PRINT April 1970

Clyfford Still and the Gothic Imagination

CLYFFORD STILL IS RIGHTLY ACKNOWLEDGED as a major figure in recent American painting, his contribution seen as fundamental and original as Pollock’s, Gorky’s, de Kooning’s, Rothko’s and Newman’s. Despite such regard, he remains a surprisingly under-examined figure, as though his achievement was so obvious, it no longer required further investigation or closer scrutiny. Added to this is the much vaunted excuse that until his recent exhibition at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Still had not shown his work publicly in New York since 1952, although two retrospective exhibitions had been held in the interim, an extensive one at the Albright-Knox Gallery in 1959 and a smaller one at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania in 1963. But with two notable exceptions, to be discussed in a moment, both exhibitions brought forth a group of articles largely “occasional” and impressionistic in character. Before attempting to set his work into a different ambience than hitherto, it might be helpful to sketch briefly some of the critical literature.

Peculiarly difficult problems attach themselves to writing about Still adequately. Besides the intrinsic difficulty of writing on such powerful and original art, his own censorious attitude toward those attempting the hazardous task is widely enough known.1 Critical responses to Still show a sharp division of interest, if not of opinion as to his quality, neither of which appears to meet with his approval. On the one hand, Clement Greenberg,2 who gave one of the earliest and most forthright estimations of Still’s stature3 has formulated Still’s formal contribution to modernist painting with a precision that has not been superseded. For Greenberg, Still, through the repudiation of strong value contrasts as the basis of pictorial design, showed “abstract painting a way beyond Late Cubism” that could be followed without necessarily slavishly imitating it.

Still’s great insight was to recognize that the edges of a shape could be made less conspicuous, therefore less cutting, by narrowing the value contrast that its color made with the colors adjacent to it. This permitted the artist to draw and design with greater freedom in the absence of a sufficient illusion of depth; with the muffling of light and dark contrasts, the surface was spared the sudden jars or shocks that might result from “complicatedness” of contour. . . . It was left to Still not only to define the solution but also to make it viable.4

This, allied to what Greenberg calls the expulsion of “every reminiscence of sculptural illusion by creating a counter-illusion of light alone,” accounts in good measure for the originality of Still’s pictorial structures, the crucial differences in feel and feeling in his work from preceding modes of abstraction. Familiar and helpful as this account is for starting the critical discussion of Still off on firm ground, it differs markedly from the majority of critical responses to Still which seize on the contentual issue as the primary one. Although Greenberg implies some doubt on this score, noting Pollock’s “larger vision” than Still’s, he takes it no further than a passing, if tantalizing, observation. With the majority of Still’s critics making the “vision” their main ground, opinions do begin to grow erratic and the going less firm. Even discounting the more frivolous opinions, a real question remains in connection with Still’s work as far as its visionary qualities are concerned. When confronted with any sizable group of his works, the sense that these paintings are motivated by something more than formal self-interrogation (radical acts of self-criticism or whatever) is as strong as it is elusive. Such a feeling that they encompass or enact complex responses to experience is neither a singular nor an erroneous response, I believe. With the exception of Gorky and de Kooning, Still, more than any other member of the first generation of painterly abstractionists, encourages some sort of “iconographical” reading. A brief review of two such attempts, however, will show some of the problems involved.

E. C. Goossen5, taking full cognizance of the formalist argument, suggests an “iconographic” pattern which is both “apocalyptic” and “primordial,” seemingly at one and the same moment. He locates the former in the early work with its figural memories (“Agonized, tortured, foreboding, they are a hieratic vision of hell on high . . . evidence of a pre-occupation more apocalyptic than surreal”). Later he describes Still’s art in common with Rothko’s, Newman’s and even Pollock’s as one “intended to strip the spectator of his culture, leaving him naked as a coelacanthus, to experience for the first time in some time the pre-conceptual state of being confronted with the primordial image as it was first delivered from the pea-soup of chaos.” Much as one can sympathize with this response, “apocalypse” and “pre-conceptual states of being” are in such obvious iconographic opposition that it casts doubts on the plausibility of this approach. Underlying and promoting this sort of iconographic interpretation is a suppressed representationalism on Professor Goossen’s part. He even makes play of Still’s North Dakota origins as a significant factor in the paintings—a notion discredited both by the paintings6 and the repeated denials of the painter himself.7 More importantly, an iconography of Still dependent on such a suppressed representationalism would seem to deny just those formal qualities Clement Greenberg adumbrated as central to his stance as a modernist artist. Furthermore, the tendency to assimilate Still’s vision to Rothko’s, Newman’s and Pollock’s seems on prima facie grounds unlikely to assist us in matters of specific definition. This latter point might be usefully discussed with regard to Professor Robert Rosenblum’s highly suggestive article “The Abstract Sublime.”8

Taking the Burkean notion of the sublime—a hydra-headed concept to be sure—Professor Rosenblum discusses its relevance to just the four artists Professor Goossen linked (Still, Newman, Rothko, Pollock). Of course, such a concept can accommodate all four but it is impossible not to feel some discomfort in the idea. Although it vividly suggests the area of experience Still’s paintings move in (Still himself has used the term in regard to his own work and Newman has written about it at some length9) the qualms remain about seeing these four painters as different manifestations of -the same (sublime) ground swell. If the affective qualities are really so similar in all four, it hardly accounts for the radically distinct look and feel of each. Thus to find meaningful distinguishing qualities in Still’s art would seem a useful enterprise. Here I must come abruptly to the central contention of this article.

The central argument advanced here contends that Still’s imagination, its characteristic procedures and the vision it gives rise to, is essentially a Gothic one and that the affective and formal qualities can be more fully understood in the light of this concept or rather the constellation of concepts that range around the Gothic idea. It must be admitted .that the. Gothic idea has at some stages of its history been subsumed into the wider embrace of the Sublime. But the conceptual notions surrounding the idea are richer and capable of greater flexibility than merely defining more closely the genus of sublimity to which Still belongs.

At first sight the idea of the Gothic may seem a surprising one to invoke in connection with Still. For if it hasn’t become entirely debased, it all too readily associates itself with the macabre, the spiritually neurotic or the merely fantastic. Certainly insofar as much critical use of the term goes recently—predominantly in literary criticism10—it serves as a pretentious hold-all for the psychologically disordered imagination. Such a debasement of Gothic is not new. In one form or another it has dogged the idea since the Renaissance." Even at the height of the English literary revival of Gothic, one finds Jane Austen’s Persuasion to puncture its larger pretensions; the predominant 17th and 18th century attributes to Gothic are equally discouraging.12 It was against just such stereotyped notions of Gothic Gloom and Gothic Irrationality that Goethe directed his rhapsody on Strasbourg Cathedral, Von deutscher Baukunst (1770),13 thus initiating the more serious early 19th-century view of Gothic. If we are to reconstruct the term so that it has any critical use for us now, Goethe provides the obvious starting point:

Under the Gothic heading, I piled up like the articles in a dictionary, all the synonymous misunderstandings of the confused, the unregulated,the unnatural, the patched up, the botched, the overladen. . . . when I stepped in front .of it [Strasbourg Cathedral] a sensation of wholeness, greatness filled my soul which composed of a thousand harmonizing details . . . as in the works of eternal nature down to the minutest fibril, all is shape, all purposes to the whole.

Although Still’s imagination certainly does encompass the terribilità of the Gothic idea, the Goethean aspect of the Gothic idea finds a corresponding resonance in his work. “I never wanted,” he has declared, “color to be color. I never wanted texture to be texture or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit.”14 Of course, such a belief in the organic process of artistic creation is singular neither to the Gothic idea nor to Still, Yet it is. not entirely without interest that one of the principal 18th-century harbingers of such a central tenet of romantic esthetics should have proceeded from a response to a Gothic cathedral, indicating already some of the imaginative release granted by the Gothic idea. Release, the idea of art as the agent .of imaginative freedom, cuts close to the center of Still’s whole enterprise. We can easily forget how significant a move it was on Goethe’s part to associate the Gothic with the natural in 1770, for the prevailing views maintained just the contrary, confounding Gothic unnaturalness with Gothic irrationality.15 The restitution of Gothic in the late 18th century, the thin edge of the romantic wedge, brings into focus a number of notions that bear directly on Still’s imagination.

Firstly, the idea of the Gothic became the rallying point for German, and, to a lesser extent, English resistance to neo-Classic Idealism.16 Klopstock in Germany and Blake in England might be taken as the archetypes around which this resistance accrued. Both possessed a profound if latent sympathy for the Gothic idea and its essentially symbolic mode of action. If Gothic came to be seen as natural in its very irrationality and freedom from the rule, it pointed no less to the singular creative power within the artist as the true, indeed the only source of his art. Pope had described Shakespeare, a catalytic influence on Herder and Goethe in their Gothic period, as a “majestik piece of Gothic architecture” in “his lawlessness, his defiance of rules.” It is altogether unsurprising, thus, to find that the Gothic idea ushers in the notion of originality as a prime consideration and indication of esthetic quality. The idea of the Gothic spearheaded the overthrow of the view of tradition as emulation through imitation. It exaggerates the picture only slightly to suggest that the idea of the Gothic provided the first glimpse of tradition and the individual talent. In this less widely acknowledged side of the earliest proponents of the Gothic idea as a serious esthetic stance we can begin to draw some interesting analogies with Still.

His relation to the modernist orthodoxy of Cubism and its subsequent derivatives recalls with a strange exactitude the 18th-century Gothic response to neo-Classic enlightenment. Whatever else might be hazarded about the true import of Still’s art his emancipation from Cubist canons and his capacity to envisage an abstract painting beyond its canons of taste must be acknowledged as central to his quality as an artist. The rejection of Cubist canons clearly came as a result of the pressure of a vision which these canons could no longer frame. But Still’s attitude to preceding art is more complex than that. His wholesale rejection of the past as being of any assistance or relevance to him goes well beyond any single reaction against a particular mode, just as the revival of the Gothic idea in the late 18th century was motivated by more than a desire to repudiate neo-Classicism. In both cases it was against the past as the past, tradition as the authoritative embodiment of the rule of taste. Clearly both in precept and example, Still regards the idea of the tradition of Western Art as burdensome, even inimical to his own creative endeavor. Still, of course, is scarcely alone amongst significant modernists in feeling that but he is singular in feeling it so acutely and expressing it so unilaterally: “I held it imperative to evolve an instrument of thought which would aid in cutting through all cultural opiates past and present, so that a direct, immediate and truly free vision could be revealed with clarity.”17 The seeming violence of the forces at work in his paintings of the forties that have given rise to such a variety of chthonic interpretations become much more explicable in terms of wresting painting from one course, i.e. one based on the familiar practice of Cubism, into another less structured and less secure mode of painting. The attempt to restore to painting the capacity to envision freely again might seem sufficient reason for the ostensible violence of the torn silhouettes and the irregular disposition of Still’s early work. In one sense the potential iconographer of Clyfford Still’s paintings needs look no further for his iconographical pattern than in the stylistic change wrought by the work. To break so radically and decisively with the past, especially the immediate past, as Still does, dictates an access of imaginative energy if the break is to be accomplished successfully. To put it more bluntly there are few “quiet revolutions” in the history of art. Major shifts in sensibility are frequently accomplished with an accompanying sense of imaginative terribilità after which the artists can direct their vision into less violent manifestations of the new. Once Picasso had accomplished the Demoiselles, he set himself free to explore Cubist structures through a remarkably contemplative series of permutations and combinations. Nowhere else in Analytic Cubism does one meet with the fierceness that one finds in the Demoiselles. The untoward violence of that painting which so decisively marks the break with his own past (if not with all past art) and his shift to new commitments demonstrates the cost of accomplishing the break. So too, I believe, the natural accomplishment of Still’s break with the immediate past would be the violence and disruption so frequently observed and commented on as evidence of the chthonic, the prim- ordial or the diabolic in his art. Rather than deriving these sorts of abstractions we might use the foregoing to suggest that, iconographically, Still appears to present us with the alarming equation: the effects of imaginative and visionary freedom, the reiterated goal of his art, adopts for others the appearance of terror, disorder and violence.

That such a conclusion could even be tentatively suggested brings Still well within the compass of the Gothic imagination. For behind the debased currency of Gothic gloom and terror lies a much more serious contention. Leslie Fiedler has characterized the differences between the 18th-century Richardsonian novel with the Gothic novel precisely in terms of their differing responses to past and present: “The flight of the Gothic heroine is out of the known world into a dark region of make-believe. . . . The sentimental heroine confronts the dangers of the present . . . the Gothic heroine evades the perils of the past, that is, of life as recorded in history.”18 From this Fiedler mythicizes the Gothic imagination: “. . . the guilt which underlies the Gothic and motivates its plots is the guilt of the revolutionary haunted by the (paternal) past which he has been striving to destroy; and the fear that possesses the Gothic and motivates its tone is the fear that in destroying the old ego-ideals of Church and State, the West has opened a way for the inruption of darkness; for insanity and the disintegration of the self.”19 Although the differences in performance from Gothic romance to Still’s totally serious art should not be minimized, what Fiedler points to is a prevailing ten-dency in the Gothic imagination. Here we see that its implicit attitude to the past is what sustains the terror of its vision. The macabre so frequently assumed to be the sole quality of the Gothic imagination must now be seen as the product of a particular cultural situation rather than the arbitrary toying with the spiritually spectacular. “The Gothic felt for the first time the profound differences, the pastness of the past . . . it tried to give some sense of something lapsed or outlived or irremediably changed.”20 Just now we have noted that considerable imaginative stress was seen to accompany the moment at which the artist makes his radical break with preceding canons of taste. To that we can now add a further cause for the traumatic effect of his paintings on their audience: the allegedly disruptive forces at work in Still’s art mark the continuing attempt to exorcise the past. We no longer have to import a symbolism into the work (so much disliked by the artist) as to be aware of his driving concern to show that something has indeed lapsed in painting, that the true and unencumbered vision of the present must declare the irremediably changed condition of its making. Again it should be unsurprising that such a vision should take the disturbed and disturbing form it does in Still. We should note that the affective qualities coincide with the fundamental premises of their creation, i.e. they disturb the onlooker not because they symbolize anterior forces but because they reveal the “irremediably changed” condition of modernist painting.

We should, however, show some caution in characterizing Still’s art wholly in terms of “exorcism” or “trauma” or such like. An exclusive use of such terms falsifies the range of the work and leads to those melodramatic accounts so common in connection with this artist, Although one gives ready assent to Still’s own view of his work as “a series of acts best comprehended in groups or as a continuity,” it does not license us to regard every painting within that variegated oeuvre as the reflection of a monistic belief. The sense of trauma, of imaginative Sturm and Drang, certainly does run through the work of the forties. Still must have felt his break from the past most acutely at this period and the relative isolation of his undertaking heightened the sense of strain within the work. Setting aside the vestigial-figure paintings that seem to extend down to 1945/6, of which E. C. Goossen’s characterization seems most appropriate,21 the twenty-year period from 1946 to 1966 (the most recent painting Still chose to exhibit in the Marlborough-Gerson exhibition) admits a more astonishing range of accomplishments than has hitherto been acknowledged in this artist. Although schematic groupings neither describe nor define the range, they can at least point to its existence. From even a schematic view of his work we shall see how one further element adds crucially to our understanding of Still’s vision and its relation to the Gothic imagination.

In 1941 Still felt that a decisive change overtook his work22 and certainly the figure increasingly melts into the surface, less and less dependent on the silhouette as the organizing principle. Iconographically these “figurative” pieces readily assimilate to the more familiar view of Gothic terribilità. The comparatively late figurative painting at Marlborough-Gerson of 1945 encompasses many of the iconographical and formal qualities of the whole group. The figurative “drawing” recalls rather than follows Picasso’s pre- Guernican Expressionism of the middle thirties. Compare for instance a drawing of 1933, Le Sauvetage,23 with the right-hand figure in the 1945 painting. The hieratic disposition of the figures suggests a primitive, ritualistic context but Still purposefully avoids any literal references to such. Shrouded, mysterious and mordant, it astonishingly exactly reminds one of late romantic views of the Gothic mood. Heine on Notre Dame will have to stand for many: “We feel here the lifting up of the spirit and the trampling of the flesh . . . the many-colored windows throw their green and red lights like drops of blood and puss . . . the spirit strives upwards, painfully tearing itself free from the body.”24 Moving from these figurative works to the more radically abstract mode in 1948 required comparatively little alteration in basic affiliation. Still had already begun to kick against the frame as the overall organizing fact of the picture surface, wedging his figures against it so that it flattened out the drawing rather than acted as the containing shape. Likewise the value contrasts were kept exceptionally low to avoid as much as possible that sculptural illusion of which Greenberg speaks. But Still was to accomplish both tasks more successfully in later work.

The sense of continuity in the work of the forties is so strong, however, that it has encouraged some to use the iconographic atmosphere of the figurative paintings as the sole interpretative principle for the abstract work. Some of the work of 1946, with its craggy drawing and interlocking organic forms, still carries distant references to the figure or at least could be so read, if desired. Although Tiger’s Eye reproduced a painting of Still’s in 1946 with the title, The Grail,25 to draw any iconographic conclusions about the later forties’ abstractions from such a chance occurrence would be misleading. Connections between those paintings and the myth interests of the period are hard to draw and perhaps less than fully satisfactory as the means of interpreting them. In order to arrive at a full understanding of how important the Gothic idea is for a proper understanding of Still’s work, we must return to their extraordinary formal innovations.

Although the assault on sculptural illusionism, the closely valued color and its unaccommodating hot-dryness plus the general refusal to abide by the canons of the well-made Cubist painting are the accepted hallmarks of his modernism, Greenberg drew an even more suggestive conclusion about the final effects of these qualities. By expelling every reminiscence of sculptural illusionism, Still created “a counterillusion of light alone—a counterillusion which consists in the projection of an indeterminate surface of warm and luminous color in front of the actual painted surface.”26 From this observation we move to a central relationship between Still and the Gothic idea: light as the fundamental source and agent of the revelatory qualities of his art.27 So much has been said about the symbolic role of light in Gothic architecture that it scarcely requires recapitulation here. Hans Jantzen28 has claimed a particularly important role, singling it out as the essentially Gothic element in the Gothic cathedral. For Jantzen Gothic light is neither transparent nor natural light; its sources are the windows themselves, creating the particular (supernatural) light within the cathedral and transforming the walls to realize the weightlessness of the structure.

But to this (albeit standard) view of Gothic light Jantzen adds the further perception of the fundamental differences between Gothic and Romanesque exclusively in their different uses of light. Replacing the “continuous mass” of the Romanesque wall, Jantzen formulates the view of the plastically modeled wall of the Gothic, not just pierced by the windows but setting up what he felicitously calls the “diaphanous wall structure”—a structure more central to the idea of the Gothic than either the pointed arch or the cross-ribbed vault. Otto von Simson29 has commented fully on the symbolic significance of the diaphanous in Gothic. Tracing its literary origins from the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel through the Pseudo-Areopagite for whom “the created universe could not exist without light . . . if light ceased to shine, all would vanish into nothing,” von Simson concludes that for the Gothic “light is conceived as the form all things have in common, the single thing that imparts unity to all.” How do these overtly religious and symbolic conceptions of light relate to Clyfford Still?

Certainly the differences between Gothic light symbolism and Still’s rigorously self-contained art deter too close an analogy. The Marlborough-Gerson exhibition demonstrated, however, as clearly as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s superb collection of Stills, that his development has turned on the question of light, or at least illumination, in painting as distinct from questions of color. The Metropolitan’s “New York Painting and Sculpture 1940–1970” exhibition demonstrated how little Still had in common with the specifically color painters. Although few would deny Still’s gifts as a colorist, it remains a gift supremely adequate to other tasks laid upon it rather than the motive and cue for the work. The principal task which forms the binding unity of the work from 1946–1966 is the attempt to identify as one and the same the surface of the work and the source of illumination. Greenberg had spoken of the counter-illusion as a projection in front of the actual painted surface. The significance, interest and difficulty of Still’s work in the sixties is that he has attempted to discard that sort of illusionism in favor of using the actual canvas support as the source of illumination. The ultimate effect or meaning of that identification of surface as source of illumination one might surmise as being analogous to the Gothic luminism as formulated by Jantzen, and von Simson where the diaphanous embodies the sustaining act of creation: “without light, nothing could exist.”

Advancing such metaphysical claims for painting at the close of the ’60s sounds rash where not embarrassingly wrong-headed. But no other explanation makes as much sense of the stages of Still’s art over the last twenty years. The Marlborough-Gerson exhibition together with the Albright-Knox paintings and the extensive representation of Still at the Metropolitan exhibition and at the Museum of Modern Art30 recently gives us a sufficiently full picture of Still from 1946–1966 to make good this claim.

Still broaches the question of light right from the start of his major style in the first group of abstractions from the late forties. The closely valued color sets up a peculiar aura of light-color, giving the surface its familiar glowing or refulgent quality. Within those areas of color aura Still sets sudden bursts of illumination, creating the ragged, torn silhouette that so disturbs the conventional unity. Pressure builds up within the glowing aura of the field so that the bursts of light come as a fierce revelation, an assault on the decorative luxury of the painting. Illumination in these early paintings is then essentially disruptive in its character, something which breaks through the curtain of color. The opacity of Still’s surface, its recalcitrance to optical penetration, makes this sort of illumination function as emanations from within the painting, not just accents placed at random across it.

In the early fifties Still brought this disruptive view of illumination within a larger, more stable vision. A remarkable group of paintings done in 1951 developed a central monolithic presence within the painting. Both the black slab of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1951 painting or the Detroit Institute of Art’s closely related painting and the Albright-Knox’s resplendent high-keyed yellow monolith, 1951-L No. 2, enforce a new unity to Still’s work. Although the tornness of the silhouette remains, he permits the surface a continuity the illuminative forces of the early paintings had sought to disrupt. The actual surface of the painting was stressed as rarely before. Whatever happened in the painting, whether light was enshrined or denied by the central monolith, it had to be co-terminous with the actual surface. The black area monoliths were a direct repudiation of the counter-illusion of light as a projection in front of the actual surface; they deliberately weighted the surface down. Furthermore in the early fifties Still began to leave increasingly significant areas of raw canvas around the painted areas so that frequently they functioned as aureoles to the depicted shapes. Through this Still made the remarkable discovery that raw canvas was the most effective source of illumination within the painting. The canvas was literally and metaphor. ically the light bearing element and this discovery was to have a powerful effect on Still’s later development.

By the middle fifties, when Still produced a succession of masterpieces on a monumental scale, the raw canvas enveloping the painted areas provided the highest point of illumination in the surface. He was to use the actual surface of the painting as the means of enriching that which had been painted on it. These monumental paintings with their vast and forbidding areas fissured by the raw canvas prepare the way for the extraordinary luminist paintings of the ’60s which have continued to puzzle even Still’s admirers, largely because the critical expectation for Still is confined to the massively sublime rather than Gothic illumination.

If the Albright-Knox’s 1957-D No. 1 is widely acknowledged as one of his supreme achievements, it is all the more remarkable that Still should have chosen to paint away from its massivity and density in subsequent work. For undoubtedly the great monumental works of the mid-fifties represent the apex of Gothic sublimity in Still’s oeuvre. (“The trampling of flesh and the lifting up of the spirit.”) Although Still occasionally returned to the rendering of monolithic slabs in the late fifties and early sixties, the main direction of his work lay elsewhere. By and large he chose to dematerialize the surfaces, to explore the luminous rather than the massive qualities of the monumental paintings. In a key painting of 1960, Untitled, Still kept the vertical elements quite separate, moving firmly away from the monolithic conception of the surface. Between two columnar masses of black and in studied contrast to two vertical strips of blue and red at the left-hand side of the painting, he set an extraordinary mass of pale ochre which, through its close value to the raw canvas, deliberately challenged its primal luminosity. It is the promise of the renewed attempt to gain the central role of illumination for color, a promise to be made triumphantly good in succeeding paintings of the sixties. Yet here as later, Still retains with undiminished resolve the unaccommodating cragginess of his vision.

The open luminosity of the sixties paintings, the reassertion of a central role for color in the scheme of illumination, does not for a moment mean the weakening of Still’s vision or its indulgence in an easier, more assimilable type of painting. Two examples of later sixties paintings must stand for many. A marvelous painting of 1964, Untitled, with its reminiscences of Monet’s Water-Lily paintings, shows Still lightening the pressure and force in his brush, allowing the drifting blue area a featheriness of touch and the paint a more open weave. Through such openness it insists on the luminous fact of the raw canvas support. Here the painted area no longer simply challenges the luminosity of the raw canvas area: it asserts its mastery over it. The revelation is in the brush, active and possessive. The second example, 1966, Untitled, is one of the most remarkable paintings in Still’s oeuvre. So open and so seemingly loose in construction—just vertical drifts of primary red and yellow—but it possesses an ease, a wonderfully unstudied grace that removes it entirely from local questions of taste or a challenge to prevailing canons of pictorial taste. So different from the monumental power of the middle fifties paintings, it triumphs through light as created by color, at once neither transparent nor natural.

These last paintings reflect the most profoundly Gothic aspect of Still’s imagination. But in doing so they only complete the peculiar richness which we associate with the Gothic idea. Let Wilhelm Worringer speak the last word on that score:

Distressed by actuality, debarred from naturalness, it aspires to a world above the actual, above the sensuous. It uses this tumult of sensation to lift itself out of itself. It is only in intoxication that it experiences the thrill of eternity. It is this exalted hysteria which is above all else the distinguishing mark of the Gothic phenomenon.31



1. See “Letter to an Art Critic”, Artforum, Vol. II, No. 4, Dec. 1963; Benjamin Townsend: “An Interview with Clyfford Still” Albright-Knox Art Gallery Notes, Vol. XXIV, No. 2 Summer, 1961.

2. Art and Culture, Beacon Press, Boston, 1961. See especially “American-Type Painting” and “Byzantine Parallels.”

3. Ibid., p. 221, “Clyfford Still emerged as one of the original and important painters of our time—perhaps more original, if not more important, than any other in his generation.”

4. Ibid., p. 227.

5. “Painting as Confrontation: Clyfford Still” Art International, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1960.

6. Kenneth N. Sawyer: “Clyfford Still” Portfolio and Art News Annual, No. 2, 1960. Sawyer actually reproduced a double spread photograph of a presumably typical North Dakota landscape which inadvertently revealed just how little relevance it had to the surrounding illustrations of Still’s work. The silliness of this argument scarcely requires further rebuttal.

7. Albright-Knox Art Gallery Notes, 1961, Summer. p. 11.

8. Art News, Vol. 59, No. 10, Feb., 1961, reprinted in Henry Geldzahler: New York Painting and Sculpture 1940–1970, Dutton, New York, 1969.

9. “The sublime? A paramount consideration in my studies and work from earliest student days.” Quoted in Catalogue of Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Penn. Retrospective Exhibition, 1963, cf, Barnett Newman: “The Sublime Is Now.” Tiger’s Eye, No. 6, Dec. 1948.

10. E.g. Irving Malin: New American Gothic, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 1962.

11. Paul Frankl: The Gothic: Literary Sources and Interpretations Through Eight Centuries (Princeton, 1960) for an encyclopedic account of the Gothic idea in the history of taste.

12. In addition to Frankl, see also A. O. Lovejoy: “The First Gothic Revival” in Essays in the History of Ideas, Baltimore, 1948.

13. Translation in Elizabeth Holt: Literary Sources for Art History, Princeton, 1947; another translation by Geoffrey Grigson with notes by Nikolaus Pevsner, attempting to imitate Goethe’s Sturm and Drang prose, appeared in the Gothic number of Architectural Review, Dec. 1945.

14. Quoted by Katherine Kuh in Clyfford Still: Thirty-Three Paintings in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1966, p. 10.

15. A. O. Lovejoy: Loc. cit., p. 142, quotes Bishop Berkeley on Gothic as “being fantastical and for the most part being founded neither in nature nor reason, neither necessity nor use.”

16. W. D. Robson-Scott: The Literary Origins of the Gothic Revival in Germany, O. U.P. 1965, p. 38 ff.

17. Albright-Knox Art Gallery Retrospective Exhibition Catalog, 1959: “Letter to Gordon Smith,” by Clyfford Still.

18. Love and Death in the American Novel, Criterion Books, New York, 1960, p. 108.

19. Ibid., p. 109.

20. Ibid., p. 118.

21. Cf. Note. 5.

22. Catalogue of University of Pennsylvania exhibition, 1963.

23. Zervos: Picasso, Vol. VIII, 1932–7, pl. 83.

24. Quoted by Frankl, p. 478.

25. This painting was exhibited in the 1959 Albright-Knox retrospective exhibition under the identification of simply 1945-H. The title it bore when published in Tiger’s Eye was presumably simply taken over from the title it was exhibited under in Still’s 1946 exhibition at Art of This Century. Whether the title was Still’s seems most unlikely.

26. Art and Culture, p. 169.

27. For a rather different discussion of Gothic light in connection with recent painting, see Sidney Tillim: “Gothic Parallels: Watercolor and Luminism in American Art,” Artforum, Jan. 1967.

28. High Gothic, Pantheon Books, 1962, pp. 67–76.

29. The Gothic Cathedral, Bollingen, 1958, Chapter 2.

30. First Generation Abstract Expressionists, Museum of Modern Art, Summer, 1969.

31. Form in Gothic, Alec Tiranti, London, 1957, p. 79.