"Still makes the rest of us look academic" - Jackson Pollock
1947-R-No. 1 is a masterful Clyfford Still painting from a prime period in the artist's production, and one whose history is entwined with Alfonso Ossorio, one of the most influential collectors and patrons of Abstract Expressionism. The painting was acquired by Ossorio in the 1950's and remained in his collection until it was de-accessioned in 1971, when it was sold to the family of the present owner. Still and Ossorio's friendship was short-lived but intense, lasting only five years and ending in dramatic fashion.
Ossorio visited Still's studio in 1952, which was then on Cooper Square in New York City. "Ossorio bought three dark, intense paintings by Still. From then, in early 1952, until the end of 1957 (by which time Ossorio had obtained four more important works), he and Still carried on an extensive correspondence" (B.H. Friedman, Alfonso Ossorio, New York, 1973, p. 57). According to Friedman, Still had the use of a cottage at Ossorio's rambling estate (called "The Creeks") in the summers of 1953 and 1955 (Ibid, p. 58). "The Creeks, Ossorio's East Hampton estate, where Still painted in a barn studio, was an epicenter of artistic activity" (B. Adams, Clyfford Still: Paintings 1944-1960, New Haven, 2001, p. 146). Still's daughters--Diane and Sandra--remember in particular the summer of 1955 (letter from Diane Still Knox, 25 September 2006). Ossorio recounted that Still kept to himself--"I have a small cottage and a barn studio and he used it for two summers in the early 1950s. He lived and worked there for two or three months each summer. He saw very few people other than the Pollocks. But he saw very few artists here in New York. And he worked very hard" (Interview with Ossorio, 19 November 1968).
Ossorio was an important artist in his own right. Born into a wealthy Philippino family, he studied art at Harvard and the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1930's and became an American citizen in 1939. His exhibitions in New York in the 1940's were intensely detailed surrealist-influenced work, but after meeting Pollock, Krasner and Dubuffet in 1949, his work became increasingly abstract and more expressive.
Ossorio was also involved in curating and writing on art, and played an important role in the landmark Museum of Modern Art exhibition, 15 Americans. Ossorio not only wrote the catalogue entry on Pollock, but also loaned paintings by Pollock and Still to the exhibition. The show was controversial at the time, and Ossorio himself noted that "certainly a lot of Trustees hated the Fifteen Americans show - you remember, the one with Rothko, Still, Tomlin. That was the first breakthrough; the one show which is really historical of the many Dorothy [Miller] has done over forty years" (Ossorio, 1968).
Still hated the art establishment, including museums, and he particularly loathed group exhibitions. He acquiesced to contribute to the show after incessant pursuit by Dorothy Miller, and the promise that his works would be shown in their own room. The present lot 1947-R-No. 1 (in its unfinished state) was one of seven Still paintings included in the exhibition. Despite Still's reservations, he recognized the ultimate importance of museums--"He knew himself well enough to realize the heartache it could cause him if he felt he was being part of it, although if you questioned him, he would finally admit that the institution has to win in the end, that you can't fight it forever. But he said that you can make a damn good try" (Ibid).
Still also disliked anyone writing about or attempting to explaining his work, and he used the artist's statement in the 15 Americans catalogue to make his position clear.
"That pigment on canvas has a way of initiating conventional reactions for most people needs no reminder. Behind these reactions is a body of history matured into dogma, authority, tradition. The totalitarian hegemony of this tradition I despise, its presumptions I reject. Its security is an illusion, banal, and without courage. Its substance is but dust and filing cabinets. The homage paid to it is a celebration of death. We all bear the burden of tradition on our backs but I cannot hold it a privilege to be a pallbearer of my spirit in its name...Demands for communication are both presumptuous and irrelevant. The observer usually will see what his fears and hopes and learning teach him to see. But if he can escape these demands that hold up a mirror to h himself, then perhaps some of the implications of the work maybe e felt. But whatever is seen or felt it should be remembers that for me these painting had to be something else. It is the price one has to pay for clarity when one's means are honored only as an instrument of seduction of assault" (C. Still, 15 Americans, New York, 1952, p. 22).
The present lot was completed by Still at some point after the 1952 exhibition of 15 Americans. Since Still's relationship with Ossorio lasted between 1952-1957, it is most likely that the painting was completed at this time. During this period, Still would have had access to the painting and a studio as well. Between 1955-1958, events were transpiring that were to preclude Still's access to this painting after 1957.
Still's relationship with Ossorio soured in the mid-1950's. Around 1956, "Ossorio also inevitably becomes an "enemy" (Friedman, p. 58). Their correspondence becomes more formal and at times testy. B.H. Friedman relays the explosive end to their relationship--"The correspondence deteriorates into a conflict of pride, expressed in an exchange of telegrams. On December 27, 1957, Still wires requesting that his large brown, blue and black canvas be rolled and returned to him. Two days later, he follows up the telegram with a letter. At the beginning of 1958, Ossorio wires: "ISSUES SUFFICIENTLY COMPLEX TO DEMAND CLARIFICATION ON ALL LEVELS"...but the awful clarification of what has happened to their relationship does not come for a few more days. Then, with his wife and daughter, Still makes the three-hour trip to East Hampton by train, hires a taxi at the station, and, keeping it waiting at Ossorio's door while he goes inside, slashes out the center of the painting referred to in his telegram and letter and carries it off, rolled, under his arm" (Ibid).
In the 1970's, Ossorio began selling works from his incomparable collection. Thomas Gibson in London mounted a show of 14 masterpieces, including de Kooning's Two Women on a Wharf (1949), Dubuffet's Corps de Dame Concentration Fluidique (1951), Pollock's Number I (Lavender Mist), as well as major paintings by Clyfford Still. Ossorio wrote for the catalogue, "as with all of Still's work, the inner spirit of his painting reveals itself to an observer who will take the trouble to examine without prejudice or preconception what is before him" (Fourteen Paintings, London, 1976, n.p.). In 1971, Robert Elkon Gallery sold 1947-R-No. 1 to a young New York couple, and the painting has remained in their family collection for the last 35 years.
Unlike his Abstract Expressionist peers, Still would often make more than one version, and this composition exists in two larger scale versions. Although each is slightly different, they retain the basic compositional format, forms and palette. 1947-R-No. 1 is more thickly painted, and less aqueous in feeling than the 1947-R No. 2. Curiously, in this regard, Still's practice is more closely related to his Pop Art peers who created similar versions of works than his Abstract Expressionist colleagues, to whom repetition was considered anathema. Unlike Pop artists, however, who were interested in serial imagery to mimic and mock consumerism, Still's additional versions, or "re-statements" were a vehicle to work out different painterly ideas.
1947-R-No. 1 features majestic expanses of color, crackling with turbulent flashes of energy, exemplifying the artist's "life or death" drama through painterly abstraction. Encrusted layers of red over brown, interspersed with flickering flames of black pigment and flashes or orange and white, 1947-R-No. 1 seems pregnant with the idea of corporal existence springing from and returning to the earth.
The forthcoming Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, which may open as early as 2009, will be a watershed event in the appreciation of the artist. For the first time, viewers will be able to see the scope and breadth of his achievement. The artist's archives, which are currently sealed, will eventually be released and provide valuable documents to help scholars understand the historical period during which he lived. Nonetheless, what will not change is the total number of works that Still sold without restriction, which is believed to be approximately 150. For collectors seeking a seminal Still, the offering of 1947-R-No. 1 is a rare event--it is historically important, of the highest quality, from an impeccable provenance, with an illustrious exhibition history and completely fresh to the market after 35 years.