Late Style As Liberation
By David Anfam
Senior Consulting Curator, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver and Director, CSM Research Center
Clyfford Stills legendary intransigence was such that, during his long lifetime, at some point or other he alienated more or less the entire American art worldincluding museums, collectors, dealers and his fellow Abstract Expressionists. Still believed this was the price that he must pay to pursue his lofty vision, which was nothing less than a quest for the sublime. In turn, the disaffection grew reciprocal. Writing in 1969 in response to the artists single exhibition at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York, the critic Thomas Hess wryly encapsulated the challenge: Stills public persona, of course, always has been that of Mr. Outside himself. The very little that he has allowed to be published about his life makes Howard Hughes sound like Norman Mailer. Moreover, Still himself acknowledged his irascibility and its consequence: I can be cantankerous. I havent got my reputation for nothing. In these circumstances, the constant interpretative hazard was that the reputation would precede and, thus, imprison the work.
Given this antagonism and friction, while Still was alive his oeuvre in some sense always tended to be held captive: either removed from the public eye, remote from the cultural epicenter of New York City and/or seen through a perspective skewed by its creators notoriety. Even when Still made a major donation of works to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (1964), or engineered the biggest exhibition that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had by then (1979) accorded a living artist, the impact proved too much of a bolt from the blue, an epiphany without an annunciation. Simply put, until recently the long view that could have enabled Still's prospective audience to grasp his culminating output in particular as part of a much larger whole did not exist. Executed in the year that witnessed an exhibition celebrating the artists 1975 gift of twenty-eight paintings to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, PH-1033 represents a prime instance of this late idiom. Lithe, lean and lively, it offers a radiant image that at first may hardly seem to have issued from a septuagenarians hand. Yet think again.
It is precisely in the late style of certain enduring artistsvisual, literary and musicalthat lightness, literal and metaphorical, came to the fore. From a host of possible precedents, consider the aged Paul Czanne. Specifically, in Cézannes climactic watercolors and paintings, whether unfinished or not, the bare paper and canvas assume a luminous life, galvanizing the pigment touches so that they appear to dance on an almost metaphysical plane, rather than as mere flat marks upon a two-dimensional surface. The urgent reds and white-on-white slashes of PH-1033 possess an analogous, fluttering electricity. In the same breath, the very mention of the master of Aix-en-Provence evokes a wider world, nothing less than the full context of Still's career. Therein, PH-1033 stands as a late statement of intent that in fact reaches back over four decades. Here, it is impossible to dissociate Still's history from the game-changer that has transformed its valency. Namely, the opening of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver in November 2011. Since then, Still has at last begun to swing into view as he himself wished it from beyond the grave.
Still wrote a prescient Masters thesis on Cézanne in 1935 and it indicates that somewhere in the distant ancestry of PH-1033 lurks his intense formal study of Cézannes pictorial effects. To cite an example at random, what better presages PH-1033's chromatic immediacy than Still's insight that it was the Frenchman's goal to realize form in color rather than make color look like form? And in quoting Cézanne: "I advance, you understand, the whole of my canvas at one time I bring together, in the same spirit, the same faith, all that is scattered," he adumbrated the core dictum that, thirty years on, would describe the ecstatic uplift coursing through PH-1033 (scant wonder the glossiest pigment texture occurs high in the reds that reach for the sky).
Take PH-1033's blazing colorism, as well as its dialog between large expanses (the reds, the white, the unprimed canvas) and tiny accents (the ultramarine and chrome yellow bursts within the two brown areas at lower right). The ultimate roots of such brilliant hues can be traced to the pastels Still made from the 1920s onwards. However, they also embody the last blossoming of the kind of minute observations of nature that came ages before PH-1033. In short, a pastel study of foliage drawn in 1931 is proof enough by itself of Still's acute eye for color in nature. But add the fact that it was preceded by another crayon and pencil sketch wherein he made painstaking written annotations of the variegated hues in the foliage (rich dark chrome green, dusty gold, lights are spotty, and so forth) and it confirms a formidable continuity of vision across otherwise altogether disparate periods in Still's iconographic and aesthetic trajectory. If we wonder why Still would pit a quivering field of palette knife marks against the yellow fleck in the upper right of PH-1033, then a reason lies in how, from the first, he had analyzed the play between macro- and micro-structures be it in the landscape, Cézanne or the human anatomy.
Speaking of the human body, Still avowed late in life that behind the extreme abstraction he attained, nevertheless lay the figure. In this respect, PH-1033 feels at once profoundly abstract and somehow obscurely somatic in its writhing linearity and vertical upthrust, as though the bodys forces were sublimated into gestures with which the viewer empathizes. Why else should both a deep affinity and an even greater gulf exist between it and the numerous oils on paper that Still produced in and around 1943? In one of these from the Clyfford Still Museum, PH-497, the darker brown lines surrounded by a swirling golden-tan atmosphere retain the aura of skeletal, grasping presences. In PH-1033 this residual figuration has gone; the previous animation, though, remains, amplified. Comparably, the daring sparseness of PH-1033 might look sui generis, unprecedented. That is, until we discover it also in the late J.M.W. Turner. By no coincidence, among the earliest compositions in oils in the Clyfford Still Museum is a Venetian fantasia from 1920 (PH-662), a vista manifestly conceived in the manner of Turner. Thus do Still's earliest and latest pictorial inventions speak to each other.
Late in life, Still himself explained the rationale to PH-1033 and kindred works when he remarked: It is like stripping down Rembrandt or Velzquez to see what an eye can do by itself, or an arm and a headand then going beyond to see what just the idea of an eye or an arm or a head might be. But by then its something else, of course, a whole new world, for which there are no words. Perhaps Still was being elliptical here insofar as two words for this rarefied realm do exist. He had already named them. The sublime. Calling the sublime a paramount consideration from his earliest student days onwards, Still who bookmarked a locus classicus of sublimity, The Preludes Simplon Pass passage, in his 1924 copy of Wordsworth's collected poems discovered it most in abstraction, pushing his medium to its uttermost limits. His late style was by turns agitated, seraphic, violent, graceful, dense, summary and often given to lyrical or even cryptic blank spaces, precisely the qualities that the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno discerned in Beethovens final works. Above all, it liberated Still as never before.
My thanks to Bailey Harberg, Collections Manager at the Clyfford Still Museum, for her help with the research for this essay.
Copyright Art Ex Ltd 2014