Clyfford Still (1904-1980)
signed and dated 'Clyfford Still 1955' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
113 x 104 in. (287 x 264 cm.)
Painted in 1955.
Marlborough Gallery. Ltd., London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
"Clyfford Still: An Open Letter to An Art Critic, Artforum, vol. III, no. 6, December 1963, p. 35 (illustrated in color).
Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, Institute of Contemporary Art, Clyfford Still, October-November 1963, no. 20 (illustrated).
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York School, The First Generation: Paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, July-August 1965, p. 228, no. 122 (illustrated).
New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Inc., Clyfford Still, October-November 1969, pp. 56-57, no. 29 (illustrated in color; incorrect orientation).

Lot Essay

1955-K is a rare and acclaimed painting by Clyfford Still, one of the most singular and complex painters of the 20th Century. More than any artist, Still tried to control every aspect of how his work was seen, collected and disseminated--and for the most part, he was amazing successful towards that end.

During the defining years of Still's career--and Abstract Expressionism in general--between 1944-1960, Clyfford Still had only five one-person exhibitions at galleries. Of the over 2,000 works the art the artist produced, he only released about 150 works. He rarely allowed galleries to sell his work, and among other restrictions, rarely participated in group exhibitions. When he did show in group shows, he insisted that this work not be co-mingled with other works, and instead be shown on their own.

Still's fiery rhetoric against galleries and museums is legendary. With the fury of a preacher, Still referred to dealers and their spaces as "characters who ran those sordid 'gift-shoppes'...each gallery impresario performed his or her dutifully promoted role and the men they exploited were each in time brought to heel. It is a tale repeated with only slight variation in nearly every gallery, without honor, or courage, or evidence of shame" (C. Still, as quoted in Clyfford Still, New York, 1979, p. 50).

Even museum curators rarely had much input as to which works were shown. Still himself would choose the works, selecting those representative paintings that he felt best illustrated his oeuvre. As a result, it is notable that 1955-K was chosen for not one, but three exhibitions in the artist's lifetime, including a solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, as well as the landmark exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1965.
In a rare entrepreneurial turn, in 1969 Clyfford Still sold a group of extraordinary paintings on canvas and paper, spanning his entire career to date, to the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York. At the time, Marlborough was the most important Post-War gallery in the world, representing artists (or estates) of virtually every Abstract Expressionist of significance--including Jackson Pollock, David Smith, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, to name just a few. It would be the artist's last one person show at a commercial gallery in his lifetime.

Fortunately, Still did sell some of the most glorious paintings of his career, and one of them is 1955-K. In it's painterly quality, mysterious space and rich color harmonies, Still has created a masterpiece of Abstract Expressionism.
The crag-like shapes and mountain-face forms, combined with a sense of grandeur and awe-inspiring scale put 1955-K squarely in the tradition of the sublime landscape, a reading that he encouraged. "The sublime? A paramount consideration in my studies and work from my earliest student days. In essence it is most elusive of capture or definition--only surely found least in the lives and works of those who babble of it the most" (C. Still, as quoted in Clyfford Still, Philadelphia, 1963, p. 9). Although the space is ambiguous, the forms suggest a mountain side, with the land rising up at the left edge, and a flash of sunlight in the upper left corner. Thickly encrusted with paint, created with the artist's signature use of a palette knife, the surface itself has a topographical quality.

By continually working the surface, laying numerous layers of paint and then scraping them off to show the colors underneath, Still creates a gorgeously rich surface. The edges where the forms meet are always the high points of tension in Still's work, with the jagged forms cutting into one another in a "life or death struggle". He accentuates this drama by letting creating halos and white outlines around the forms--for example, the white halo around the black form at the bottom makes the brown form recede, while bringing forward the black.

Indeed, what truly sets Still apart from his contemporaries and indeed from most artists is his awe-inspiring spatial relationships. "Space in a Still painting is conceived to be infinite in its dimensions, and everything else in the work--every variation of shape and color and texture--serves to reinforce this initial impression of immensity, this sense of a vast, untethered, somewhat unearthly space without fixed boundaries...This visionary one of the truly original inventions in modern painting" (H. Kramer, Art: Clyfford Still Show at the Met, New York Times, November, 16, 1979). As Robert Hughes stated, "virtually no modernist paintings done before 1945 look like his" (R. Hughes, The Shock of the New, New York, 1987, p. 316).

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