Clyfford Still is a lone and legendary figure in the history of American painting. A pioneer and leader of the New York School, without ever really being a part of it, he was the first of the Abstract Expressionist generation to make paintings on an heroic scale with no discernible subject matter and the author of a unique and epic body of work that ultimately transcends the time and the place in which it was made. Painted in San Francisco in the autumn of 1946, this untitled work, numbered 1946 (PH-182) in accordance with the way in which the artist photographed and catalogued his oeuvre, is a bold and powerful work belonging to the first years of his artistic maturity.
Rooted in the vast scale and space of the American landscape and drawing on the mystical fire of the human spirit, these essentially abstract paintings invoke the primal nature of the art and act of painting as a kind of metaphorical embodiment of human condition. They are "not paintings in the usual sense" Still once boldly claimed of them, "they are life and death merging in fearful union." (C. Still, quoted in Clyfford Still Paintings 1944-60, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C., 2001, p. 17).
Epic in both the scale of their ambition and in the nature and style of their execution, the paintings of Still's maturity (from 1944 onwards) stand beyond any specific time or place and attempt only to assert the vital living nature of what they are. "I never wanted color to be pure color" he said of the these works, "I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit" (C. Still, quoted in Clyfford Still, exh. cat., New York, 1979, p. 11). The purpose of his art was ultimately aimed at nothing less than the uplifting, or even liberation, of man's inner being or soul from the limitations of the modern age. "I want the spectator to be reassured that something he values within himself has been touched and found a kind of correspondence. That being alive...is worth the labor," he said (Clyfford Still Paintings 1944-60, p. 42). Towards this end, Still deliberately avoided any invocation in his work of what he saw as the traumatic era -- riven by war and torn apart by science and technology -- in which he lived. "I'm not interested in illustrating my time" he said. "A man's 'time' limits him, it does not truly liberate him. Our age...is of science -- of mechanism -- of power and death. I see no virtue in adding to its mammoth arrogance the compliment of graphic homage" (ibid).
Primal and elemental, Still's paintings are holistic entities that, using solely abstract form, color and painterly texture, laid on thickly with a palette knife into riveting fiery dancing patterns of seemingly animate matter, invoke a deep and often moving sense of the vertical presence of human life or the human spirit, isolated within a vast and seemingly infinite space. It is in this respect that Still's work anticipates and informs both the "zips" of Barnett Newman and the epic horizontal fields of color later evolved by his friend Mark Rothko.
This painting, 1946 (PH-182), derives from the period immediately after Still's first great solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of this Century Gallery in February 1946 that had marked the first showing of Still's mature style. In the introduction to this exhibition Still's then friend Mark Rothko related Still's new art to the epic and transcendent dimension of "Myth." and explained how Still, "working out West, and alone," had, with "unprecedented forms and completely personal methods," arrived at a completely new way of painting. The simple, seemingly organic forms of Still's painting and its bold expansive fields of space and color made, "the rest of us look academic" Jackson Pollock observed at the time. For Rothko, the new vision offered by Stills apparently completely abstract paintings, not only took the lead amongst this generation of artists, but invoked a fundamental human truth, one that expressed "the tragic-religious drama ... generic to all Myths at all times," and created "new counterparts to replace the old mythological hybrids" which had lost their pertinence in the intervening centuries. "For me," Rothko wrote in his introduction and echoing Still's own later insistence that his paintings "merged" life and death, "Still's pictorial dramas are an extension of the Greek Persephone Myth. As he himself has expressed it, his paintings are, 'of the Earth, the Damned, and of the Recreated.' Every shape becomes an organic entity, inviting the multiplicity of associations inherent in all living things. To me they form a theogony of the most elementary consciousness, hardly aware of itself beyond the will to live -- a profound and moving experience" (M. Rothko, "Introduction to First Exhibition Paintings: Clyfford Still," 1946, reproduced in M. Lspez-Remiro, ed., Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, New Haven, 2006, p. 48).
Rothko's equating of the fused form and content of Still's fiery paintings with the grandiose notion of timeless "Myth" clearly reflects much of his own thinking at this time, but it also draws on a common understanding of the term "Myth" that was shared by almost all the Abstract Expressionist generation. As David Anfam has pointed out, "terms like 'myth,' 'magic,' 'totemism,' 'the primitive,' 'culture/nature' and 'spirit'" epitomized for these painters the cultural philosophy begun by Frazer's Golden Bough or Jesse Weston's From Ritual to Romance, which had in turn informed such epic literary odysseys as Eliot's The Wasteland and Joyce's Ulysses. It was on this same universal and elemental level of experience that this generation of American artists wished to operate, and it was Still's paintings of the mid-1940s that first seemed to open the door to this possibility.
As a work such as 1946 (PH-182) demonstrates, it was the complete and startling interdependence of apparently abstract form, pure color and material texture that Still attained in his new freeform paintings that was primarily responsible for the opening up of the medium to a completely new direction. The jagged, flame-like forms that Still layered onto his canvases with the knife in both their shape and their texture while in no way figurative or illustrative nevertheless still suggest cracks and fissures in an earthy or rock surface in a way that roots his work in an age-old sense of the organic. The space in Still's paintings, as has often been pointed out, also seems to invoke the awesome scale of the American landscape, its tradition in American art, and the Romantics invocation of the sublime. Allied to this, the strong verticality of Still's flame-like forms, two of which, standing like totems or pine trees, dark bolts of lightning or Van Gogh's flaming cypresses at the right hand side of this painting, seem to establish a vital and erect animate presence. As it would be for Barnett Newman, the fierce verticality of these forms invoked for Still a deep sense of the human spirit and the essential vitality of the will to live. They were what he once described as the "categorical imperatives" of his canvases and were also rooted in Still's experience of nature and the landscape. Still had grown up on the prairie in one of the last North American frontiers, in Alberta, Canada, where, he observed, "when there were snowstorms, you either stood up and lived or laid down and died...in such a land a man must stand upright, if he would survive. Even if he is the only upright form in the world about him" (C. Still, quoted in J. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago, 1993, p. 224 and Clifford Still, exh. cat., Buffalo, 1993, p. 14). This vital existential characteristic of uprightness permeates all of Still's vertical forms.
In the late 1930s Still too had spent his summers painting portraits and landscapes depicting the Colville Native American Indian Reservation where he had helped to found the Nespelem Art Colony. Witnessing the Native Americans' ancient and mystical relationship with the land undoubtedly proved another important experience for Still which also helped to steep his art in a sense of landscape and to ground it in Nature. Despite Still's later insistence that "the fact that I grew up on the prairies has nothing to do with my paintings, with what people think they find in them" because ultimately "I paint myself, not nature," Still's own self-image of his art and his life was that of an elemental and solitary journey through the landscape of nature. Indeed, he described the evolution of his mature style of painting in the mid-1940s and the freedom it ultimately gave him, "as a journey that one must make, walking straight and alone. No respite or short-cuts were permitted. And one's will had to hold against every challenge of triumph, or failure, or the praise of Vanity Fair. Until one had crossed the darkened and wasted valleys and come at last into clear air and could stand on a high and limitless plain. Imagination, no longer fettered by the laws of fear, became as one with Vision. And the Act, intrinsic and absolute, was its meaning, and the bearer of its passion" (C. Still, Paintings by Clyfford Still, exh. cat., Buffalo, 1959, n.p.).
For Still, as for many of the Abstract Expressionists, his paintings were a reflection, an expression and a manifestation in ultimate terms of the human condition whereby the manner of execution, the almost ritualized acts of making them were as much a part of the work as any resultant form or iconography. The making of the painting was itself romanticized into an almost mystical journey through the apparent void of existence, a journey that in the end provided and revealed its own meaning. It was in this way that Still could equate his work with timelessness and the elemental, at his best, creating extraordinarily powerful paintings whose non-objective forms seem to speak like archetypes from a distant past and seemingly as much in common with ancient rock art or the cave paintings of Lascaux as with any art produced in the 20th Century.