Over the years, he ground his own paint and flooded it with linseed oil to obtain wide variations in matte and gloss. In the late 1940s, Still introduced into his paintings areas of raw, unprimed canvas, which he sometimes dirtied up beforehand. And Still’s color -- he loathed the chromatic perfuminess of French painting -- is decidedly Germanic and harsh, reminding one much more of Grünewald and Beckmann than Matisse or Chagall.
But Still’s trademark is his graphic, the way he deals with shape. One of abstract painting’s perennial problems -- from Manierre Dawson and Kandinsky in the 1910s, through the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s, to such contemporary painters as Ross Bleckner, Terry Winters and Amy Sillman -- is how to end a shape. Chopping off the end of a rectangle or completing a curve can seem abrupt, corny, even comical; a real fine artist should be able -- no? -- to have it both ways: to end the shape and not end it at the same time.
The most practical device to obtain this effect (which is somehow easier to employ on the sides of shapes rather than their tops and bottoms) is to fuzz the edges with varying degrees of brushiness and liquidity of paint. (Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler are the king and queen here.) Sooner or later though, the brushily fuzzed shape has to turn into something else, i.e., a neighboring shape. The next-most useful device is the one that Still used -- yeah, celebrated: irregular tapering. As the shape cascades down the canvas or erupts upward upon it, its edges slowly draw together with the inevitability of a railroad track diminishing in the distance. But Still -- in a much more masterly way than the tens of thousands of other painters who employ the same trick -- bumps the edges a little this way, then that, as they draw closer. At the peripheries and tail, the character of the shape’s edges coincide with the last dry gasp of a brushstroke or the final small swipe of a palette-knife blade.
The effect, in the most renowned Stills, is one of monumentality, profundity and tragedy. Gordon Smith, onetime director of the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo (which has one of the largest museum collections of Stills), called Clyfford Still’s painting “a living mountain.” A cavern turned inside out might also describe his style: profile stalagmites gradually working their ways down, and counterpoint stalactites inching their ways up, over the eons. The feeling a great Clyfford Still elicits in its very form is the same one that Caspar David Friedrich merely illustrates -- a longing for the ineffable. The difference between them, however, is the flat modernist snap of Still’s paintings, the constant reminder that one is, after all, looking at what Maurice Denis famously described as “essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”
A hell of a lot of color, in fact, assembled on a hell of a lot of flat surface. One is never unaware that a work of art by Clyfford Still isn’t, absolutely nakedly, paint-on-canvas. And Still’s claim to have achieved his monumental sublime without the springboard of Cubism is plausible. At least there’s a lot less Cubism detectable in Still’s run-up to full abstraction than there is in the work of de Kooning, Pollock or Kline.
Clyfford Still taught a lot, from the 1930s on, in various corners of the country. Whereas the work of de Kooning (easily the most emulated of all the Abstract Expressionists) infected generation after generation of painters with an action-painting attitude -- ripping back into skeins of fleshy paint, semi-uncaring about buried charcoal revisions, slightly muted and somewhat chalky colors tearing or bubbling raucously into one another -- Still’s influence was sharp and direct. That deliberate-yet-spontaneous pat-pat of the palette knife was difficult for students he converted, e.g., Edward Dugmore, to ever jettison. And Still’s aura of certainty -- he wore suits and spats to his classes at the California School of Fine Arts, and he had his students arrange their painting tools in precisely the same configurations -- was a philosophical steroid for younger artists otherwise adrift in the existential tides of modernism.
Ah, but what about the “replicas”? As practically everyone knows by now, Clyfford Still often painted multiple versions -- albeit usually just two -- of the same painting. This fact often consternates modern art aficionados who hear it for the first time, because Still was, more or less, an Abstract Expressionist. That school of painting relies, as does jazz, on improvisation, which is theoretically not duplicable. But every style of painting, even Abstract Expressionism, has its repeatable schtick, and Still made no bones about the relative repeatability of his brand of abstraction.
Typically, though, Still wanted to have it both ways with his replicas. He said that 1950-A No. 2, for instance, “was painted within a month of the first version for my personal record. Making addition versions is an act I consider necessary when I believe the importance of the idea or breakthrough merits survival on more than one stretch of canvas.” On the other hand, Still said that 1957-D No 2, a painting he allowed to be exhibited in a museum in Basel, Switzerland (Still was very picky about where and how he showed), was “a valid and total individual expression” compared to its replica-predecessor, 1957-D No. 1, housed in the Albright-Knox.
Indeed, Still’s practice of replicating his paintings caused his famous ongoing feud with Barnett Newman (artists often feud not with their esthetic opposites, but with those closest to them in philosophy, stance and image) to boil over in the magazine ARTnews in 1965. He’d sent 1950-A No. 2 to the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art for its inaugural exhibition, “The New York School.” Newman said in an interview that Still’s painting had actually never been shown in New York and, therefore, didn’t belong in the exhibition. Patricia Still, the artist’s undaunted spokesperson, answered in a letter to the editor that No. 2 was fully the equal of No. 1, which couldn’t be shown because it had been “injured in successive travels.” Newman retorted that Still’s painting remained a “ringer” in the show. Mrs. Still answered that, then Annalee Newman (Barnett’s wife) answered that, and on went the dispute, via surrogates, for a pointless while.
The replica issue is still thorny enough, though, that the Clyfford Still Museum’s director, Dean Sobel, says the institution will probably mount an exhibition of such paired paintings sometime in the future, so that the mere-copy vs. individual-expression issue can be brought into the light. But the first show -- up for a long spell with no closing date announced as yet -- features 60 paintings and 50 works on paper running the gamut of Still’s career, with an emphasis on seldom- or never-seen work from the late 1920s and 1930s. (The CSM’s debut exhibition is being curated by Sobel and art historian David Anfam.) “This will actually be the first comprehensive Clyfford Still exhibition ever,” says Sobel. “So much of his work was retained by him and was heretofore unavailable.”* “When Still was alive,” Sobel continues, “he had a heavy hand in curating his museum exhibitions, so they reflected his personal preferences.” Unlike the monographic museums concerning the artists Andy Warhol and Georgia O’Keefe, Sobel says, the only art that will ever grace the CSM’s walls and floors (Still did make a little sculpture, a few examples of which survive) will be by the namesake artist.
Still once said that “this instrument, the limited means of paint on canvas, had a more important role than to glorify popes or kings or decorate the walls of rich men.” Not that Still never sold a painting to a rich man (he lived fairly well from the proceeds of his art), but overall, he trod his own curmudgeonly high road. And, to mix metaphors, he apparently played his cards right. Nineteen out of every 20 paintings Still ever painted will now begin to decorate the walls of his very own museum. That’s a pretty formidable blade for anyone’s identity to have.
* Four paintings by Still, ranging from a 1940 easel-sized canvas to an almost eight-foot by seven-feet 1976 painting, are scheduled to be sold for the city of Denver by Sotheby’s, with the proceeds going to beef up the CSM’s meager operating endowment. The absolute no-sale provision of both Still’s and his widow’s wills is being gotten around by the technicality that the works will be sold before they’ve actually entered into the museum collection. Such is why lawyers are paid the big bucks
PETER PLAGENS is a painter and an art critic.