PRINT September 1979

Clinton Hill

WRITING ABOUT CLINTON HILL'S WORK in 1956, Leo Steinberg said of one of his drawings that “his every line aims at its destination; each patch of tone vibrates with its neighbor; the open spaces work with energy. The drawing is done with such dash and decision that it is hard to believe the resulting pattern to be pure invention.”

It is of course—as I think Steinberg would be the first to admit—hard to know just how pure invention would be recognizable as such. But one knows what is meant, and the description offered in those two sentences continues to apply to Hill’s more recent work.

Directionality, in fact, has been a most strongly emphasized feature of the work that Hill has made over the past couple of years. This has consisted almost equally of paintings and paper pieces, usually of more than one color. The paintings, which are painted with acrylic on canvas covered with fiberglass, share with the works made out of paper a stain technique—no doubt inherently lyrical from some points of view—that emphasizes, through its literal incorporation of the color into a surface physically assertive in character, a contradiction between the drawing as inscription and its concomitant role as a line moving through and within, as well as across, a pictorial space.

One notes almost incidentally, in the course of a more general apprehension of the line’s relation to the colored spaces traversed and divided by it, that Hill has developed an attitude to drawing that is implicitly bent on achieving a use of line that will render it both directional (but not descriptive of a volume) and planar—i.e., “frontal” and, in that sense, not in motion “across” or “through” the pictorial surface or space at all. This is an attitude to line through which there reverberates, or so it seems to me, the concerns of that painting of the 1950s in proximity to which Hill’s career began. Some will recall the story about Newman quarreling with Barr because the latter, thinking of a painting by Newman to be in some way constructivist, failed to see its stripe as a plane.

Like all formal problems, this is not a “formal” problem at all, but rather one which is central to the credibility of a nonrepresentational pictorialism. It is, in its elimination of the necessity of a descriptive role for line, that feature of abstraction which has been painting’s guarantee against confusion with representationalism (such as the sort of confusion that renders Diebenkorn’s work so unsatisfactory) ever since the American painters of the ’50s, for that very reason, instituted it as such. It is a key to credibility—to a claim to be a special way of structuring meaning—for a whole type of painting because it is that which identifies abstract painting’s difference from other varieties of pictorialism.

In Hill’s recent work the line takes up so much of the surface that it becomes something one looks through, into an almost uncontrolled deep space. In Topkapi Interchange, 1978, this depth is qualified only by small bits of color—each approximately as wide as the main drawing line—which render it palpable by their introduction of a polychrome opposition to the tonality of the work as a whole. The line’s movement across and through the pictorial space binds together a surface made up of physically separated sheets of paper, a long narrow painting or drawing whose narrative inclination—one sheet after another—emphasizes that “directionality” of line already remarked.

Of course this work is in some sense “playful,” in a way that the obviously analogous uses of line for which Paul Klee is famous are “playful.” Oddly enough, this kind of playing is not especially popular during our period of amazing and often debilitating tolerance. Perhaps this is because such drollery as Hill’s work may be seen to incorporate does not preclude its seeking to function as art in a traditional sense. Or perhaps—and this may be a different expression of the same premise—such play will not appeal to that version of what Graham Greene calls Europe’s hatred of itself, which is endemic to the current situation in New York, uniting such superficially differing intellects as, say, a Hilton Kramer and a Jeff Perrone, and which takes the form of insisting that the measure of a work is its capacity to violate or obviate the strongest and most persistently inspired current in American art since the Second World War (some would say longer), to wit, nonrepresentational painting.

Hill’s work—the paintings, the drawings and also the books he makes, which logically extend the narrative orientation noted above—is persistently engaging, and, as I suggest, consistently imaginative in its concern with the themes that have characterized a public career of 30 years. A particular concern with surface, with drawing, with the painting’s identity as something made, is something Hill has in common with many others of his generation—Goldberg, Kelly, Longo, Resnick, Ruda. And this concern continues to allow for that transmission of feeling at the supra personal level which is called esthetic experience.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe