San Francisco

Clyfford Still

Though his work shares indisputably in the glory that attaches to first-generation Abstract Expressionism, Clyfford Still himself has preferred to hug the provincial periphery, a Blakean moralist for whom the marketplace is, it seems, soiled by the old-fashioned stench of human corruption: “. . . the public domain,” he once wrote in a piece for this magazine, “is, and has always been, not a well to drink from, but a cesspool of insidious and poisonous matter.”

For Still the art world is an “arrogant farce,” and his own adversarial strategy has been to withhold quantities of his major paintings from the market, instead discovering public institutions—the Albright-Knox Gallery in 1964 and now the SFMoMA—willing, and able, to receive large gifts of his works. Acceptance of the artist’s impressive donations is, however, an important step, raising complicated issues of museum policy and not without thorny practical problems. At SFMoMA, for example, the agreement with Still that “some of the paintings will always be on display” and that “they will not be hung with the work of other artists” necessitated the construction of special revolving walls in the museum’s T. B. Walker Gallery. Director Henry Hopkins, whose negotiation correspondence with Still forms an interesting portion of the exhibition catalogue, in fact feels compelled to offer a brief for the value of such “in-depth” collections, as well as hortatory comments urging other institutions and artists to follow suit. Of course, the advantages to scholars of art are numerous and obvious, but the Hopkins-Still argument might appear less than convincing to an artist concerned with immediate economic survival rather than posterity. And why doesn’t SFMoMA urge patrons or the government to splurge on “in-depth” collections instead of expecting the artist to make the sacrifice?

Viewed (without catalogue) by a painting-lover, the exhibition in itself is a quickening experience. Filling three galleries of the museum with their magisterial grandeur, the 28 works of the donation—most of them very large, many enormous—span the period from 1934 to 1974. The exhibition is further augmented by the two Still paintings previously owned by SFMoMA and three additional works loaned by the artist for the occasion. Only superlatives can describe the initial effect of the exhibition—the high-altitude exhilaration provoked by all that brilliant color and tamped dionysian energy, the concerted power of the epic reaches of Still’s theatrical distances, the unnerving declivities of his chinks and crevasses. To the known blue-bleak embers of his ascending darks, his infernal walls of red, his outrageous flares of yellow, this exhibition adds unfamiliar and previously unexhibited stretches of pale pacific blue and rich dollops of white cream on raw canvas. Everywhere there is Still’s haggard, raw-edged imagery, with its cheeky contours pushed beyond timidity into some form of arrogant pride, but here pressed into more varied guises and moods than one imagined possible. The exhibition draws special attention to Still’s use, both early and late, of a more spontaneous, open-aired look than one remembers, to the presence of forms that float freely (if arbitrarily) in the ether of bare canvas. One also notes his very early use of vertical dividing lines, and, shortly thereafter, of the type of bars one associates with Newman. But most surprising, perhaps, is the culminating drama of the recent work, represented by four outsize and volatile paintings from the ’70s, in which Still’s ragged energy catches a new grace and now mimics a form of spurting calligraphy.

One reads with interest that the motives informing Still’s choices for this particular gift are, according to the catalogue, “educational”—an attempt to counteract the effects of “shoddy criticism” (perhaps the same motive reduced the catalogue bibliography to a remarkably short list); the artist wished especially to disabuse those who believe that he “painted ‘thick’ early and ‘thin’ later—while, in fact, the two methods alternate hack and forth through his whole painting history.” Furthermore, unlike some of his critics, Still regards his development as nonlinear, a forward motion requiring constant backward glances to his own past for “sustenance,” an interpretation of his career that the installation labors to confirm. For example, a visitor in the middle of the Walker Gallery cannot overlook a striking view of the far wall of the adjoining room, where the most recent of Still’s exhibited works—a huge, primarily black and white painting of which the central image is a thickly clustered mass of leaping, flamelike thrusts—is hung. Flanking the doorway to that room, and appearing (no doubt intentionally) to frame the 1974 canvas, are two related 1947 works, the flickering brushstroke of one in particular, also executed in black and white, clearly adumbrating the distant prospect. Still’s other point, the breadth of effects he can achieve within any given moment, is italicized by two diametrically opposed canvases from 1974 executed within the short period of two months. Both paintings employ the same breed of tufty, flame-shaped imagery. Once, however, it appears as a cheerful, feathered form, a syncopated froth of yellow and sienna on an airy ground; then, in a densely filled painting hung immediately proximate, it reappears—now as a powerful basso profundo figure in black, an image capable of tearing gaunt holes in a resonant field of deep purple.

When the paintings are viewed in conjunction with the catalogue notes, the tendentious undercurrents of this show emerge. The exhibition is then found to be laced with unsuspected polemics, bristling with implied claims and rejected critical interpretations, buzzing with the indistinct noise of long-past agons, reeking, finally, with the sulphurous smell of advantages (imaginary or real) won and lost on the “gas-chamber white walls” of the galleries Still now despises. The note, for instance, to an almost all-black 1951 canvas in the donation discloses that the painting, tainted in an unspecified way during its exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery, was subsequently repainted by the artist as an “expression of reclamation after what he felt to be its violation by its public exposure.” Many paintings are documented in the already familiar Still manner, that is, not only with the dates and places of their public exhibitions, but also with notes on private viewings by “artists” and/or “friends”—as if the fact of such a display might notarize the date of execution, or establish the position of the painting in some ideal hierarchy of achievements, or, more simply, as a pugnacious entry in the self-regarding battle of who influenced whom and when.

In a Map of Misreading, Harold Bloom writes appositely about the “guilt of belatedness” that characterizes our culture. Still appears to be a victim of such racetrack thinking. Perhaps it is utopian to expect disinterest, but one would prefer one’s major artists to keep their eyes off the tote board.

––Nancy Marmer