New York

Clyfford Still

Marlborough | Midtown

The present exhibition of Clyfford Still’s paintings covers the years 1943 to 1966. It is a magnificent survey. The paintings are, with rare exception, very strong, complete and profound. This said, and it is after all the only thing really worth saying, there are tiny curious issues which crop up throughout the exhibition and which creep into the catalog. Thus questions like, “Why is Still showing at a commercial gallery after all these years?” or “Why is there no catalog essay?” and even more miniscule speculations about details of the catalog and presentation are almost forced upon one as a consequence of Mr. Still’s unique relations with the art world at large.

It is evident now that in the early 1950s a small group of figures, nominally attached to the Abstract Expressionist group, were producing a kind of large painting which emphasized issues not immediately central to the gestural and automatic imagery by which that school is most immediately recalled. In fact, in the case of Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt and Clyfford Still, the issues, in formal terms, were centered upon the creation of what would come to be called a field. These artists were brought to this extreme option by a committed mysticism and visionary propensity, obviously one which varied in intensity from figure to figure. As the years passed it became clearer that, of these artists, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still remained most single-mindedly committed to this mystical germ. In a famous and eloquent catalog statement—famous because of his celebrated taciturnity and quasi-paranoid punctiliousness—Clyfford Still outlined in a long letter (to Gordon Smith) all the things he had to reject in order to achieve the disencumbered purity of vision necessary to his painting. “Hegel, Kierkegaard, Cézanne, Freud, Picasso, Kandinsky, Plato, Marx, Aquinas, Spengler, Einstein, Bell, Croce, Monet—the list grows monotonous. . . . 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 achieved, and an idea be revealed with clarity.” The question everyone now ponders, however, is, in divesting himself of all corrupting idealistic and materialistic doctrines, how is it that Clyfford Still is at present being represented by Marlborough-Gerson, the ultimate gallery in terms of enterprising, worldly-wise, internationally successful private dealing?

The rich catalog, in which each of the 45 works exhibited is reproduced in color, has carefully not been preceded by any commentary, as if the artist may feel that anything ever said, by himself or by his commentators, is somehow not only ultimately corrupting or inessential but, worse still, may possibly be used as testimony against the intentions of the artist. Instead, the catalog is preceded by a chronology which includes intemperate remarks like “1948–1950: Initiates and directs advanced painting group, by which School [California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco] becomes especially known throughout the world.” The illustrations are accompanied by notes of purposeful antisepsis. All the works, with the exception of two or three, are described as having been “shown privately” at Still’s New York City, Westminster, Maryland or San Francisco studios. The effect of such a covering remark is to underscore the notion that, even though Clyfford Still may only have had a few one-man exhibitions in New York during the advent of field painting, his work was not only known to his colleagues but influential as well. There is no doubt that his paintings were influential, though the action in this case must also have been reciprocal. It is reciprocity which the catalog appears to want to obviate.

This lyrical note, one struck more often on the West Coast than in the East (owing to its stronger affinity for Orientalizing elements), was unanticipated—but no more so than the apparently quickly painted works laid down with a bravura palette knife. These deft, possibly flamboyant, certainly exuberant canvases begin to appear in the late ’50s and continue into the next decade. Among the spectacular works of this kind are the 1959 canvas (#32 in the catalog) of two blotched fields, a smaller yellow one and a larger orange one, connected by a thin creased black line and #40 in the catalog, from 1964, in which brownish, flame-like strokes affirm a large canvas ground. A tiny blue punctuation and a long vertical red line across the face of the canvas vivifies a work which otherwise would threaten to founder on petty figure-ground interplays. But the high tone exuded by the canvases are best sustained by resonating, deeply somber, slowly built-up works which reject visual incident. Still is never more imposing and austere than when he handles broad reaches of blue, purplish and reddish brown of bleak aspect, when the pictorial incidence moves off toward the margins and when simple, frontal and hieratic divisions take precedence. The works of the early ’50s, particularly, meet the requirements of this strict protocol perhaps more than any other.

The exhibition does not cover the painting of 1966 to the present, painting about which one is naturally curious. But, in the more recent paintings, I could detect no slackening nor enfeeblement, nor any sign of a lowering of standards. A canvas like the untitled work of 1964, with its large, soft blue sprawl at the lower right-hand quarter is not weak, despite its lovely and reticent color.

Apart from the extrinsic anxieties on Still’s part, as may be evinced by the catalog and chronology, the exhibition was magnificent. Perhaps less audacious though more sensuously appealing than Newman, as his painting still deals with internal scale comparisons—a feature noted early by Clement Greenberg—and apart from an occasionally too-pat tri-partite division of the canvas—a derivation from Monet’s Water Lilies despite Still’s explicit denials—the paintings are, beyond any fringe carping and quibbling, the works of a supreme American master.

Robert Pincus-Witten