PRINT Summer 2001


CLYFFORD STILL'S sustained disappearing act has made his achievement among the most elusive of AbEx masters. Now, as Washington, DC's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden opens a survey billed as a major “reintroduction” to the painter's oeuvre, art historian HARRY COOPER asks how the heard-but-not-seen artist's bite will compare to his bark.

HERE'S A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT. Imagine a bunch of painters roughly the same age and working in the same place. After considerable struggle, each develops a distinctive style. They are celebrated by a few influential critics and start to show their work regularly. Soon they rise to the top of the art world, gathering students and followers.

Now let one of these artists begin to act oddly. He refuses invitations to exhibit; excoriates and threatens the press, museums, and universities; retreats to a remote hideout; and insists on writing his own catalogues and curating his own shows. In short, he tries to exert total control over the dissemination of his work and its meanings. His paintings are arguably as good as those of his peers, but they can only be seen in any numbers at a couple of institutions off the beaten track. He keeps the vast majority to himself, stipulating that on his death they be released only to that city willing to dedicate a museum to him alone and forever.

Now let twenty years pass. The estate remains virtually closed to scholars, curators, and conservators. No city steps forward. What happens to the reputation of this artist? Does it endure on the strength of the few works that are known? Is it fed by the mystique surrounding the unseen works? Or does it deteriorate because of their inaccessibility and the still-wounded feelings of important players snubbed along the way?

The institutional historian of art could not hope for a neater experiment than this one—which is, of course, no hypothesis but the real-life case of Clyfford Still (1904–80)—nor for a neater result. Perhaps it's no great surprise that Still's stock has dropped while that of his Abstract Expressionist peers has soared, but his history is elegant confirmation that the art world is indeed a world, a public space that thrives on publicity. Or to put it more simply and less cynically, paintings are made to be seen. Pollock understood this, allowing himself to be covered by mass-market glossies. Still said that Pollock had “sold out to the housewives.”

Of the approximately 975 extant paintings by Still, 750 ended up in the artist's estate and are virtually unknown. As for the other 225 or so, Still sold about 150 and gave 31 to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and another 28 to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, the city that was his home on and off for years. His widow gave 10 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1986. Almost all of his works on paper, nearly 1,500, are languishing in the estate.1

The 69 donated paintings are on fairly regular view, as required, and have occasionally been seen outside their home bases. Most recently, a joint show of the Buffalo and San Francisco gifts toured Europe in 1992 before appearing in each city. The roughly 150 works that Still sold are less well known. There were important shows at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in 1969 (in conjunction with the only large sale of the work Still ever allowed, a sale he later regretted) and at the Mary Boone Gallery in 1990, but these were short-lived and the catalogues are hard to find. In 1979 the Met mounted a huge show heavily weighted (by Still himself, acting as curator) toward his post-1955 production and much criticized as a result.

Which brings us to the present exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, the first museum show to focus on Still's great period, 1944-60. The curator, James Demetrion, admits the show is “flawed” since the estate apparently refused to cooperate, and the gifts cannot be lent according to the terms of the donations, but he goes on to claim that the selection was for once “not made by the artist or influenced by him.” Fond hope! To choose the 39 works in the show, Demetrion had to select from the 150 or so that Still sold (which presumably means that, if they were not Still's favorites, he liked them well enough), and this pool must have been further limited by the fact that some of the paintings were not available, while others fell outside the 1944–60 range.2

Whatever the flaws, whatever the gothic grip that Still yet exerts from the grave, such an exhibition is an occasion for great expectations, and so, for some preliminary thoughts concerning the artist's critical fate. In what ways has Still been understood to date? What glints and gleams of interpretation might illumine the self-orchestrated murk of his oeuvre?

Still has generally been construed either as a front-line formalist concerned above all with his medium or as a latter-day Romantic steeped in myth, primitivism, and the harsh sublimities of the Alberta homestead of his youth. Clement Greenberg, who led the formalist charge, sealed Still's reputation overnight in 1955 with his announcement, muted only by the fact that it came at the end of a too-long essay, that the artist was “one of the most important and original painters of our time.”3

Greenberg's remarks on Still are indispensable reading, both for the memorable epithets—“slack, willful silhouettes” for the pre-1945 work, “frayed dead-leaf edges” for the next decade—and for the insight that Still's ungainly palette knifing brought him to the verge, but only the verge, of semischooled or “buckeye” painting, that is, kitsch. But Greenberg quickly pulled Still back onto the high-formalist plain: “Still's service was to show us how the contours of a shape could be made less conspicuous, and therefore less dangerous to the ‘integrity’ of the flat surface, by narrowing the value contrast its color made with that of the shapes or areas adjacent to it.”

Still's response—“I prefer the innocent reaction of those who might think they see cloud shapes in my paintings to what Clement Greenberg says that he sees in them”—reflects more than just a stubborn lack of savvy.4 The critic had pushed two of the artist's many buttons—his hatred of formalism (“I never wanted 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”) and his hatred of kitsch (once, when asked if he was concerned with communication, he sneered that that was “what the comic strip does”).5

Of course, to be obsessed with your perceived enemies, as Still was, is only to empower them. I suspect that Still's change of style around 1955—his embrace of cooler colors, higher contrast, and independent shapes floated against raw canvas6—was motivated by a desire to give the lie to Greenberg's 1955 observation that “Still, Newman, and Rothko suppress value contrasts and favor warm hues.” Greenberg took what may have been his revenge in 1981, just after Still's death, deciding that “originality does not take care of everything” and that “close-valued darkness in abstract painting, deriving from him, has not come to all that much.”7

But enough about Clem and Clyff (as Greenberg called him). The opposite reading of Still—the idea of his art as, variously, romantic, gothic, and sublime—began in earnest with Mark Rothko's introduction to Still's 1946 solo show at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery. Rothko linked Still to “the small band of Myth Makers who have emerged here during the war”—that is, to Adolph Gottlieb and himself.8 You might think that Still, who is said to have prowled among his poor painting students declaiming Blake's “The Tyger,” would have been happier with this tack. But no: He soon rejected the evocative 1946 titles like “Buried Sun” and “Theopathic Entities” (saying they had been forced on his work) and pointedly declared his commitment to “an unqualified art, not illustrating outworn myths or contemporary alibis.”9 In other words, meaning is ineffable and self-evident or it is not at all.

Quite properly, Still's reaction did not discourage art historians from seeking the sources and meanings of his art. In 1961 Robert Rosenblum first put forth his famous thesis that Still, Rothko, and Newman were but the latest in a long line of Northern European sublime nature painters.10 The thesis worked best for Still, as Rosenblum seemed to acknowledge by dealing with him first and at greatest length. While Still and Newman both wrote of the sublime and its exalted, unbounded affective states, only Still's work consistently delivers the contrast of huge form and tiny detail, the beetling sense of internal scale inherent to this particular Northern tradition.

In 1971 critic Patrick McCaughey opened up Rosenblum's rather conservative idea. He relocated Still to the gothic from the sublime, not (as one might think) because of all the Batman-like silhouettes and vaulting spaces in his work, but because of Still's strenuous attempts to repudiate his precursors, in which McCaughey saw a typically gothic idea of the present as traumatically broken from a fallen past. 11

Still was certainly haunted by art history (he wrote a careful thesis on Cézanne, then denounced him), and also by personal demons. The first painting in the Hirshhorn exhibition, the great Jamais, 1944, from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, features a Picassoid pinhead casting a backward scream, as if pointing us to the traumatic run-up to Still's heroic mode. The nature of the trauma is uncertain, but evidence for it abounds: the frightening images in Still's '30s work, those slit-eyed phallic heads wielding phallic staffs (uncannily resembling Philip Guston's hooded figures of the same era); a photograph showing several such paintings arrayed with their evident source, a grim painting of what is probably Still's father; and a story that Still's father beat him frequently until the son raised an ax in self-defense.12 Like Guston, like Pollock, Still was an Oedipally traumatized invader from the West who never settled comfortably into New York—or into his own skin.

That traumatic past is missing from the tightly focused Hirshhorn exhibition, which begins in 1944 with Still on the threshold of his mature abstraction.13 And yet the visual resonances of Still's angry and absolutist persona—Ad Reinhardt once wrote that Still “should be charged with arson and false alarm” for his incendiary rhetoric14—are hard to miss in his mature paintings, which resemble nothing so much as depth charges tossed into the sea of high-modernist art. Pollock's and Newman's and Rothko's compositions always seem to respect the size and shape of the canvas in good Greenbergian fashion, no matter how big they get; Still's do not. Even his largest works, which combine the huge vertical sweep of a Cinemascope screen with the subliminal vertical blur of individual movie frames streaking by, seem to burst their confines in order to connect with a larger whole. The result, whether sublime or ridiculous, is undeniably megalomaniac in its ambition.

Still was the Unabomber of Abstract Expressionism. “Let no man under-value . . . this work or its power for life: or for death, if it is misused,” he wrote. And: “The figure stands behind all until. . . it explodes across the whole canvas.”15 Though Still made paintings, not bombs, one almost feels it could have gone the other way.

The Unabomber's thirst for publicity proved to be his undoing; Still's hatred of publicity may turn out to be his. Will the colossal gamble of Still's restrictive testament pay off, or will he be hoisted by his own petard?16 This is a question that has dogged us for twenty years. If the estate molders in perpetuity, or if its contents, finally released, t&n out to be damaged beyond repair, it will be a tragic joke worthy of Urizen, the calculating and constipated god of reason Blake's mythology, a cosmic blast of gas let loose by Still's ghost on the art world. That may be what we deserve (or so Still seems to have thought), but let's hope we get something better.

My guess is that the estate will eventually find a home, and as the drama and mystery surrounding Still dissipates, he will settle more or less easily into the AbEx canon. For all the bombast of his art and rhetoric, for all his claims of priority, the fact is that Still's move from neo-Surrealism to large-scale abstraction in the mid-'40s, his invention of a unique mode of paint application, and his development of a compelling signature are typical of the artists from whom he sought to distance himself. But such judgments await the unveiling. In the meantime, exhibitions like the Hirshhorn's should keep Still burning, more or less bright.

Harry Cooper is associate curator of modern art at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums.


1. Judging from the handful of gouaches included in his 1969 Marlborough show, Still's works on paper (like Franz Kline's) sometimes served as important models for his paintings.

2. One unintended result, judging from the exhibition list, seems to be that the show overemphasizes the red-brown-yellow range of Still's colors—but that remains to be seen.

3. Clement Greenberg, “ ‘American-Type’ Painting,” Partisan Review (Spring 1955). Walter D. Bannard picked up the formalist banner in “Touch and Scale: Cubism, Pollock, Newman and Still,” Artforum (June 1971). For another formalist treatment see Alwynne Mackie, Art/Talk: Theory and Practice in Abstract Expressionism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).

4. Thomas Albright, “A Conversation with Clyfford Still,” Art News (March 1976).

5. Still, quoted in Katharine Kuh, “Foreword,” Clyfford Still, exh. cat. (Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, 1966); Still, in conversation with Edgar Berman, Jan. 1958, in Still, “Notes and Letters,” Clyfford Still, exh. cat. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979).

6. Any assertion of a change in Still's work needs to be checked on that great day when we are able actually to study his whole oeuvre like real art historians, but even then Still's reported habit of reworking paintings without redating them will wreak havoc on the research.

7. Greenberg, “Clyfford Still,” Arts Magazine (Oct. 1980).

8. Rothko, introduction to Clyfford Still, exh. cat. (New York: Art of This Century Gallery, 1946).

9. Still, letter to Dorothy Miller, 1952, excerpted in 15 Americans, exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modem Art, 1952). Still later reported: “I protested to Rothko about this device [of relating Still's work to myth] so effectively, in fact, that he later dropped it in relation to his own work as misleading and irrelevant.” (Still, “Notes & Letters,” Met 1979). On Still's turnaround regarding titles, see the Still entry in Angelica Z. Rudenstine, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice (New York: Abrams, 1985).

10. Robert Rosenblum, “The Abstract Sublime,” Art News (Feb. 1961). The argument is developed further in his Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (New York: Harper &Row, 1975).

11. Patrick McCaughey, “Clyfford Still and the Gothic Imagination,” Artforum (Apr. 1970).

12. For the photograph, see Stephen Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 94; for the story, see Susan Landauer, The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism (University of California Press, 1996), p. 224.

13. However, important new light is shed on Still's early work by the lead essay in the Hirshhorn catalogue, by David Anfam, whose 1984 dissertation on Still makes him the world's leading expert on the artist (as well as a certified masochist). See also the relevant chapter in John Gelding's wonderfully observant Paths to the Absolute (Princeton University Press, 2000).

14. Ad Reinhardt, “The Artist in Search of a Code of Ethics,” Partisan Review 42 (1975). For the argument that Still's personality is an inextricable part of his art, see Nancy Marme, “Clifford Still: The Extremist Factor,” Art in America (Apr. 1980).

15. Still, letter to Gordon Smith, Jan. 1, 1959, reproduced in Paintings by Clyfford Still, exh. cat. (Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, 1959); Still quoted by Thomas Albright, ''The Painted Flame," Horizon (Nov. 1979).

16. On the Still estate see Ben Heller, “Art, Money & Law: Notes on the Clyfford Still Estate,” Art in America (Dec. 1990); Andrew Decker, “Will the Clyfford Still Estate Find a Home?” Art News (Feb. 1986); and Decker, “Still Waiting and Waiting and. . .,” Art News (Feb. 1995).