Ken Carpenter considers three areas of the ongoing re-evaluation of the work of Clyfford Still: Still's relation to art history, which period of Still's work represents the pinnacle of his achievement, and new insights into the creative sources that underpin Still's oeuvre.
Carpenter weighs in on this last question, noting that "The Clyfford Still Museum website observes that apparently Still’s 'father once… tied a rope around Clyfford’s ankles and lowered him headfirst into a newly built well to assess its status.' Still referred to that rope as his lifeline. Still also told San Francisco Museum of Modern Art director Henry Hopkins that his father would occasionally 'drop him down a well as a sort of punishment.' In my view Still’s experiences with his father’s well, as dark and frightening as they must have been, are a valuable clue for understanding the impetus behind Still’s art. The classical theoretical text is by British aesthetician Edward Bullough, who argued that the making of art always involved a cathartic 'detachment' from intensely personal experience. Similar ideas can be found in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Walter Pater, Benedetto Croce, and others. We should not be surprised then, that many of the best Stills can feel closed in, have dark and earthen tones, and are marked by that ubiquitous 'lifeline,' and yet suggest a transcending power and vitality that is lacking in the clearly under-distanced, near-despairing work of the mid-1930s"
"I went back to my own idioms, envisioned, created, and thought through. And the insight and the momentum established altered the character of the whole concept of the practice of painting." - Clyfford Still 1
The Clyfford Still Museum's inaugural exhibition provides new insight into the development of Clyfford Still's groundbreaking abstract paintings. In addition to rarely seen early landscapes and early figure paintings, a gallery of never before seen works on paper reveals the process behind Still's visionary work. Though only a small selection of Still's 1,500 drawings are on view, they reflect a practice of lifelong visual inquiry and show drawing to be an important, perhaps crucial, tool in Still's dramatic evolution from regional artist to icon of the New York School.
Still's transformation from a regional painter of the pacific northwest to a celebrated avant-garde artist has, until now, seemed uncanny. The shocking way Still's paintings fused figure and ground so completely left his 1940s contemporaries (as well as art historians) flummoxed and awe-struck. His 1946 show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery was, in Robert Motherwell's words, "the most original. A bolt out of the blue. Most of us were still working through images... Still had none." 2
Still's works on paper suggest the key to his originality lay in his willingness to explore, test, and reflect upon his vision. Still's drawings contain clues to his initial motivations and to what interested him within his own work. In them, we also see Still as an artist committed to direct observation and investigation. A traditional approach, it seems, provided the starting point for Still's innovation.
Kent Minturn undertakes and in-depth examination of Clyfford Still's thesis on Cézanne and the clues it provides to Still's early and later development as an artist.
Minturn notest that "In his thesis Still eloquently emphasizes Cézanne’s 'tactual' application of paint and takes pains to describe the way his predecessor 'feels' his way around his forms. Cézanne and Still similarly dismantle Albertian perspective by giving equal emphasis to figure and ground... Although Still points out that one of Cezanne’s 'most important contributions to the evolution of modern art' was his ability 'to realize form in color rather than make color look like form,' he does not argue that one of these plastic elements is subordinate to the other. Rather, he situates them on equal footing and demonstrates the extent to which color and form are inextricably intertwined in Cézanne’s praxis."
Looking at Untitled, 1951, a largely monochromatic canvas by Clyfford Still, Chris Rusak finds clues to the contradiction between Clyfford Still's caustic rhetoric and the obvious "joy" he took in his work.
Rusak writes: "when an artist decides to introduce a proportionally diminutive amount of color into an otherwise achromatic composition, the power of each magnifies. Still's proportions of chromatic and achromatic space in Untitled serve to illuminate the canvas as a whole, to intensify the textures that build space and create dynamism, to voice the joy of his gestural process, and ultimately to challenge historical conventions about the interaction between viewer and art." Rusak also compares Still's near-monchrome to the painting Grau, 1976 by Gerhard Richter.
Edited by artist Brett Baker, Painters' Table highlights writing from the painting blogosphere as it is published and serves as a platform for exploring blogs that focus primarily on the subject of painting.