The Spirit and Space
by David Anfam
Adjunct Curator, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver.
The idea that pictorial abstraction might flow out of realism contradicts much twentieth-century modernist orthodoxy. Whether it be Piet Mondrian's grids, Kazimir Malevich's iconic Black Square, or Barnett Newman's chromatic fields, modernism tended to stress negation, purification and formal autonomy. As Newman argued in his polemical essay, 'The Sublime is Now,'1948, "We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting." By comparison, Clyfford Still's abstract paintings resonate with echoes from their representational forebears. It is this legacy that lends his mature canvases, such as PH-1 (the designation indicates it was the first canvas to enter the photographic inventory of his corpus), their singular electricity.
Before the Clyfford Still Museum opened in Denver in 2011, the artist was sometimes stereotyped as a "one-image" man, partly due to his distinctive style and also largely because only a fraction of his output--approximately five per cent--was known to the public. Now, the magnitude of Still's achievement is emerging, as the 2,400 or so works in Denver reveal one of the most original figures associated with Abstract Expressionism and arguably its most multifaceted in terms of his range of media, subjects and visual effects.
From more than 800 paintings starting in 1920 to oils and watercolors on paper, graphite, charcoal and pen and ink drawings, lithographs, etchings, a silkscreen print, sculptures and photographs, Still left few technical options untouched (except for acrylics). Likewise, his means ranged from small pastels to enormous painterly panoramas, from surfaces laden with brute impasto to stark gulfs of bare canvas enlivened by the merest pigment touches, and from abyssal images to others of airy lyricism. Throughout, academic discipline contends with raw, unleashed invention. In particular, Still proved a precocious, deft draftsman--unlike several otherwise notable Abstract Expressionists--producing an exceptional cache of representational work. His fledgling subjects encompassed landscapes and city scenes, figure and anatomical studies, portraits, interiors, animals, anecdotal sketches, still life, machinery, agricultural and industrial sites and then imaginative compositions with existential or symbolic overtones. From this rich medley Still evolved the protean character of his subsequent abstract idiom-which was breathtakingly iconoclastic yet propelled, as it were, by a dynamo forged in figuration.
Still himself summarized the alpha and omega of his trajectory thus: "The figure stands behind it all. It is like stripping down Rembrandt or Velázquez to see what an eye can do by itself, or an arm or a hand--and then going beyond to see what just the idea of an eye or an arm or a head might be. But by then it's something else, of course, a whole new world, for which there are no words." PH-1 stands squarely in this new territory. Although its silent, implacable aura daunts exegesis, it remains possible to trace some of the currents that shaped it.
Firstly, Still always evinced an acute sensitivity towards color in nature and culture. Pastels and other annotated graphics from the early 1930s confirm his meticulous eye for the hues of the foliage on the Alberta prairies. His diary notes translated this acuity into eloquent recollections of "clear cold winter days with jewelled light. Spring and its melting breaking black and white and brown." Subsequently, his renderings of the Indian tribes on the Reservations near Nespelem in northern Washington state recorded the vibrant tones-purple, crimson, yellow and leaf green-of the natives' clothing and accoutrements. In a sometimes deadened daily existence, color stood for life.
Moreover, Still's early paintings of Alberta distinguished themselves from humdrum reportage by their innovative chromatic sensibility. Is it fanciful to discern in the palette of, say, PH-443 a presentiment, albeit faint and rudimentary, of the extraordinary color sense manifest in PH-1? Not if one recalls Still's capacity for making his works speak to each other across the decades (in 1968 he drew pastels recording memories of the Canadian landscapes from forty years past). Whence, otherwise, stem these mordant chords of deep damson purple, contrasted with sunny ochers and flashes of white on high? They are memories of nature, man, seasons and things so transfigured as to no longer recognize themselves in this "new world" of abstract forces. What had been a lowering storm and brooding emptiness in PH-443 and comparable pictures, now became a materialization of elemental energies, opaque yet startlingly immediate.
Secondly, Still's vision had long fastened on dualities: male/female, vertical/horizontal, light/darkness, idea/act, the original and the image. Perhaps the only mentor whom the irascible artist ever kept in high regard was Murray Bundy. Professor Bundy taught Still Literary Criticism-covering such thinkers as Plato, Longinus and Benedetto Croce-while he studied for an M.A. at Washington State College in the mid-1930s (almost half a century later the artist invited his former teacher to the opening of his retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979). When Bundy quoted Plato in his 1927 book The Theory of Imagination in Classical and Medieval Thought, the words were almost a germ from which Still's fascination with doubling effects later grew: "And other products of human creation are also twofold and go in pairs; there is the thing with which the art of making the thing is concerned, and the image, with which imitation is concerned." When scrutinized, Still's pictorial universe is seen to be populated with pairings and kindred repetitions, even down to his propensity for making several versions or replicas of the same composition, often turning drawing into painting and vice-versa.
During the 1940s, Still left behind the innocent philosophical underpinning to such dualisms, instead stressing their diabolical aspect-the double or doppelgänger is an age-old embodiment of threat and the uncanny. By the time of PH-794, the tall pyramidal presences resemble ominous twins, different incarnations of a single upward rearing impulse. A year before, in the landmark PH-235 the twofold aspect took another guise: namely, in the twin lightning-like bolts, respectively white and acid yellow, that splinter the tarry darkness from above. If the viewer of PH-1 supposes nothing remains there of these old traits, he/she should look again.
Notice in PH-1 the insistent verticality: the draftsmanship teases contours upwards, in opposition to the nocturnal inertia of the coagulated light-absorbent blackness. This is the Manichaean drama of PH-235 distilled to the hilt, including the two razor-sharp white fissures at the upper left of center. These galvanize the ambient gloom, slicing it apart. To their left hover a second couple of blank white presences, compacted ghosts of the kind of effaced sentinels found in PH-794. The latter's high notes--cadmium red at lower left, the blue-green patches illuminating the "halos" atop the two totems and the light yellow splinters outlining their right sides--also rehearse the far more sophisticated chromatic structure of PH-1. The schematic arrangements in the mid-1940s fuse here into a dense whole. Whatever extends beyond the canvas edges only further pressures what remains within it. No wonder Still mentioned "an implosion of infinities" in his canvases, adding that he used "texture to kill a color, color to kill space." In this respect, PH-1 may again delve into Still's past for its new formulations.
The subject of Still's M.A. thesis was Paul Cézanne, whose intensive technique he caught in a telling description: "Feeling his way around the forms, plane by plane, he was compelled to crowd many segments into a unified whole." The same applies to the otherwise utterly remote pictorial cartography of PH-1. Its disparate areas--by turns tiny and monolithic, glowing and charred--are dovetailed into a continuum like the jagged parts of some visionary completed jigsaw puzzle. The overall fierce intensity is as hard to put into words as it is palpable to eyesight. With conventional space "killed", a mysterious luminosity, instigated by the maximum saturation of each color, inhabits the paradoxically charged emptiness. This is the kind of numbed exhilaration associated with limit-situations--as when one gazes into a measureless depth or tries to fathom the night sky--pantheistic encounters of a kind that the young Still experienced on the prairies.
Indeed, PH-1's interplay of glaring vitality and black nothingness is, if anything, otherworldly-nature altogether reconfigured through the mind's eye, rather as William Wordsworth (whose poetry Still knew from early on) meant it when he famously invoked "The light that never was, on sea or land." Like Wordsworth, Still's ultimate concern was with the sublime, a phenomenon of individual exaltation that, while rooted in material facts, goes beyond them. PH-1 seeks to induce such an inward dimension in the spectator, reflecting the artist's goal: "I never wanted color to be color. I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit." Or, as another poet closer to Still's time and place, Wallace Stevens, more plainly concluded in "The American Sublime," 1935:
And the sublime comes down
To the spirit itself,
The spirit and space,
The empty spirit
In vacant space.
(c) Art Ex Ltd 2013