June 17, 2009

Clyfford Still - The Power For Life

1947-G, oil on canvas

Before the recent decades of anything-goes art and its soldiers of fortune, and questionable museums and galleries as showcases of high-priced entertainment and frivolity, there was Clyfford Still (1904-1980), an artist who absolutely refused to compromise his artwork and his ideals. Still is one of the most important (yet lesser known) painters of the so-called Abstract Expressionism movement, and his life's work deserves our careful study. This will happen once the artist's conception of a museum devoted solely to his work, the Clyfford Still Museum, is finally completed in Denver, Colorado.

Teaching and practicing art mostly on the west coast during the 1930s and early 40s, Clyfford Still was able to develop his own mature abstract language apart from popular contemporaries such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko, who were familiar with one another's works in New York City.

Robert Motherwell has written of an early Still exhibition that his paintings were "the most original. A bolt out of the blue." In 1946, Mark Rothko wrote of Still "It is significant that Still working out West, and alone, has arrived at pictorial conclusions so allied to those of the small band of Myth Makers who have emerged here during the war. The fact that his is a completely new facet of this idea, using unprecedented forms and completely personal methods, attests further to the vitality of this movement."

November 1950 No. 2, oil on canvas

Thomas Kellein wrote of the artist in his essay Approaching the Art of Clyfford Still:

"Still withdrew from the New York art metropolis in 1961...He avoided contact with the art scene, but corresponded widely and traveled much. Only seldom did he meet with former colleagues of the so-called New York School, and his relations with art critics and museum officials, even without personal encounters, were often strongly antagonistic."

"As early as 1963 Time magazine referred to him as "the aloof abstractionist," and the stereotype question, apparently posed by a collector, "Mr. Still, what are you trying to say?" allegedly caused Still to kick the interested purchaser out of his house."

"Still's almost unbelievable single-mindedness, his constant work on "one picture," is what most shaped his contemporaries' assessment of his work. Whoever managed to get close to Still, as art-lover, collector, or student, took on - voluntarily or not - some of his characteristics: pride, independence, reserve, but also awe at the self-set task of achieving greatness through total dedication to the artistic venture."

"In contrast to his colleagues, Still found quite early a vocabulary that must have resulted primarily from an intense study of his own pictures. The licking, blazing, flashing lineaments and cryptic signs of 1943 slowly develops into larger forms that suggest a higher plane for "vertical life" in its opposition to barren, flat nature. It was with these forms, which, appearing on the canvas like slabs of earth and peninsulas with rivers and shorelines, grant the paintings the aspect of entire continents, that Still's art became truly abstract."

"Still explained his paintings as a sequence of diary entries that, taken together, would form a unity and perhaps a synthesis. They were meant as examples of peace and independence and as protection from external, decadent, and corrupting influences. "The proper subject of mankind is man; the artist himself."

Even today, Still's vision of artistic autonomy, of self-sufficiency in form and expression, does not meet with universal acceptance. It is explicable, perhaps, if one imagines the unending difficulties involved in creating such art amidst the brash commercialism of postwar America."

Untitled, 1959, oil on canvas

Michael Auping wrote of the artist in his essay Clyfford Still and New York, The Buffalo Project:

"Indeed, Still was often critical of the art world. Among his generation of American artists who were attuned and sensitive to the potential commercial and political exploitation of their art, Still was undoubtedly the most suspicious of institutional culture. He had little need for "middle men" to present his art and ideas. As a result, critics, curators, and private collectors were often the object of his scorn. Moreover, Still sought to maintain complete control over the exhibition and distribution of his paintings. In this regard, he was unwilling in most circumstances to allow his paintings to be represented in group shows, or to be sold to private collectors who did not exhibit a commitment to his work."

"Still's own sense of isolation and his eventual attraction to Buffalo may also have had something to do with his uneasy relationship to the city of New York, and the intense cultural politics that characterized it in the 1950s. The view that artmaking is both an inward, isolated search and an avant-garde group process is crucial to understanding the reception accorded Still by, and his role within, the New York School. In many ways, Still was an outsider in New York, a man whose agenda was so radically self-determined that he rejected the camaraderie of an avant-garde."

"Between 1952 and his retrospective in Buffalo in 1959, Still allowed no public exhibitions of his work. Having dispensed with his need for companionship with other New York artists, he eventually severed his business relationship with Parsons (his dealer, Betty Parsons) as well. In essence, Still became a kind of recluse.

...According to Knox, "You always felt privileged to meet with Still, in or out of his studio, because getting an audience with him was difficult. But getting into the studio was a very special matter."

"Gordon Smith, director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, had convinced Seymour H. Knox, then president of the board, that Still was an artist to be reckoned with and that a work by him should be purchased for the collection...Smith contacted Still, and a meeting was set at the artist's studio. Aware of Still's reputation, Smith was nonetheless somewhat unprepared for the kind of drama that would unfold. He arrived at the artist's studio to find numerous canvases turned to the wall, with only three turned face-out for viewing. He asked to see the others, and was informed by Still that the three were the only works he was to consider purchasing for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery."

Untitled, 1959, oil on canvas

Susan Landauer wrote of the artist in her essay Clyfford Still and Abstract Expressionism in San Francisco:

"Not only did Still hold himself in tight rein, but he was intolerant of any moral slack on the part of others. His virulent jeremiads against the corruption of the art world were notorious even in the 1940s. In Still's view, the contemporary artist was threatened on all sides by polluting, emasculating forces, from the art dealers who turned paintings into commodities to the critics who distorted their meaning. Only the most uncompromising stance could preserve the integrity and effectiveness of the work"

As influential as Still was in San Francisco, it was never his intention to establish a canon or even to suggest an aesthetic direction. "I do not want other artists to imitate my work," he proclaimed, but "only my example of freedom and independence from all external, decadent, and corrupting influences."

_ _ _ _ _

In the artist's own words:

"When I die, people will say - they are saying it already - that I acted ruthlessly and amorally, with ingratitude to those toward whom I should be grateful. And they will be correct. At the same time, I can think of no other way for a serious artist to achieve his ends than by doing what I did - show that this instrument, the limited means of paint on canvas, had a more important role than to glorify popes and kings or decorate the walls of rich men."

"We're grown men, not like children who put their paintings on the wall and hope for a gold star. I told them to wait until the museum came to them."

"From then on, I realized I would have to paint my way out of the classical European heritage. I rejected the solution of antic protest and parody (Picabia, Duchamp, and the theorist Breton) or of the adaptation of the idioms of exotic cultures (Picasso, Modigliani). which became popular manifestations through the 1910s and 1920s in the publishing and educational worlds. Of course, the mechanical and technological themes of the Bauhaus that marked the Central European ethic, I rejected out of hand as an abdication to systems of power and mass control with their underpinnings of political and economic reactionary theses....One had to use the instrument - make it an organic part of one's being - to unlock the future use of its intensity and its untouched potential as a medium. Not for exploitation, but as realization, if you will, of a creative identity. And so make it live."

"It is obvious that there is little of sentiment or intimacy in my attitudes. Probably I would prefer to have my work quite asocial. When I expose a painting I would have it say, "Here am I; this is my presence, my feeling, myself. Here I stand implacable, proud, alive, naked, unafraid. If one does not like it he should turn away because I am looking at him. I am asking for nothing. I am simply asserting that the totality of my being can stand stripped of its cultural camouflage and look out on the factional people who pass before me and see them without rancor, desire, or fear." I believe that I am attaining this position in myself. Of course I still react to those who would use me, or engage in the combat of compromise. But the course is not yet run, nor are all the issues completely resolved. But I know my way, my direction. I have committed myself to the possibility of absolute failure in assuming absolute responsibility for my acts. It follows that I alone can have the answer to my purposes. Certainly I will not be the pawn of any man's judgment.

Praise and criticism both are dangerous winds and leave disturbing odors in the nostrils. Their value, if any, must be measured by the man who gives them, and not by the pleasure or pain they bring. If I am speaking for myself, well, that is what I am satisfied to do. I will feed any man, give him a bed or my shirt. But let him touch my work, my spirit, and his blood will be on his own hands. By this I assert that I am not nor will conceive myself to be a sum of parts. I say that I am, and will reinforce that point by stating every phase of that identity to the fullest and clearest extent."

"It was as a journey that one must make, walking straight and alone. No respite or short-cuts were permitted. And one's will had to hold against every challenge of triumph, or failure, or the praise of Vanity Fair. Until one had crossed the darkened and wasted valleys and come at last into clear air and could stand on a high and limitless plain. Imagination, no longer fettered by the laws of fear, became as one with Vision. And the Act, intrinsic and absolute, was its meaning, and the bearer of its passion."

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