Clyfford Still played a major role in Abstract Expressionism, a movement that had powerful reverberations on the international art scene and whose influence continues to echo in contemporary art. Artists such as Still, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning changed the face of contemporary art, helping to remove America's stigma as a provincial backwater and combined with the shift in world power and international economy in a post-World War II world, helped make New York a major cultural force. The present lot is from the estate of John Stephan--artist, poet, collector and publisher of the seminal late 1940's journal, The Tiger's Eye--where the painting had been in his collection for over fifty years.
1950-T is a masterful Clyfford Still work that is charged with the artist's abstract painterly drama and foreboding palette. Like many of Still's paintings executed during his prime period 1944-1959, 1950-T is dominated by a dark field that is torn asunder by a jagged, cutting line that streaks through the painting like a lightning bolt flashing through a night sky. It is a composition, with variation, that runs through many of his most celebrated paintings, including Red Flash on Black Field, 1944 (Museum of Modern Art) and Untitled, 1951-52 (Art Institute of Chicago). Along with Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella, Still has endlessly explored the expressive possibilities of working with large, dark fields. "I do not have a comic or tragic period in any real sense. I have always painted dark pictures; always some light pictures. I will probably continue go on doing so" (C. Still, as quoted in The New York school, the first generation : paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, Los Angeles, 1965, p. 148).
Upon closer inspection, the painting reveals its secrets. 1950-T contains a wide spectrum of color--what initially appears to be black, in actuality contains numerous strata of rich blue, dark browns and subtle grays. The subdued tones create the setting for the real subject matter, which is the drama of the interaction of the painted forms. The short, flame-like pink strip illuminates a small cave-like dwelling, which is dwarfed by the mountainous form above it, creating a sensation similar to approaching a large mountain up close. The ghost-like light blue passages at the upper right suggest the smoke from the "fire" below, or perhaps shifting cloud forms. Indeed, many of Still paintings evoke the sublime, something he strove for in his work. "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).
1950-T shows the artist's signature painterly facility, with its characteristic facture that is applied with a scraping and cutting palette knife rather than laid down with a brush. His technique worked in perfect sync with his subject matter that intimates rock faces, flames and rugged natural forms. Despite the obvious references, Still resisted having his paintings seen in the context of nature, commenting with his characteristic candor and sharp sense of humor, "The fact that I grew up on the prairies has nothing to do with my paintings, with what people think they find in them. I paint only mself, not nature" (C. Still, as quoted in The New York school, the first generation : paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, Los Angeles, 1965, p. 148).
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 space...is 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).
Works by Clyfford Still are rare, but not due to underproduction, but as a result of the artist's unwillingness to commercialize his output. Perhaps more so than any artist, Still had been very reluctant to show or sell his paintings. In his lifetime, he had a grand total of 15 solo exhibitions over a period of over 45 years, only five of which were at private galleries with work for sale. To put this in perspective, between 1943-1949 alone, Jackson Pollock had seven solo exhibitions at private galleries.
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).
Still left behind a strict will that requires none of the works in his estate ever be sold, with the stipulation that they must be given en masse to a city that undertakes to create a museum solely dedicated to Clyfford Still. The museum itself will be subject to the severest of restrictions and forbidden from loaning work or exhibiting the works of other artists. With only three abstract paintings to appear at auction over the last seven years, the appearance of two Clyfford Still is a rare event.