"These are not paintings in the usual sense; they are life and death merging in fearful union. As for me, they kindle a fire; through them I breathe again, hold a golden cord, find my own revelation"-Clyfford Still
Jagged forms like pale fire flicker upwards on the surface of Clyfford Still's 1955 painting, Untitled (PH-786, 1955-R). One of the rare paintings that went into private hands, rather than the institutions including the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, which hold the vast majority of his works, Untitled (PH-786, 1955-R) reveals the spare, terse and elegantly eloquent aesthetic that Still developed and which had already become such an important springboard for so many of the Abstract Expressionists, who were enjoying their mighty primacy at this point in his career. Still was one of the most influential artists of the 1940s onwards; he was the pioneer of the large-scale abstract, originally working in near-seclusion on the West Coast where he taught, far from the cut and thrust of New York, which is often considered the great cradle of Action Painting and indeed the hotbed of the movement, the home of 'The Club' and the Cedar Tavern which were the focal points during that period. In many ways it was his sometime friend Mark Rothko who brought Still, and his influence, to New York, having discovered his work while teaching in California, where the artists met and struck up a friendship. For a long time, Rothko would even hang a Still in his bedroom to serve as a guiding light. A range of artists would subsequently come to cite Still as a major, direct influence, many of them his students. Within this number are figures as diverse as Sam Francis, Allan Kaprow and Richard Serra, whose weighty, precarious masses of standing metal can be seen as three-dimensional responses to the might of Still's own painting, with its emphasis on the upright.
That Still worked largely outside New York - he lived there only for a dozen years of his life - reveals the idiosyncrasy and individualism of this almost mythic character. Still was incredibly headstrong, perhaps revealing the inheritance of his pioneer parents, who had moved to North Dakota from Canada and then had set up a ranch near Bow Island, in Alberta. It was there that Still spent much of his early life; indeed, up until the mid-1930s, in conjunction with his art and his teaching, Still would head to Alberta to help out with farm work each year, especially when agriculture was suffering against the backdrop of the Depression. Alberta's emphatically horizontal landscape, with its wide open prairies and vast skies, would inform the sense of space that fills pictures such as Untitled (PH-786, 1955-R). At the same time, his first-hand experiences of the hardships of life in Alberta would provide the foundation for his focus on the vertical forms that dart up this picture. For Still, condensing the essence of life itself into his canvases, verticality meant survival in the harsh, unforgiving Canadian prairies: "For in such a land a man must stand upright, if he would live. Even if he is the only upright form in the world about him" (C. Still, quoted in T. Kellein, 'Approaching the Art of Clyfford Still', pp. 9-19, Kellein (ed.), Clyfford Still 1904-1980, Buffalo, 1992, p. 14). On another occasion, he explained, "when there were snowstorms, you either stood up and lived or laid down and died" (C. Still, quoted in J.E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago & London, 1993, p. 224).
A couple of decades earlier, Piet Mondrian had distilled the Dutch landscape down to its bare essence of a horizon punctuated by the vertical forms of trees, buildings and people, eventually resulting in his grids. Still has taken that same focus on the vertical as a sign of life and used it as the basis for his searing abstract expressions of humanity. While the horizon has long had associations with the epic, with the Romantic, with the precedent of, say, Caspar David Friedrich, it was Still's use of the upright form as a counterpoint to the surrender of lying down and adopting a horizontal position that marked out his works. In Untitled (PH-786, 1955-R), the vertical shards of colour recall the mountains, icebergs and figures that themselves added such a dynamic and empathic dimension to Friedrich's pictures, pulling in the viewer.
Still used these devices to evoke the spirit of humanity, of life. This was a universal, timeless, ancient theme that survived beyond the hurly burly of the Twentieth Century, an age of technological advance and earth-shattering conflicts on a hitherto unimaginable scale. Against that backdrop, paintings such as Untitled (PH-786, 1955-R) appear all the more pertinent: they are visions of hope, timely yet timeless, lyrical expressions of survival against the odds in a modern age in which science and machines had managed to cause so much wanton destruction. The light flames of Untitled (PH-786, 1955-R) speak of an energy that underpins our world. "I'm not interested in illustrating my time," Still protested. "A man's 'time' limits him, it does not truly liberate him. Our age - it is of science - of mechanism - of power and death. I see no virtue in adding to its mammoth arrogance the compliment of graphic homage" (C. Still, quoted in J.T. Demetrion, 'Introduction' in J. Demetrion (ed.), Clyfford Still: Paintings 1944-1960, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 2001, p. 11). Taking those words into consideration, Untitled (PH-786, 1955-R) can be seen as a riposte to mechanism and science alike.
In Untitled (PH-786, 1955-R), Still's credentials as an Action Painter appear clear to see in the rigorous, vigorous means with which the color has been applied. Indeed, the contrast between the paint and the background, which appears almost in elegant, restrained reserve, heightens the sense of the substantiality of the paint itself, emphasising Still's brushwork and apparently invoking that Modernist obsession: the individual mark. However for Still, in part because of the origins of those marks as defiant beacons of the human power to endure, the shards of color were intended to transcend their own substantiality. " I never wanted color to be pure color," he explained. "I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapesI wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit" (C. Still, quoted in K. Kuh, 'Clyfford Still' in J.P. O'Neill (ed.), Clyfford Still, exh. cat., New York, 1979, p. 11).
Still's restraint in keeping much of the canvas bare emphasizes the streaks of color, reflecting an increasing tendency in his work towards spareness. While this was only a feature that appeared on occasion, it is noteworthy that it did so with increasing emphasis during the course of the 1950s. While already in the 1940s, he had created light backgrounds, using white paint or similar colours in a way that recalls the full surfaces of his contemporary Franz Kline's pictures, increasingly during the following decade he allowed the background itself to serve as a field in its own right, in a technique visible in Untitled (PH-786, 1955-R) as well as in examples in the Allbright-Knox Museum which was gifted such an important grouping of his pictures by the artist himself.
This sparseness appears to emphasise the rugged, tenacious grip on life and its essence in Untitled (PH-786, 1955-R). The paint becomes all the more eloquent, a result of the struggle to come into existence, or indeed the struggle for Still to condense his own experiences, his own feelings, his own individuality upon the canvas. The various forms that hang like stalactites within the composition of this picture convey the sense that they, like the crops decades earlier in Alberta, have been harvested through incredible application. Still has shown his own single-minded determination in creating this vision, which manages to evoke such a strong sense of the artist's own efforts, resulting in a painting that is a proof of life, an existential declaration in colour, a rhythmic explosion of forms. As he himself explained, "When I expose a painting I would have to say, 'Here I am: this is my presence, my feelings, myself'" (C. Still, quoted in K. Kuh, 'Clyfford Still' in J.P. O'Neill (ed.), Clyfford Still, exh.cat., New York, 1979, p. 10).
The historical origins of Untitled (PH-786, 1955-R) provide an intriguing insight into the artist who is often considered to be the founding father of the Action Painters. The composition in fact echoes very closely that of another significantly smaller picture, listed in 2001 as being in the Onnasch collection in Germany. The similarities between these works reveal the incredible control and consideration that were involved in Still's compositions. What appear to be chance-driven flecks of paint reverberate once again in the larger Untitled (PH-786, 1955-R), revealing how small a role hazard had to play in his pictures, in stark contrast to, say, the dripping of his contemporary Jackson Pollock.
The similar earlier work has traditionally been dated to 1953; however, it may have been painted in East Hampton, where Still stayed with his friend and fellow artist Alfonso Ossorio in the Summer of 1955 and again the following year. Certainly, Still appears to have considered presenting the earlier picture as a gift to his daughter; however, his usual reluctance to release his works, even to a family member, meant that he created another version, this time on a larger scale. It is for this reason that the work has the R in its title: this was one of Still's annotations earmarking a replica, as discussed in Neal Benezra's essay on the subject for the 2001 exhibition at the Hirshhorn where the Onnasch picture was shown. In the catalogue, Benezra explained that, despite their name and the similarities between the works, the so-called 'replicas' were very much considered to be individual works in their own right by Still himself. Indeed, they were further explorations of a success. In the case of Untitled (PH-786, 1955-R), the original work has been granted an apotheosis, recreated on a far larger scale, amplifying its impact. Still himself would discuss this aspect of his practice, explaining: "Making additional versions is an act I consider necessary when I believe the importance of the idea or breakthrough merits survival on more than one stretch of canvas, especially when it is entrusted to the precarious world of exhibitions or collecting. Although the few replicas I make are usually close to or extensions of the original, each has its special and particular life and is not intended to be just a copy" (C. Still, quoted in N. Benezra, 'Clyfford Still's Replicas', pp. 87-98, J.T. Demetrion (ed.), Clyfford Still: Paintings 1944-1960, exh.cat., Washington, D.C., 2001, pp. 88-89).