PRINT December 1963

An Open Letter to an Art Critic

“It has always been my hope to create a free place or area of life where an idea can transcend politics, ambition and commerce.”


Riffling through some old magazines a few days ago, an article by you in a 1959 Evergreen Review stopped me abruptly. For, as you must remember, it dealt with the art dealers and galleries in New York, with special emphasis on the importance of their walls to the artists during the 1940’s and 1950’s, and the alleged role they played for the artist and public then and now. The issues involved are strangely up to date in view of the quickly shifting relationships among dealers and their stables of painters today, and the numerous articles, and several books about to appear, purporting to be a history of those years and institutions. That they are mainly a record of fantasy rather than fact, and shameless hypocrisy wrapped in saccharine words of dedication has be­come obvious to all who know the record. It is un­fortunately to your discredit that yours was one of the first articles to initiate this sordid parade of falsification and apology.

When I first saw your article, K, I was so outraged by it that I went to my typewriter and wrote you a letter. When I had finished it, I realized that it was too late; what you had done was not born of ignor­ance, but of positive motive and in full awareness of the facts. So I put the letter away in my files and wrote the short statement of disappointment which you received.

But as events have turned and locked into one another, I think that now is not too late. This time, however, I am sending what I wrote to you, as an open letter. It is a rebuke and reminder, however small, to those whose commercial ambitions and indifference obscured all that was worthy of atten­tion in those critical years, and reduced the artist to his present level of competitor with political double-talk, the Broadway flea market, and the col­lectivist castration ward.

That I speak in the first person qualifies no points I mention. The few whom I had invited to walk with me in those first years in New York quickly abdicated in favor of fear or ambition or, in two conspicuous cases, proved themselves to have been already dedi­cated to the machine of exploitation, only posing as men of integrity until their goals of success had been achieved.

This, then, is the letter I wrote to you on June 11, 1959 but did not send:

Dear K:

Yesterday my attention was drawn to a small maga­zine called Evergreen Review and in particular to an article in it written by you.* I read it very carefully because most of the people, their actions, and the consequences thereof, have for many years been familiar and of deep concern to me.

Now there is a body of interesting fact indirectly related to those gas-chamber white walls you extol so generously. It is one of the great stories of all time, far more meaningful and infinitely more intense and enduring than the wars of the bull-ring, or the battlefield—or of diplomats, laboratories, or com­merce. For it was in two of those arenas some thir­teen years ago that was shown one of the few truly liberating concepts man has ever known. There I had made it clear that a single stroke of paint, backed by work and a mind that understood its potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for sub­jugation. It was instantly hailed, and recognized by two or three men that it threatened the power ethic of this culture, and challenged its validity. The threat was vaguely felt and opposed by others who presented an almost united front in defense of their institutions.

Remember, I was invited, even begged by many dealers to show my work on their walls. I was told I must not fail friends of delicate conviction, nor “believers in painting” who needed my company, nor the “lovers of art” who would welcome blows for the new world to come. That I accepted briefly their urgings as being in good faith is one of the mistakes I can never permit myself to forget. But in those years I learned beyond all doubt that it was a time of testing, a time for rigor without compromise. The details are too numerous and vicious to recount here. Certainly the characters who ran those sordid gift­shoppes knew every nerve and how to press it. Un­willingness to join the herd invited malicious inter­pretations of one’s work and acts. Glib praise to the right people denied one the right to speak the truth; museum—politicians and hucksters determined all values, and those who sold out ranged themselves in the ranks of authority—for the price of a flunky’s handout. Thus in those dead rooms the way was pre­pared for self-contempt, for clowns, for the obscenity that degrades the discipline of true freedom and per­verts the idea that marks the moment of elevation.

The little men were numbered and took their place in file. Oh, some alibied their abdication with inso­lence, some with syntheses of fashionable devices, some with simulated protest, and some with gestures of futility. Others were indifferent because they had always been thus. The ambitious, the shrewd, the frustrated, each found his niche in the activity that satisfied his desires. These above all, the public understood and any quarrel they provoked was spe­cious, a mere barroom debate, a lovers’ wrangle.

Be assured, few truths were ever really seen on the sterile walls of those who now beg for remem­brance and honor. The professionals? They admit they would not or could not look at my work. For those walls and their owners abetted—demanded, the empty, the socio-literary, the blatant effect that arrested the jaded and insensitive for a moment in their boring rounds.

The painters? One group of them begged one of the most eminent dealers you mention with approba­tion, for any terms when he threw them out after collecting the paintings demanded in their prepos­terous contract. I saw their confusion and weakness and offered to speak out in their behalf. They crawled back like whipped dogs to him when he was ready to re-admit them. For, as the affluent one among them expressed it, “He might be useful to us some day.” Another dealer, rated as a queen among queens in the hierarchy of galleries, demanded with a cool­ness that would make Shylock blush, 33 1/3% of the value of a painting from one of the impecunious in her stable who had given it to a dentist for his dental bill. Each gallery impresario performed his or her dutifully promoted role and the men they exploited were each in time brought to heel. It is a tale repeated only with slight variation in nearly every gallery, without honor, or courage, or evidence of shame.

I mention the above incidents only to confirm the issue in general. The men and their work and their agents became as one, and no borrowed images, polit­ical illustration, Bauhaus sterilities, symbols of po­tency, pseudo-religious titles, nor any concealment behind that most faceless of apologies “Art,” should hide the puerility and meanness of their purpose and games. And they all are amply worthy of the contempt and hatred they secretly exchange with one another even unto their death.

It has always been my hope to create a free place or area of life where an idea can transcend politics, ambition and commerce. It will perhaps always re­main a hope. But I must believe that somewhere there may be an exception.

Meanwhile, I must charge you not to give life to those, who, whimpering from their morbid cribs, would be remembered as they were not, and given an honor they schemed to shame when one defended his name and his purpose.

The truth is usually hard and sometimes bitter, but if man is to live it must live. What transpired and became clear to some in the last three decades is known by a very few, and those few would hide for expediency what they know; only its influence and parodies are commonly evident. It remains a tremen­dous untold story, a testing of men and minds in the shadows. The memory of it still haunts those who worked to use and betray the spirit from which it was born. Dig out the truth and one man is a match for all of them. Accept their premises and you will walk on your knees the rest of your life.

Clyfford Still



*The article to which Mr. Still has reference is “The Impor­tance of a Wall: Galleries,” by Kenneth Sawyer, Evergreen Review, Spring, 1959.