PRINT May 1977

Clyfford Still: The Ethics of Art

That thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its own nature alone and is determined to action by itself alone.
—Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics

And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.
—Joel 2:30

BEGIN BY TAKING CLYFFORD STILL at his word as to his intention. The key to his art: the idea of freedom. He calls his paintings “fragment [s] of a means to freedom,” and dedicates them “to all who would know the meaning and the responsibilities of freedom.”1 Not only is his art a means to an end, but a successful one, the “valid instrument of individual freedom” (my emphasis).2 The claims grow: Still hopes to “restore to man the freedom lost in 20 centuries of apology and devices for subjugation,” hopes “to create a free place or area of life where an idea can transcend politics, ambition and commerce.”3

Run this freedom to the ground, first by understanding what it is freedom from, then by understanding what it is freedom for—how, after it clears the ground, it enables us to stand on it. (Then see how the painting is equal to its ethical task and how it accomplishes it, if it does.) Still helps us on both counts. First, he wants freedom from “all cultural opiates, past and present,” “the combined and sterile conclusions of Western European decadence,” found in the ideas of “Hegel, Kierkegaard, Cézanne, Freud, Picasso, Kandinsky, Plato, Marx, Aquinas, Spengler, Einstein, Bell, Croce, Monet.”4 Quite a list—if one were a decadent European thinker one would feel unhappy not being on it. He wants freedom from history and tradition, dogma and authority. He feels tradition is burdensome and totalitarian. It dominates us with its obsolete myths, which become alibis for our own inertia. Their decadence, then, is both passive and active—consoling, but hiding from us our impotence; narcotic, and robbing us of our free will and our consciousness of our condition. Still reminds us of Marx in his stridency against the opiate of the masses which, for Still, is the religion of the European past—the religion rugged Protestant Americans have classically rebelled against, both for its cosmopolitanism and its effete spiritualism.5

This provincial spirit of rebellion in Still goes so far as to insist that “demands for communication are both presumptuous and irrelevant,” for they put one in a position of subjugation to dogma, authority, tradition. Communication inhibits the consciousness necessary for freedom, for it is historically determined and so interferes with self-determination. Art should not communicate, it should vitalize. Still’s nihilistic refusal to have any historical obligations, whether of style or belief, exists in the name of a radical vitality, a freshness beyond all conventional causes and uses of art—a fresh wind which at times seems no more than the wake of an apocalyptic one. Thus, Still asserts that his paintings explicitly deny the foundations of our science and commerce, and lose their vitality if they are made to conform to it.

Non serviam,” says Still, in the spirit of James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus, another artificer of freedom who, like Still, sought escape from the supposedly inescapable past (which seemed less like a viable heritage than a dead weight, a useless burden). And like Joyce, the passion for freedom—the myth of new beginnings, inseparable from that of self-creation—translates concretely into the freeing of the medium, taking artistic license with its limits. (However, it can be argued that Joyce’s freedom meant taking greater liberties with “outworn myths”—although these as much as language were the medium for Joyce—rather than sweeping them away.) Thus, Still finds that

To be stopped by a frame’s edge was intolerable; a Euclidean prison had to be annihilated, its authoritarian implications repudiated without dissolving one’s individual integrity and idea in material and mannerism.6

Not only was the frame a symbol of false necessity, of lost freedom, but so were “signs or symbols of literary allusions,” which are “just crutches for illustrators and politicians desperate for an audience.” Any focusing device for form, any cue to content, are anathema for Still, for they close one into a finite world of limited implications which altogether precludes even the possibility of the idea of freedom. There must be a lurking infinity about the image, an indefiniteness—incompleteness—which lures us to the idea of freedom, which shows us its possibility because it reminds us that there is much to be formed, to be made definite. Still takes limits, with their implication of a finished world of “vision”—literal and spiritual—and of completed content, very personally. For they seem so indisputable and inevitable in art—in any enterprise—that their repudiation takes the utmost conviction. Still is aware that to deny limits altogether, to assume that one can permanently escape from them (except into insanity), opens him to “the charge of affectation.” Transcendence of the forming frame and context-creating allusions or associations is epitomized by Still in his deliberate omission of titles, because they would mislead the viewer and limit the works’ meanings and implications. Still does not want to assist the spectator with allusions. In viewing Still’s work, the observer shows what he is made of. But, we have a right to ask, will this tell us what the works are made of? Still makes Promethean claims for his art, but he does not tell us what kind of gift its visible fire is, although he insists that it can be used for good or ill.7

Still regards his act of painting as at odds with any system of associations and evaluations. To preserve the purity of this act—to make clear that it is the act that counts, not what can conventionally be made of it—Still insists on exhibiting his paintings as a set or in continuity, presumably because one will then be overwhelmed by their sheer presence, which will in and of itself suffice the spectator. His consciousness will not search for crutches to make sense of the works, which will stand forth as a pure revelation of paint. The paintings must affect us, in Valéry’s words, “as unique presences anterior to everything in the way of arrangement, summary, short cut, and instantaneous substitution.” Valéry describes the meaning of these presences for the painter:

Just as the thinker tries to defend himself from the platitudes and set phrases which protect the mind from surprise at everything, and make practical living possible, so the painter can try, by studying formlessness, or rather singularity of form, to rediscover his own singularity, and with it the original and primitive state of co-ordination between hand and eye, subject and will.8

One effort of this paper is to show how the spectator, by studying the formlessness of Still’s paintings, can rediscover his own singularity, and with it the original and primitive coordination of his consciousness with its object. For Still, the spectator can begin to make this rediscovery—can learn what he is made of—only when he deliberately strips away whatever might give the paintings form, whatever interferes with the effect and workings of their formlessness on him. The “crutches” of association—the natural tendency to associate a specific meaning with a random sensation of form, which gives definite form to what is not and was never meant to be finalized as such—particularly interferes. Still takes great pains to repudiate, often violently, the associations conveniently aroused by his works, associations which convert them from paintings to pictures, which make them “scenic.” These associations are of two sorts: those which relate the paintings to the American prairie in particular or nature in general,9 and those which relate them to the New York school of surrealistically derived or oriented “Myth-Makers” active in the early and mid-’40s.10 That is, Still’s works seem subject to associations which make them disguised images of landscape or inner life (inner landscape)—vistas on nature or the self. Still, in shrugging off such associations, falls into a state of contradiction, from which he seems not to want to rescue himself: he does not want to “delimit the meanings and implications” latent in his works, but he doesn’t like any meaning made manifest, any implication detected, any association that becomes explicit. For such meanings and implications would make his work “illustrative,” give it “traditional, authoritarian, or public” meaning. Indeed, Still intends to “fight . . . any tendency to accept a fixed, sensuously appealing, recognizable style,” not only because it is delimiting in and of itself, but because it easily becomes the vehicle of such public meanings.11 “I am always trying to paint my way out of and beyond a facile, doctrinaire idiom,” and especially to “disembarrass color from all conventional, familiar associations and responses; that is, from the pleasant, luminous, and symbolic.” This has made his art appear to be “technically ‘bad’ painting . . . in keeping with my anti-elegant attitude.”12

Still, then, sacrifices much in the name of his sacred freedom, whose self-proclaimed primitivism begins to seem absurd even in the context of 20th-century primitivism. His dismissal and slander of all styles and contexts comes in the end to seem a species of nihilistic nonsense. One can understand the desire of “genius” to remain uncategorized, unclassifiable—unappropriated and mysterious—in the name of his creativity, but to present his products as permanently incomprehensible is to insult the public they are made for. To be consistent, Still ought not to exhibit his paintings, with or without titles, together or individually—yet of course he does want to reach or create a public, although on his own terms. If Still did not make such an ethical issue of his art, one would be tempted to interpret his attitude as simply another avant-garde strategy, the nihilistic moment, as Poggioli has described it, in avant-garde self-invention and radicality.

As it is, there is one association Still is willing to let stick to his art—the sublime—but the term is tautological as he uses it. It is simply a reiteration of his desire for an association less art.

The sublime? A paramount consideration in my studies and work from my earliest student days. In essence it is most elusive of capture or definition—only surely found least in the lives and works of those who babble of it the most. The dictator types have made a cliché of ‘sublime’ conceits throughout the centuries to impress or subjugate the innocent or desperate.13

Thus, Still’s sublime brings with it the whole baggage of his art’s mysterious freedom, and the usual accompanying insults against the unfree. One is tempted to ask whether the genius types haven’t also made a cliché of the sublime, and whether Still isn’t an American version of the dictatorial or authoritarian type of modern artist, using the myth of primitivism—in its American version, of the perpetual new start and self-start, of permanent revolution—to impress or subjugate—blind—the consciousness of his spectators. He in effect asks them to scuttle their minds by believing in his self-righteously radical sublime primitivism, in the frontier wisdom of his art, yet doesn’t allow them to crystallize any sensations or ideas about it. He subjects them to a stifling paradox, and invites them to a nihilistic adventure, in which the works become hidden reefs waiting to gash holes in the spectator’s consciousness.

Still commits many atrocities in the name of freedom; he is a savage scalper of everything from past art to past history to past thought, and by his own admission his art does not accumulate much toward a future. What does this grand primitivist negation,14 this grand return to origins,15 exist in the name of? Does it finally affirm anything? Yes; Still affirms the “act,” which quickly becomes the “Act,” a communication made for its own sake, with no attempt to create history, with no authority beyond its own immediacy. The painting of the Act is the “free place or area of life where an idea”—that of freedom—“can transcend politics, ambition and commerce.” Still is quick to insist that this does not make him “an action painter.” While “each painting is an act, the result of action and the fulfillment of action,”16 it is also “intrinsic and absolute” rather than, as Still thinks Abstract-Expressionist action painting is, an act concerned to generate associations beyond itself, i.e. an act which creates an image which is extrinsic and related to other images—which is concerned to bespeak a certain kind of experience rather than exist autonomously.

At most, for Still, the painting is “the bearer of passion,”17 “an extension of the man, of his blood, a confrontation with himself,”18 i.e. a timeless, strenuous assertion of the artist’s own identity in its self-encounter and self-reliance. To be “comprehended” it must be confronted much as to be created the artist had to confront himself and articulate this confrontation in “an unqualified act.” For Still, this is an act of self-commitment, one in which the self is assumed as an absolute being, independent of its vicissitudes. Still believes that in unqualifiedly committing himself to Still’s paintings the spectator comes to confront and create—the two are inseparable for Still, as though by shaking one’s fist at an empty sky one creates the “omens,” sees the lightning and hears the voice that follow—his own mythical, free self. He experiences a “fresh start,” a “liberation of the spirit,” not only from “that contemporary Moloch, the Culture State,” but from “the density of being”—his own and the world’s—in which he lives.19 Still’s art permits him, through its radical negation, to encounter his radical freedom as a real phenomenon rather than utopian phantom, as a concrete escape from all contingent orders. In other words, for Still art is a way of making freedom concrete—perhaps the only way—and is concerned ultimately with intrinsic rather than extrinsic values, i.e. with what is indispensable to existence—enduring depth rather than changing surface. Art tries to suggest enduring depth through changing surface rather than to create a stable look, a false order. It is an “extension” of “mind and heart and hand,” not simply a dogmatization—validation—of known forms and thoughts.20 Still means his paintings to be invitations to, and emblems of, an open horizon rather than signs of a closed consciousness, possessed by clichés of communication and affirming dogma, authority, tradition. Art is to rescue our freedom, not police our limits.

Still squarely asks: what is the broad human effect of art? The very assumption that it has such an effect, rather than simply an esthetic effect, shows that Still believes art has an ethical dimension. His question is: what is art’s ethical role in human affairs? He answers: art does not originate any ideas or ideologies, it is not the invention of a system of thought or belief or the articulation of any fragment thereof, but rather it puts us in a position from which we can evaluate the claims of any notion, determine how it impinges on existence and whether we want to suffer that impingement. For Still the act of art is critical and disengaging rather than confining and psychically coercive. Art no longer confirms and helps convince us of what is already given, whether it be nature or a religion—it is no longer an act of imitation—but suspends our relations with it so that we can determine its meaning and freely decide our commitment to it. Still carries to an extreme what has always been implicit in abstraction: its disengagement from the given, not simply to assert the autonomous forms of art or to clarify the character of the given—to give it in disguised yet emphatic form—but to insist on the free consciousness necessary for its true comprehension and assessment. Still means to make this freedom an active value rather than a theoretical goal.

In general, throughout his writings Still thinks of art as value-laden rather than fact-oriented. He constantly alludes to the life-values implicit in art other than his own, and invites us to make value judgments on all art. Art expresses values rather than imitates facts; it must become conscious of this, so that it can freely choose what it expresses. The values at stake are not those of taste and sensibility, for these, while looking for refinements in the given, accept it as such. Rather, Still believes that all art deals, wittingly or unwittingly, with moral values, those which shape existence at the root. Taste for art takes an external approach to it, seeing not the values inherent in its creation, but only those having to do with its appearance. Thus, the recognition of the inherent values in his art is not part of the tradition of taste and form, and he categorically rejects any effort to “debase” the ideas originating in his works into esthetic or property values and educational aids.

“Except as a created revelation, a new experience,” his works “are without value.” For Still, “a single stroke of paint” can restore man’s lost “freedom”21—by which he means that a single stroke of paint, applied to reveal values rather than to fix facts, can remind one of one’s freedom to choose whatever values one will, which freedom is the value of existence. For Still, a stroke must become a value-sensation rather than a fact-sensation—must be “freely” applied, i.e. with no presupposition about its esthetic or historical point. It can then become emblematic of innate freedom, the autonomy of one’s being. Still means to present an autonomous, free “image,” which is inaccessible to taste, and which liberates us inwardly from the conventions of our existence. Like a biblical prophet, Still reminds us of the vanity of taste and the art which appeals to it, and of our values and our unthinking acceptance of them.

Still in effect asks art to repent of its ways, for the attention to taste masks a deeper corruption. He is quite specific about both the art he means and the nature of the corruption. The “dialectical perversions” of Cubism and Expressionism "only reflected the attitudes of power or spiritual debasement of the individual.22 More sweepingly:

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. 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.23

This is strong language, a violent accusation, and the question at this point is not whether it is true or false, but whether, if we can take it as more than temperamental rhetoric, it suggests an appropriate mode for the evaluation of art. For Still, this is clearly not a farfetched way to approach art, but rather the spirit in which it must be questioned. Still, indeed, takes art more seriously than estheticians and conventional art critics—critics of taste. He views it as having significant effect on human existence, not simply a transient effect on sensibility. It helps form life as a whole, not simply sensibility. For Still, most modern art, knowingly or unknowingly, enslaved life however much it emancipated sensibility, perhaps just because it sought to emancipate sensibility rather than life as a whole.

HOW DO STILL’S PAINTINGS emancipate us? How do they show their ethical purpose? By the same combination of negation and affirmation one finds in his writings. Negation of dogmatic tradition, and all it implies, and affirmation of a new painting, offering new things to see and a new way to see. In general, traditional art is passive, except in certain ornamental aspects. It is a passive window on a world to be passively contemplated, no matter how active in itself. It is an art of control. Still’s art is active. The focus is never fixed or finalized, its scene is composed of forces rather than forms, and it is to be consciously confronted rather than passively accepted. Only “engaged” will its full effect be felt, its full point disclosed.

The vehicle of traditional passivity in art, generating a sense of dealing with the foreknown and appearing like a foregone conclusion—a fixed point and frame of reference—is the figure, however “serpentine” it may become, however ghostly it may appear. Still’s art is also influenced by the seemingly inescapable figure, but radically transformed, beyond even a vestigial “presence.” Still goes, as it were, underground—to the figure’s underworld, its consciousness. Thus Still’s art, which is figural in origin, negates the figure after a final totemic apotheosis of it, replacing it with, in Clement Greenberg’s words, the “pregnant, activated emptiness” of the field.24 The painting’s field, however, can be interpreted as the field of consciousness. On the way to doing so, one must note that the key point in Still’s Copernican Revolution is not that the field, in its vertical structure, retains an implication of figuration, but that Still has shifted emphasis from one of the two fundamental terms of an image’s organization to the other—away from the figure, with its objectification of forms, to the field which subjectively dissolves them. He has thus, in effect, undermined the way figure and field traditionally relate, where figure dominates—stands out from and is set off by—field. In Still field dominates and absorbs figuration, which becomes its emanation, a sign that it is energized. This is in itself—climaxing in the mature works of the ’50s, which seem to show the field’s exclusive existence—disruptive or unbalancing of perception. It unsettles the spectator’s expectations, “refuting” his familiar way of knowing the picture—of making the painting a picture, a world. That is, the monism of Still’s field is not only provocative in itself, but because it sabotages our innate tendency, as Jaspers puts it, to know by duality, by contrast. To emphasize: the field’s impact, whether perceptual or conceptual, is only a secondary source of shock. Indeed, since the “description” of the field inevitably gives rise to associations, the shock of an image which seems pure ground is muted, for such associations “people” it—add figuration to its topography. This comes to exist, for most observers, figuratively as well as literally, so that its radicality is lost. (Still fights this loss, in an effort to recover radicality by denying the possibility of any association.) But primordially—radically—experienced, the field’s monistic unity, its demand that it be perceived as a whole which is more than the sum of its parts (for these cannot be clearly differentiated), undermines the “dialectical perversion” of our usual way of knowing (in the image, the tendency to divide it into figure and ground or space).

Unity—the unity of the field—is all for Still, and it is experienced as liberating.

By 1941, space and the figure in my canvases had been resolved into a total psychic entity, freeing me from the limitations of each yet fusing into an instrument bounded only by the limits of my energy and intuition. My feeling of freedom was now absolute and infinitely exhilarating.25

In such a “resolution” “imagination . . . became as one with Vision” for Still.26 Not only did the pictorial fusion of space and figure free him from the dialectical perversity of their traditional relationship and the dogmatism of their individuality, but this was experienced as liberation from a false, limited view of things. However, Still was implicitly forced to admit—and his development demonstrates—that unity cannot be forced; to do so leads to chaos or awkwardness. Unity may be ultimately real, but the extraordinary sense of integrity it conveys cannot be easily communicated intellectually or emotionally, let alone visually. The experience of unity is a developed achievement, which can as easily fail as succeed, for it is not entirely predictable. It requires special tension to succeed, and when it fails it produces a dismal sense of disintegration.

Still, indeed, comes close to failure many times, but in a sense it is his development which means more to him than any one success, as his emphasis on the continuity between his works makes clear. His development of pictorial unity—as an analogue of psychic unity—does not proceed mechanically but, necessarily, organically. He in effect “stifles” the figure with the space, slowly but surely. He turns a solid into a liquid into a gas, increasingly diffusing the figure in space, until it is totally absorbed. In 1941 Still only intimated this development, but had not yet realized it, for all his excitement at its prospect—an excitement compounded as much of bravado as of truly being equal to the task, as much of fatal pride as of true ability. It was only by the mid-’50s that, through painterly osmosis, the figure was implicated in the space, and their unity—the dissolution of both, the famous “spaceless space”—could be spoken of. However, the reciprocity between opposites can never be said to have come to rest in Still’s pictures, for that would only be to falsify its functioning on consciousness.

In the ’40s Still stripped the figure to bare bones or even intestinal coils—bones of being, coils of consciousness. This “nakedness” is evident as early as 1938-N. It continues through 1943-J and 1944-A, among other works. The flattening or thinning out of the figure while it spreads in space is part of its diffusion. By 1944-G and 1944-N figuration reduces to a single tight coil; it is epitomized, as in Self-Portrait (1945). In a sense, this last picture marks Still’s farewell to self-evident figuration, with its assumption of self-evident selfhood. Neither the figure nor its identity will be taken for granted or exist clearly. They will be submerged in the functioning of the picture—subliminally experienced, not obviously represented. By 1954-S, 1955-D, and 1955-K-No. 1 figural diffusion is as complete as it will ever be, and the painting comes to exist entirely in terms of surface flow, with figuration—with the various grounds, literal as well as figurative depths, it implies—simply an aspect of its self-differentiation. Still has transformed the bone of being into the grain of being.

Not that Still develops consistently, or without pitfalls. The flow exists in a lame version as early as 1941-P, together with nondescript figural forms. Sometimes the bony figures become dense and ominous (1944-A), sometimes dynamic (1943-M). It is hard to separate them from totemic import, with all its mythical implications. They seem a brittle, attenuated variant of the nightmare figure Pollock was painting at the time. Worst of all, the figural coil sometimes seems to function as purely formal device with no spiritual implications (1945-R), a gestural innovation heralding Newman’s gritty stripe, but without its open horizon. And sometimes figure and space do not seem so much to cross-fertilize as to crisscross ambiguously (1946-C, 1946-T). It is not clear whether this is deliberate brinkmanship or confusion. One cannot determine whether novel unity or subtle disunity has been achieved. But the counterpoint of such images can also operate with glacial calm, singular unity (1946-E, 1946-H). Also, the painterly osmosis is inconsistent: self-evident in 1947-F and 1947-G, less so in 1947H-No. 1 and 1947-Y. Such “flaws” seem inevitable in any process, although they seem precluded by Still’s visionary confidence. At the same time, seen within the continuity of his development, they punctuate certain decisions, some works seeming to function like exclamation points, others like dashes, none with any final punctuation.

In the last mentioned works contour seems more crucial than surface process, however much it may be part of it. Greenberg asserts that Still makes a shape’s edges less cutting and conspicuous “by narrowing the value contrast that its color made with the colors adjacent to it.”27 But this is not true. Greenberg is interested in the process of color, its orchestration into understated harmony, rather than in the tension of the edges that keeps it intense. Neither saturation nor hue means that much to Still in the last analysis. The edges, with their incipient turmoil rippling through the color, do. Even in the mid-’40s, when Greenberg wrote about Still, edges were consequential for him, however simplified they seem in terms of the total configuration. The basic function of Still’s edge becomes clear in the mid-’40s. It is not simply vestigial figuration, but boniness inside out, a spreading marrow which eventually becomes a clear field. Still’s edges register the rhythm of the field, contract and expand—pulsate—according to the pressures in it.

The edges carry the burden of the painting’s meaning. They can be described not simply as informal figuration but as operational inchoateness, a becoming which is prophetic of new being. Within the field, the figure, become “edgy,” functions as a prophetic flow of blood, fire, a pillar of smoke, pointing the way to the promised land of freedom. If there is any symbolism in Still, it hangs on the organic vitality of the edge which, in its struggle to signal the integrity of what seems disintegrating, is as much a rebirth as a dying of form. Like the guiding cloud of Numbers 9:21, the edge can spread over the “scene” of the painting; or it can distill into a discrete unit, a pillar of smoke, to make its purposiveness clear. Such an interpretation of Still’s edges connects him with such American “primitives” as Ryder and Burchfield—also edge-obsessed—absorbed by the interplay of elemental life-and-death forces, and the American abstract primitives—Still’s “Myth-Makers”—who transcendentalized these forces. Still differs from both in that he is concerned with neither nature nor transcendence, but consciousness. He sees the life and death forces as neither immanent in nature nor as playing out their power on a cosmic stage, but as confronting one another in consciousness.

He is neither a naturalist manqué nor a disguised transcendentalist—he repudiates both possibilities—but a prophetic existentialist, aware of the life values at stake in the uncertain battle against living death. He tries, as it were, to ride the expressive waves of the force of this struggle. Mastering them gives a certain autonomy—a sense of self-creation, of simultaneously generating and witnessing the generation of one’s own being, with both its lost possibilities and found actuality, and its continuous viability. This vision of self-determination through self-confrontation—confrontation of the life and death forces in oneself—is provincial romanticism, like much existentialism, but it becomes the ground of a creative response to what seems inevitable. In art, it is a way out of the fatalism of tradition, a kind of autonomy, and so authenticity, within the determinations of history. It at least permits Still to make new artistic decisions, to reach a kind of tense decisiveness in a world which tends to set looks—and outlooks—and reworked forms.

Still’s edges, which I think are more decisive in his art than his color, express pictorial tensions. Like Pollock’s The Deep (1953), they are the visible vector result of the conflict between implicit forces. They have a momentary look of autonomy and self-determination, but their rugged shape shows, like pines perpetually subject to the wind’s force, that they are the product of violent forces, invisible yet felt. Their wizened refinement, their virile cragginess—their mix of flexibility and power—shows they are survivors of forces beyond their control, which they have learned to master but not dominate, reflect but not control. Tension and autonomy are simultaneous for Still. The apparent autonomy of the edges is the sign of some “staying” of forces. The edge’s autonomous form seems idiosyncratic from the point of view of familiar form, but expressive from the point of view of invisible forces which seek a visible outlook. The edge articulates the inarticulate; it is rich with instinct, almost bloodlets it. The edge gives Still’s best works their special character: a sense of involuntary, nervous, unresolved agitation—of a unity achieved in and through this agitation. There is a sense of both climax and anti-climax about them—of what Whitehead calls the subject-superejection of force. Its expression is simultaneously its formation, i.e. its organization or consolidation into an autonomous entity. For Whitehead, this is the duration of the process of becoming concrete; Still seems to have frozen that process, stopped it in its path at some irrational moment when its forcefulness is still experienced and the entities it conceives still unstable. Unlike Mondrian, who rationalizes the process itself—I have in mind his works transitional from naturalism to abstraction—Still allows both process and its resultant irrationality.

The edges, then, emerge as “themes” within the larger process of the field, seemingly self-determined yet radically incomplete and expressive of something other than themselves—a response to pressure rather than a self-cocooned form. Within the “total psychic entity” Still conceives the picture to be, the edges articulate intention. They are the themes through which the field of consciousness makes itself manifest as active. As Aron Gurwitsch notes, “the appearance of a theme must be described as emergence from a field.”28 The theme—the visual motif—is in effect a melody within the larger music of the image. Indeed, Still’s paintings can be understood as a refinement of Greenberg’s polyphonic paintings, in which every element is “different but equivalent . . . in accent and emphasis.” Where the surface of the all-over picture as originally conceived was “knit together of . . . closely similar elements which repeat themselves without marked variation,”29 Still introduces a marked variation but without destroying the monotonic character of the whole, i.e., without undermining its function as a field. This marked variation—in the edges—restores the musical image to the symbolist context from which it emerged, without, however (in the best symbolist spirit), specifying what the edges symbolize. They simply function poetically, as a sign of alert consciousness. In Jules Laforgue’s words, they function as “a melodic phrase (a subject), the design of which would reappear from time to time” in the “inextricable symphony” which the poem-picture is.30 The edges communicate this sense of emergence-appearance and reappearance, conveying the purposiveness of the field (of consciousness)—which is crucial to establishing the picture’s unity. Still exhibits his works as a group or continuity to sustain this sense of emergence, of purposive process within the pressures of the field. The tension of the process of emergence continues beyond the immediate image floating on the surface of the field, and beyond the frame of any one picture, as though it could never be stopped or captured, and as though it would bring forth a creation beyond anything hitherto imagined. This expectation is also symbolist in nature. It is as though the surface is in perpetual, restless labor, about to bring forth something divine or monstrous but unknowable as either. It is as though the surface of Monet’s pond implied a depth it could not express—reckon with—in a single ripple.

To understand the intentional character of Still’s edge it is useful to regard it as a “fringe,” in two—reciprocal—senses of the term. One is William James’, where it means “psychic overtones,” “suffusions” of “relations and objects but dimly perceived.” It seems possible to understand the fringe as the implicit subject matter of modern art since Impressionism—more particularly since Cézanne, who was preoccupied with the psychic overtones of dimly perceived relations, which he articulated in “sensations” or suffusions. The fringe vibrates because it is “a particular class of transitive state” which conveys a “sense of affinity,” which is “one of the most interesting features of the subjective stream.”31 The sense of affinity determines sensations of difference and of likeness—the fundamental, if constantly shifting, sensations of consciousness. The fringe conveys these shifting, transitive states of sensation: Still’s paintings are pervaded by subtle resemblances and discrepancies between its elements, a kind of jarring unity of partial affinities. Such sensations appear, disappear and reappear within the subjective stream or field of perception, which in Still’s paintings exists with no one focus, but as a moving margin. The fringe can be characterized in this way as an affinity elision or a psychic ellipsis—the abstract energy which establishes affinity, whether through likeness or difference, throughout the painting. It is the circuit which both connects and disconnects, unites and within unity differentiates, in a ceaseless flux.

Still’s paintings—like James’ subjective stream or field of consciousness—never has a clear and distinct organization, a fundamental, and so final, form. Any such organization is “bestowed and superimposed on it from without”32—by the spectator. This is what Still means when he asserts that his works tell the spectator about himself, about his disposition and predisposition—about his “position.” The field painting is not itself a position, nor does it establish one, but it creates the possibility of spectator positioning. Viewing it, the spectator is forced to position himself in terms of his sensations of difference and likeness. He finds himself coming into focus between these cross-hairs, experiencing a variety of affinities, and thus discovering his own consciousness and its purposiveness. He finds himself in a flux of emergent sensations which are analogues for the fringes of his consciousness. The painterly fringes activate the psychic fringes, so that the spectator can experience the freedom of unity through his subjective sense of affinity.

The second meaning of fringe—edge, theme—expands the first. It has to do with the fringe’s “pertinence to the broader context” of the field, already noted. This pertinence is “an invariant of consciousness.” At the same time, as Gurwitsch notes in words that can be applied pari passu to Still’s field painting, “the thematic field does not coincide with the total field.”33 For the material contents of the two are not the same. Still’s field is constituted by colors as well as fringes. Without this material difference the sense of affinity could not function to create its “unity by relevance.” It has been noted that, properly understood, perception or per-cipere is ex-cipere. That is, it functions through the process of “standing out,” which organizes the field of perception. Now the fluid unity of Still’s pictures—painted fields of perception—is achieved through the standing out—the “exception”—of fringes which seem thematically relevant to one another. Still’s achievement is to make all “parts” of the picture seem to have affinity with one another, so that the picture as a whole seems the differentiation of a unified field. The fringes are differentiations or “exceptional” nuances which momentarily stabilize the field of perception to intimate unity without turning it into permanent organization. Still’s “forms” always remain transitive, fugitive, fringelike, so that they can generate the sense of affinity which communicates unity without forfeiting freedom—without making it seem predetermined, but rather the result of autonomous perception. This is possible only because the fringe does not coincide with the field, but rather activates its emptiness, charges it with possibility.

Why is such perception more ethical than esthetic in import? Why are the fringes not simply another way of communicating the sublime “unity” at the end of infinity and, so, a unity experienced but invisible—ambiguously known? Because esthetic perception is concerned with grasping the final unity and final form of the painting—with it as a picture. In the last analysis, esthetic perception has no patience with the process of perception itself, with the choices or alternatives within the process. Taste does not accept a situation of permanent choice, of absolute tentativeness, of an autonomy which leads to and functions through “indecisiveness.” The judgment of taste abhors ambivalence, which is a vacuum for it.

Similarly, the sublime is not evoked by Still’s paintings. They do not fade into the monotony of the infinite, but are infinitely renewable. This is not the same as an evocation of infinity, because in such an evocation the sense of affinity is de-activated. The sense of infinity depends on a reduction of sensation, whether of difference or likeness. It depends on perception having nothing more to feed on—exhausting itself, however intense the struggle not to—in a vacuum, a forced asceticism of perception. But Still’s field, no matter how thin, remains active, offering, in its movement, fresh sensations, a fresh sense of relevance. The permanent flux of the field epitomizes a situation of ethical choice rather than esthetic finality or certainty of sensation. Sensation is never certain—final—in Still’s field. Its infinity is not the banal distance or the exaggerated dynamics the sublime demands, but rather, in Whitehead’s words, “the infinite background” which “always remains as the unanalyzed reason why that finite perspective of that entity has the special character it does have.”34 Still’s fields try to articulate the “infinite background,” difficult to analyze, out of which finite forms arise. That is, he articulates the entire creative process, not only its products (in a sense, he never quite comes to them).

The argument that Still’s paintings, with their sensations of affinity or becoming, rather than forms of being, are analogues for a depth sense of the ethical situation, needs a fuller sense of “infinite background” to be sustained. Whitehead again helps:

Morality of outlook is inseparably conjoined with generality of outlook. The antithesis between the general outlook and the individual interest can be abolished only when the individual is such that its interest is the general good, thus exemplifying the loss of minor intensities in order to find them again with finer composition in a wider sweep of interest.35

In a sense, Still’s mature work is “finer composition” with “a wider sweep of interest” than his early work. The “minor intensities” of this work—the personal boniness, the figural coil, the pursuit of radical individuality of look—are later refined and given scope, universalized or generalized into a broader field of action and, so, implication. This is an ethical, not simply esthetic change. It is an attempt to conjoin the finite figural individual with general infinite space. It is not simply an attempt to create a new look, and it issues in no clearcut forms.

Still attempts to reconcile and integrate the general ground of being with a specific kind of being in a new painterly becoming, creating a new sense of purposiveness beyond that communicated by either of them alone. This process of creative becoming is inherently moral, almost in a Hindu sense, for it recognizes that what will be newly created will depend on the action of what was previously created. Still revives an ancient truth, which the factualization of existence tends to obscure: existence is moral at its root, the “artistic” process of becoming is a moral process of which the “esthetic” result is the accompanying shell of form. The esthetic is the outside view of the inside process. One’s morality—one’s way of reconciling oneself with the world without sacrificing oneself to it yet acknowledging its formative influence—determines the “essence” of one’s being. It is an essence which is partially in one’s control, only “partially” because the terms with which it works were not established by it. Like existence itself, the existence of Still’s fields depends upon the moral relationship between general and individual, infinite and finite, abstract and concrete, as these are actually operational. The sensations of taste, the appropriation of the painting as property, its reduction to a formula (taste and property already do that)—Still condemns them all—each ignores this moral relationship, or misreads its operation, seeing its end detached from its process.

Finally, Still’s paintings can be regarded as religious as well as ethical, in the sense in which the religious is the ultimate expression of ethical process. Again in Whitehead’s words, the sense of religion involves “an ultimate craving to infuse into the insistent particularity of emotion that non-temporal generality which primarily belongs to conceptual thought alone,” thereby “stretching individual interest beyond its self-defeating particularity.”36 Still’s paintings are visual metaphors stretching particularity. Recall his impatience with frames and the “Euclidean” order of the traditional picture—with any reliance on predetermined organization which creates particular form, which even determines the particularity of any painting. Continuity within the painting, and between paintings, negates both the particularity of any painting and of any frame of reference which might be used to focus it—to make it stand out or be exceptional“—and creates a non-temporal generality. Recall his passion for freedom and his sense of the self-defeat inherent in using any particular formal ”idiom," since that degenerates into a minor intensity while creating minor esthetic intensities for taste. Finally, recall Still’s refusal of particular associations—in itself a kind of non-temporal generality—for they would give his work a false individuality, reflecting the spectator’s individual interest. Such associations miss the whole point: that the ethics of art involves the recognition that esthetic decisions are based on moral decisions, so that any esthetic perception or situation is subsumed by an ethical one. For Still, esthetic decisions suggest ways in which one is united with one’s world, and so reflect the morality of one’s outlook. Still wants to take us to the point where this becomes clear, where we recognize the free choice that created our kind of unity with the world, and then leave us to our ruminating devices.

Donald B. Kuspit is professor of art at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The author wishes to thank the National Endowment for the Arts for the Art Critics Fellowship which made this article possible.



1. Clyfford Still, “A Statement by the Artist,” Clyfford Still: Thirty-three Paintings in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1966, p. 18. Still’s ethical orientation in particular, and philosophical approach in general, are noted by Henry Hopkins in “Clyfford Still,” Currant, Dec. 1975–Jan. 1976, pp 18–25. Still’s reflections on his art can be found in his letters to Betty Parsons in the Parsons papers at the Archives of American Art.

2. Ti-Grace A Sharpless, “‘Freedom Absolute and Infinitely Exhilarating’,” Art News, Nov. 1963, p. 37.

3. Clyfford Still, “An Open Letter to an Art Critic,” Artforum, Dec. 1963, p. 32. Still, incidentally, in his repudiation of these materialistic factors in human life, echoes the idealism, only more self-righteously, of such first-generation abstractionists as Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian.

4. Clyfford Still, Letter to Gordon Smith, Jan. 1, 1959, published in Paintings by Clyfford Still, exhibition catalogue, Albright Art Gallery; Buffalo, 1959, n. p. The presence of Cézanne in this list implies a re-evaluation of him, for in 1935 Still received an MFA from the State College of Washington for a thesis entitled “Cézanne. A Study in Evaluation.” In this thesis Still clearly identifies with Cézanne, using him, in a general way, as a personal and artistic model. He seems to approve of the fact that Cézanne “pursued the lonely and isolated way” (p. 5), becoming in the process “the most unique paradox in the entire history of art” (p. 1). He notes that Cézanne’s “lifelong ideal to subdue this emotional side of his temperament was never completely accomplished” (p. 12). Most important, he sees Cézanne as pursuing “effective unity” (p. 21), Still’s own ideal. However, he notes that Cézanne understood this unity in strictly esthetic terms (pp. 18, 22). even subordinating his emotion for things to the ideal of esthetic unity. By 1959—certainly earlier—Still cannot accept the ideal of unity as purely esthetic in its implications, for he understands pictorial unity to have, inextricably, emotional and ethical implications, which are obscured by attention to the esthetic ones. Finally, one might note that Still accepts, and carries to abstract extremes, two of Cézannes ideas: (1) the reduction of line to “fragments of the edges of form or the intersection of planes” (pp. 23–24); and (2) the belief that “nothing was sufficiently stable in its nature,” so that the picture could never be predicted or concluded.

5. E.g., see Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Boston, 1957, p. 79.

6. Sharpless, p. 37.

7. Ad Reinhardt, in “The Artist in Search of a Code of Ethics,” Partisan Review, vol. 42, 1975, p. 284, mocks Still’s assertion, not recognizing its derivation from the story of Prometheus, and above all, refusing the idea of the ethical importance of the abstract image. Reinhardt writes: “It is not right for the artist to make his bag of tricks a matter of life and death. Artists who send chits, however delicious, up curators’ spines with warnings like. ‘Let no man undervalue the implications of this work or its power for life, or for death, if it is misused,’ should be charged with arson and false alarm.”

8. Paul Valéry, “The Ground and the Formless,” Degas Manet Morisot, New York, 1960, p. 45.

9. See Benjamin J. Townsend, “An Interview with Clyfford Still,” Gallery Notes, Albright-Knox Gallery, Summer 1961, p. 11.

10. Still, Letter to Gordon Smith, n. p. See Townsend, p. 11 for Still’s approval of Hamlet’s mocking rejoinder to Polonius, who sees, under Hamlet’s ironical direction, a variety of shapes in a cloud—a camel, a weasel, and a whale. All are Polonius’ self-projection—himself in a metaphor.

11. Townsend, p. 10.

12. Townsend, pp. 10, 13.

13. Sharpless, pp. 37, 60.

14. For the conception of Still as a primitive see Thomas H. Hess, “The Outsider,” Art News, Dec. 1969, pp. 34–37, 67–69.

15. For the conception of Still as a kind of creator ex nihilo see E. C Goosen, “Painting as Confrontation: Clyfford Still,” Art International, Jan 1960, pp. 39–42.

16. Townsend, p. 14. Also, Sharpless, p. 60.

17. Still, Letter to Gordon Smith, n. p.

18. Sharpless, p. 37.

19. Still, A Statement by the Artist, p. 18.

20. Still, A Statement by the Artist, p. 16.

21. Still, An Open Letter to an Art Critic, p 32.

22. Sharpless, p. 37

23. Still, A Statement by the Artist, p. 16.

24. Clement Greenberg, “‘American-Type’ Painting,” Art and Culture, Boston, 1961, p. 225.

25. Sharpless, p. 37.

26. Still, Letter to Gordon Smith, n. p.

27. Greenberg, p. 227.

28. Aron Gurwitsch, The Field of Consciousness, Pittsburgh, 1964, p. 319.

29. Clement Greenberg, “The Crisis of the Easel Picture,” Art and Culture, Boston, 1961, pp. 155–56.

30. Quoted by Kenneth Cornell, The Symbolist Movement, New Haven, 1951, p. 39.

31. Gurwitsch, p. 309.

32. Gurwitsch, p. 25.

33. Gurwitsch, p. 320.

34. Alfred North Whitehead, “Immortality,” The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, New York, 1951, p. 682.

35. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, New York, 1955, p. 23, 36.

36. Ibid.