The richly textured surface and chromatic intensity of Clyfford Still’s PH-234 is a superlative example of the almost primeval energy which the artist was able to commit to canvas and which led him to become one of the most important and influential painters of his generation. A major figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement, perhaps more than any other member of that group Still embodied the rejection of figuration and sort to demonstrate the visceral energy possessed by the combination of pure pigment and the emotive power of the gesture. Across its expansive surface Untitled unveils the complexity of Still’s oeuvre as he brings together divergent areas of color, creating a palpable sense of tension as large sea of deep blue tussles for supremacy with subtle passages of lighter pigment as a vertical expanse of scorching red, spreads across the surface like a trail of molten lava.
Clyfford Still’s reputation as one of the giants of Abstract Expressionism is built upon this mastery of the painterly process. Unlike some of his contemporaries, whose expressive yet simple gestures dominated the canvas, Still builds up his richly textured surface by putting down layer upon layer of coarse pigment. In PH-234 this can most clearly be seen in the large region of dark blue which dominates much of the central and left hand portions of the canvas. Here, what at first glance appears to be an expanse of monochromality, is in fact an essay on the rich and almost limitless possibilities of color. By building up uneven layers of color, some more dense and vibrant that others, Still produces a surface that appears to constantly shift in tone and intensity as the eye meanders across its decadent surface. The primordial nature of Still’s paintings is further enhanced by the dramatic fissures which he opens up across the surface of many of his works. Here, we can see evidence of this in a number of places, most ominously in the right portion of the canvas as Still creates a fracture of red paint that sits amid neighboring passages of dark blacks and grays.
In addition to the maturity of the subject matter, this painting also demonstrates the rich variety of Still’s painting technique. Despite the clear separation of light and dark tones, Still continually works the entire surface of his canvas, laying numerous layers of paint and scrapping them off to show the colors underneath. The edges where the forms meet are always a high point in his work, and in this painting the areas of high contrast superbly demonstrate the sublime way in which Still handles these areas. The jagged forms that cut into each other are accentuated by creating “halos” of delicately contrasting light tones that serve to allow the brown internal forms to recede into the inky darkness whilst allowing the black tones to reinstate their intensity. These spatial relationships are what Still does best and are what set him apart from his contemporaries such as Pollock and Rothko. Works such as the present example, clearly demonstrate the power of these spatial associations to impress upon the viewer the essence of Still’s awe-inspiring oeuvre. 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).
This painting was produced during the period immediately after Still’s first great solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery in February 1946. In the introduction to the exhibition Still’s then friend Mark Rothko related Still’s new art to the epic and transcendent dimension of “Myth” and explained how Still, “working out West, and alone,” had, with “unprecedented forms and completely personal methods,” arrived at a completely new way of painting. The simple, seemingly organic forms of Still’s painting and its bold expansive fields of space and color made “the rest of us look academic” Jackson Pollock observed at the time. For Rothko, the new vision offered by Still’s apparently completely abstract paintings, not only took the lead amongst this generation of artists, but invoked a fundamental human truth, one that expressed “the tragic-religious drama...generic to all Myths at all times,” and created “new counterparts to replace the old mythological hybrids” which had lost their pertinence in the intervening centuries. (M. Rothko, “Introduction to First Exhibition Paintings: Clyfford Still,” 1946, reproduced in M. Lopez-Remiro, ed., Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, New Haven, 2006, p. 48).
Still insisted that on every level his work dealt with the fundamental questions of what it was to be human. His upbringing on the Canadian Prairies and in the remote northern plains of America instilled in him a respect for the space and silence that was becoming increasingly hard to find in the industrial world. During the 1930s Still also spent time on the Colville Native American Indian Reservation where he helped to found the Nespelem Art Colony. He admired the Native Americans’ ancient and mystical relationship with the land and this helped permeate his art with the highly-developed sense of spatial awareness that is unique to his canvasses. However, he resisted the urge to qualify his works as landscapes; he famously remarked, “The fact that I grew up on the prairies has nothing to do with my paintings, with what people think they find in them” because ultimately “I paint myself, not nature” (C. Still, Paintings by Clyfford Still, exh. cat., Buffalo, 1959, n.p.). Still’s own self-image of his art and his life was that of an elemental and solitary journey through the landscape of nature. Indeed, he described the evolution of his mature style of painting in the mid-1940s and the freedom it ultimately gave him as “a journey that one must make, walking straight and alone. No respite or short-cuts were permitted. And one’s will had to hold against every challenge of triumph, or failure, or the praise of Vanity Fair. Until one had crossed the darkened and wasted valleys and come at last into clear air and could stand on a high and limitless plain. Imagination, no longer fettered by the laws of fear, became as one with Vision. And the Act, intrinsic and absolute, was its meaning, and the bearer of its passion” (Ibid.).
PH-234 was originally owned by Ted Power, one of the great collectors of international postwar art. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Power sought out the newest and most radical art he could find. He taught himself to discern what moved him and refined his eye to search for quality works by artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. He acquired PH-234 in January 1957 after becoming enthralled with the work of the Abstract Expressionists at the important exhibition of new American art organized by the Tate Gallery in London. “To me,” Power explained, “one of the most fascinating aspects of a painting which I like is that it is a unique expression or statement of the artist’s ideas and emotions communicated through colour, shape, and texture, by him to me, in a form which I can hold, keep, and own, and live with, and enjoy, and perhaps with time get to know and understand. This knowing of a picture should always be a challenge” (E. Power, quoted By J. Mundy, “The Challenge of Post-War Art: The Collection of Ted Power,” in J. Mundy, Brancusi to Beuys: Works from the Ted Power Collection, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1996, p. 10).
Perhaps more than any other artist Clyfford Still was reluctant to show or sell any of his works. In his lifetime he had only 15 solo exhibitions over a period of 45 years, and of these only five were at private galleries where patrons were able to acquire the works. Today, his work can be seen in many major museums including 30 paintings in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 12 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the largest collection of the artist’s work at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. Still is now one of the most widely respected of the Abstract Expressionist artists, and along with Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, his works stand as examples of the revolutionary paintings produced during a period that changed the course of art history.
It is perhaps testament to Still’s art that, despite his eschewing of the growing commerciality of the art world, his work became among some of the most powerful and important paintings produced in the latter part of the twentieth century. It represents the pinnacle of Abstract Expressionism—a pure form of painting that relies solely on its creator to express the power and intense visceral nature of its form. The making of the painting was itself romanticized into an almost mystical journey through the apparent void of existence, a journey that in the end provided and revealed its own meaning. It was in this way that Still could equate his work with the timelessness and the elemental. His best works have an inherent power that is perhaps best summed up by Still himself, who in a rare moment of retrospection characterized the fundamental raison d’etre of his work when he concluded, “You can turn the lights out. The paintings will carry their own fire” (C. Still, quoted in M. Auping, Clyfford Still, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2002, p. 303). This painting carries this fire to its very core.