New York

Clyfford Still

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind there is a character who’s a bit luny. After an “encounter” with a U.F.O., he begins to lose track of the things of this world. In his distraction he antagonizes the people he works for so much that they fire him. He doesn’t care. He is ready to sever relations with anyone who won’t follow where his visions lead. Those visions are of a shape which he cannot quite make out at first. He sees it everywhere—in squiggles of shaving cream, in the folds of a pillow, in the windmills of his mind. One morning when he is trapped between the phone call saying he’s been fired and his wife’s insistence that he pull himself together, he just signs off. The sound of those voices from the world fades as he turns back to his vision. At last it takes over his life completely, driving his family from the house as he tries to give the vision form with bricks and dirt in the living room. He’s a pretty strange fellow, and his story could almost be a parody of the life of CLYFFORD STILL.

The difference is that in the movie the mystery of that shape has a trivial solution. (It turns out to be some hillock in Wyoming to which the extraterrestrials are beckoning everyone.) In Clyfford Still’s life the mystery has no solution. That is its significance. In the retrospective of Still’s painting which was at the Met from November 16, 1979 until February 3rd, 1980, the one or two shapes with which his painting is obsessed were apparent in the earliest work, Oil on canvas 1942 (cat. # 1). Their form in that painting is embryonic, and never again would they have quite so rudimentary and definite a rendering. But the shapes seen there abide. They become his life’s work, particularly the rather sculptural, trapezoidal shape which dominates that first painting. In subsequent canvases it is dissolved, compressed, obscured, melted, expanded, distended, collapsed, regenerated and infinitely transformed. But it is never obliterated. In Still’s pursuit of this shape, there is an inexhaustible ambiguity. The effort is not to resolve and clarify the shape but to resist clarification—to keep the shape inchoate, workable, potential.

At times startling alternatives do seem to appear, as in the 1950 canvas (cat. #15) which is dominated by two wriggling circular forms. Although these also have their antecedents in the 1942 painting, we feel as if we have suddenly been catapulted from somewhere deep inside the earth to somewhere far out in the void. A geological space has given way to a galactic one. The same black color that was unbearably dense before is now unbearably empty. Yet Still’s vision soon absorbs this new form of energy so that the singular, continuous development of his style stays intact. His vision is, like the universe, an uninterrupted process of expansion. And like the formation of the universe itself, his vision is all-encompassing, all-consuming. In order to maintain it he has sacrificed friendships, refused opportunities to exhibit his work and rejected success. Even today at his home in rural Maryland, Katharine Kuh reports in her essay for the Met catalogue, “The paintings come first, almost to the exclusion of creature comforts; they have virtually taken over the house where the artist and his wife adapt themselves to an ever-expanding cache of heroic canvases.” Apparently Still’s wife is more understanding than the wife of that fellow in Close Encounters.

In the same catalogue Still has provided two different commentaries on his own career. Information aside, these are fascinating just for their tone. But in the catalogue’s first sentence, which was written by Met director Philippe de Montebello, there is an unassuming observation which suggests the futility of any text here. The observation is that Still’s paintings “have created striking paradoxes in the history of modern American art.” Paradox is so much the essence of Still’s paintings that it splashes over into his life, and it makes a satisfactory description of his canvases almost impossible. De Montebello himself demonstrates this two sentences later when he says that “the free and startling forms” in Still’s painting “owe nothing to the regularity or limitations of the canvas.” Though we can see what de Montebello means, it is equally true to say that Still’s forms owe everything to the regularity of the canvas. Frequently the most powerful form in the painting is a fleck of bright color placed right on the canvas edge. Its placement there implies continuation of Still’s vision beyond where any canvas could reach. Being on the edge permits the small area of color to hold its own against the vastness of the painting. That Still should both rely upon and exceed the limits of the canvas is typical of his capacity for “paradox.” Having chosen the word, de Montebello should have kept it in mind as he turned to the paintings themselves.

Ms. Kuh gets into similar trouble when she tries to describe Still’s paintings. In discussing Still’s most recent work, for instance, she speaks of the way “frequent high-keyed opaque curtains of color pierce limitless voids.” What does that mean? How can a curtain pierce something? Yet when you look at the paintings, the statement seems surprisingly accurate. The difficulty is that art so rich in paradox is baffling to talk about. The more we elaborate on it, the more it turns what we say into gibberish. In one regard the attitude these paintings have toward the viewer is defiant. Part of their intention is to protect Still from misconstruction or casual acceptance. Their knack of refusing to be translated into words, of rendering language useless, is one of their defenses. Even as we look at them admiringly, they keep us at a respectful distance. They are paintings without a message, but with a stern admonition: “Be Still.”

I don’t mean to pick on Ms. Kuh or Mr. de Montebello as if their discussions fail where I thought I could succeed. My point is that all discussion of Still’s work must sooner or later admit defeat. Like one of those flecks of color intruding on the canvas from the edge, words remain outside the perimeter of Still’s career. They are consigned to Still’s public personality. By dealing with it one hopes to get at the painting eventually. In a way everyone in the audience for modern art is grateful for Still’s personality. His cantankerousness validates his work. It may be comforting to have had a respected critic like Clement Greenberg tell us that Still is a great painter, or to have had an eminent scholar like Meyer Schapiro tell us that there are connections between Abstract Expressionism and the great painting of the past. But deep down inside, it’s hard not to feel insecure with painting as radical as Still’s. Its privatism makes esthetic standards seem doubtful, and in their absence—or rather, in our fear that they are absent—it is reassuring for the artist to show that at least he has some ethical standards.

Still has repeatedly refused to be in group shows which, however great an honor they might be, took an art historical view he disapproved. In the early 1960s when the New York painters had come into their own and the market was beginning to boom, Still pointedly left the city for rural Maryland, where he has lived in relative seclusion ever since. As a rule he has refused to deal with dealers or to sell his paintings except when he could set the conditions. (Of the 79 paintings in the Met retrospective, 78 were lent by Still himself, 63 of them never having been exhibited before. The 79th painting was one that the Met was allowed to buy last year.) Nor has Still’s code bent much as ever more tempting offers have been made by institutions and collectors. Only a year or so ago he refused to be in the Pittsburgh International Series and to accept the Andrew W. Mellon Prize, which would have awarded him $25,000 just for being Clyfford Still.

If we are nervous about the absolute liberty which Still demands in his painting, the absolute discipline he exercises in conducting his affairs calms our nerves. His severity earns for the paintings their right to felicity. His personal life somehow corroborates his art. Because his life and art do get mixed up this way, however, the life begins to take on some of the properties of paradox that the painting has. Still’s behavior gives us contradictory impressions of him sometimes. His abrasiveness is not above suspicion, especially when he relaxes it and lets the Met give him a show. His hostility begins to smack of ambivalence, like Caesar’s refusals of the crown.

Picasso once said that the ultimate work of modern art would be a surface covered with razor blades. That’s the sort of surface Still himself has been. He is the very type of the modern artist—taciturn, angry, alienated, solipsistic. Just as his painting strives to express something universal, so does his personality seem ambitious for completeness. He carries to an extreme all the classic attitudes of the artist in our century. He perfects and purifies them. The paradox is, of course, that in so doing he makes himself the ideal modern artist for the Met. A Still retrospective allows the Met to sum up much recent history in a single, one-man show, without having had to risk the museum’s own reputation to make any of that history. Still knows this. One suspects that it is a fate for which he has prepared himself, carefully.

One of the visible paradoxes of Still’s work is that when you first see the canvases from a distance, the painting looks as if it is an act of sheer inspiration, a spontaneous gesture. But when you come nearer you see that the brush work is often close, particular, and more laborious than you supposed. The sculptor Richard Freeburg, who happened to be at Still’s show one of the times that I was there, referred to the pictures as “forged mud.” That’s not bad, an apt compliment paid by one sculptor to another. What at first looks instantaneous in Still’s painting turns out to be the product of struggle. An illusion of impulse gives way to an admission of having been methodical. In the end we see that the canvases contain not a revelation but a strategy. And Still’s public life has a similarly ambiguous air about it.

In his moves around the country from San Francisco to New York to rural Maryland, with stopovers in Alberta, Canada, Easthampton and elsewhere, Still has often been in flight from unwanted attention and success. But he has been avoiding being typed as a regional painter, too. Since he’s from North Dakota and his work first received recognition in California, he has perhaps been especially concerned not to be thought of as a Westerner. That might allow some facile comparisons of his imagery to moonrises over buttes—the sort of comparisons which would, by insinuating that the images are vaguely figurative, rob Still’s language of its universality. It’s bad enough that he has had to endure imitation by schlock landscapists to whom his imagery appeals because a knock-off of it can be done fast.

The few exhibitions of his work which have had Still’s own participation might also be seen as points on a graph. They plot a curve whose apogee is the Met retrospective. The two major exhibitions were at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1966 and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1976, each show occasioned by a gift of about 30 paintings from Still himself. In a sense these shows were larger than the institutions which hosted them. Both shows were sure to stimulate rather than preempt interest at the Met. A singular distinction of the San Francisco show was that afterwards the paintings in it were installed permanently in a gallery all their own. This imparts a certain status to Still’s work. One thinks of Monet’s water lilies, the Parthenon friezes, the Temple of Dendur.

According to de Montebello, Still turned over to him and his staff the entire responsibility for installing the retrospective at the Met. After all the rancor Still has shown for the official art world over the years, this faith in de Montebello may seem surprising. Or maybe not. Again the implication is that the recognition the Met offers is what Still has been holding out for all along. When I asked de Montebello whether he didn’t find Still’s faith in him surprising, he said, “Why, no, Still trusted us. After all, we’re the Met,” as if his relationship with Still were the most natural thing in the world. In all fairness to de Montebello, the installation that he did with the help of the Met’s editor-in-chief John P. O’Neill and Lucian Leone from the Design Department did justice to Still’s work. While following an approximate chronology, the installation orchestrated Still’s development. Particularly in the early part of the show, where the canvases were small enough that three or four could be taken in from one standpoint, the groupings de Montebello made seemed always suggestive and revealing. In some cases (as with cat. # 15, mentioned above), a canvas was even displaced in the chronology in order to give greater impact to the introduction of a new motif in Still’s work.

Though Still played only an advisory role—his main contribution was suggesting that the wall behind a final, enormous, yellow canvas (cat. # 63) be painted black—I imagine a lot of viewers mistook the Met installation for Still’s own work. This was partly because the installation seemed so right, but also because we tend to read the intentions of art into all aspects of a career like Still’s. With the Abstract Expressionists in general, painting has tended to become a performance of which the finished canvas is only a trace, a residue. Pollock’s work is the classic example. The viewer feels compelled to assume that the meaning of such obscure painting must lie somewhere beyond the work itself—in the totality of all the artist’s works, in his life or personality, which is taken to be the ultimate work of art he is creating. In this atmosphere it is understandable that, at the Still retrospective, gestures like the black wall or the mysteriously low lighting of the early canvases should have begun to take on the significance of an iconography. In truth each was just an expediency. (The black wall was to set off a canvas that was too light otherwise. The low lighting was to cut down on reflection.) But it was tempting to see the show itself as Still’s final work of art.

In the last analysis, I don’t think Still has wanted to become the sort of legendary figure of the artist who is prone to such accidents and exaggerations. His aim has not been to make his life and everything in it a work of art but to make his art his life. In this regard Still’s ambitions have been more serious and, for once, more modest than those many of his peers pursued. De Montebello’s service to Still was to respect the fierce concentration and exclusivity of his vision. I take the care with which the show was mounted as a genuine homage to Still, an attempt to immerse the viewer in Still’s career in such a way that he would let go of the outside world for a few minutes and live for the paintings alone as Still has. This is a great effort to ask of even the most dedicated museum-goer. By the time you came to Still’s work of the 1960s and 1970s, it was hard to resist fatigue and keep going. Still’s work always invites analogy to musical forms, and perhaps there is a lesson in the aptness of such comparisons. We wouldn’t try to get through the complete life’s work of some difficult composer at a single sitting, nor should we have tried to take in the whole of the Still retrospective in one visit to the galleries. It couldn’t be done.

Those late canvases didn’t deserve to be looked at with a tired eye. In them are extraordinary moments when Still’s originality has been renewed and is as powerful as it ever was before. There are moments of almost airless austerity, when you feel as if Still must have been in danger of choking on his own self-discipline. Then there are moments of explosion and rage. And there are moments when Still’s characteristically pure colors turn suddenly dirty and scrubby with struggle. There is a grappling with life that a young man can hide from the world but that becomes obvious, physically, in old age. At times in Still’s recent canvases you feel as if you are looking into the very eye of this hurricane. There, for a moment, you glimpse Still himself as the lion in winter he is. You see him as a figure in old age comparable to the poet Yeats, who wrote for his own epitaph, “Cast a cold eye/On life, on death./Horseman, pass by!”

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.