New York

Clyfford Still

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

Of the 3,000 or so works that Clyfford Still created in his lifetime, his estate still retains all but 150. Still specified that the remaining works could only be given en masse to a single city, and he placed stringent conditions on how they were to be treated thereafter. Since the estate does not make loans, and the few pieces in private hands are closely guarded, the opportunity to see a dozen or so works by this artist in a single room is a rare event Ben Heller’s essay for the catalogue accompanying this exhibition is, for the most part, an account of how difficult it was to stage.

Abstract Expressionism encouraged more than its share of chest thumping, but few of its practitioners pounded more vehemently than Still. Curators, museum personnel, critics, and other artists were all victims of his almost comically abusive invective: a list of past luminaries Still reviled as frauds included Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Søren Kierkegaard, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and, for some reason, Albert Einstein. Though Still’s relentless hubris is an occasion for bemusement, it does make it difficult to see his paintings and to judge them for oneself. What’s worse, an artist who can say with a straight face, “Let no man under-value the implications of this work or its power for life—or for death, if it is misused,” runs the risk of overwhelming the viewers with bombast.

That’s unfortunate, for while Still was not as good a painter as he believed himself to be—no one has ever been that good—he was, nonetheless, superb. The canvases displayed here reveal a wonderfully rich and sensitive palette and a capacity for combining luminous hues and tones as subtle as Mark Rothko’s; in fact, the best of the paintings seem to emit light.

Still was not so much a pure abstractionist as a painter of the natural sublime, and the works suggest a range of mood that calls to mind the variety of landscapes, from prairie to mountain range to night sky, that Still experienced in the West. He was not really an expressionist either; unlike, say, the works of Jackson Pollock, whose painterly variations seem to register the inner fluctuations of his temperament, Still’s paintings appear to represent something wholly outside of him, a natural force that impresses its form upon him. So the fields of paint are interrupted by ragged islands, slits, and gashes; forms float by like patches of foam in the ocean, or fall in sheets from the top of the picture plane, and the paint extends from one side of the canvas to the other, as if the frame couldn’t contain the whole of what he wanted to capture (whether or not Still invented this last is one of the great priority disputes of the art world).

It is a sign of our distance from the spirit in which these works were made that it is hard to believe that anyone ever thought painting could save the world or destroy it. Perhaps that arrogance was necessary to get the works made at all; yet they remain, for us, mere paintings, extraordinarily beautiful, but neither the beginning nor end of art. If that was not enough for Still, it should nonetheless suffice for us.

James Lewis