By Kent Minturn
“I deplore most the overemphasis on words . . . words that explain, reason, debate, deduce, make “fact” . . . It is not that they are perfect instruments. The opposite is the case . . . words are unconsciously burdened with significances that rebound dangerously on the viewer. They simulate the very alpha and omega of understanding. Verbiage becomes the substitute for comprehension.”1
-- Clyfford Still, 1945
“The pictures are to be without titles of any kind. I want no allusions to interfere with or assist the spectator.”2
-- Clyfford Still, 1949
Clyfford Still represents perhaps the most extreme example of Abstract Expressionism’s putative “evasion of language.”3 Not only was he notoriously reticent to put words to his paintings, he vehemently opposed any gallery owner, curator, intellectual, or art critic who attempted to do so for him. To his mind such individuals, “ignorant of the whole of painting,” were at best “literary frustrates” and “scribblers;” at worst, “butchers who make hamburger of us for the public gut.”4 Still hoped instead that his paintings would somehow bypass the limiting sieve of language and elicit reactions in the “unassisted,” unmediated present, unburdened by what he called the “totalitarian hegemony” of tradition, i.e., “history matured into dogma.”5 In those rare instances when Still published something resembling a traditional artist’s statement or an explanatory text about his work (invariably these came out overwrought, hyperbolic and idiosyncratically-worded) his goal seems to have been to preempt his critics in advance, in an attempt to take the words right out of their mouths, or a posteriori, to rebut them directly – naming names – and, through a circuitous game of quotation and circumscription, to absorb their published statements into his own. In short, Still relied on “the overemphasis on words” for one sole purpose: to insure, ultimately, that he himself would have the first and last word on his life and art. The end result, according to David Anfam, the world’s leading authority on the artist:
“[Still’s work] poses greater problems for scholarship than that of any other artist associated with Abstract Expressionism . . . Still wrote his own history so clearly that its subtexts and probable sources have almost disappeared. For no period are these more relevant than his earlier career where, once re-inscribed, they affect a reading of the whole.”6
Alas, we have very little to go on today, save for what Still has given us – a dozen or so pages of “statements” and “notes and letters” – in our attempts to reassess the artist’s oeuvre at the instant of the opening of his one-man museum in Denver [Fig. 1], an architectural structure which, not incidentally, was built in strict accordance to the dictates the artist put down in writing shortly before his death on June 23, 1980. (For Still the modern architect, or “the new god, the engineer-architect,” as he referred to him, was only slightly less despicable than the art critic. To his mind, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, Le Corbusier, and that “corny, sentimental, soap-opera rationalist ‘Bucky’ Fuller,” were nothing more than “assembly line” conformists who built “comfortable prisons.”)7
Fig. 3 - Photo of
Clyfford Still by
Hans Namuth, 1951
Fig. 2 - Photo of
Paul Cézanne, 1861
[Fig. 2 and Fig. 3] Given all of this, it comes at some surprise, and perhaps at some relief, to learn that Still once tried his hand at interpreting another artist’s work, at writing art history, the very discipline he enjoyed lambasting as one giant “literary myth,”8 when he penned a Master’s Thesis on Paul Cézanne in 1935. Still’s Thesis, entitled “Cézanne: A Study in Evaluation,” was, according to its title page, submitted “in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree of Masters of Fine Arts at The State College of Washington, Pullman,” where the artist studied from 1933-1935, and where art students were ostensibly obliged to produce a written qualifying paper in addition to their MFA studio requirements.9 This important yet continually overlooked document (it goes unmentioned, for example, in the immense catalog for the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s recent blockbuster exhibit, Cézanne and Beyond10), which remains buried in the Archives of American Art, deserves to be exhumed and more widely read – indeed, bringing its contents to light is one of the main raisons d’être of this essay. Somewhat surprisingly, it is a real page-turner, which proves, among other things, that in addition to being Abstract Expressionism’s most famous curmudgeon, Still was a formidable wordsmith and an astute critic. Moreover, judging from the Thesis’ appended bibliography it appears that Still, an artist known for his overt jingoism, chauvinism, and anti-Europeanism, possessed a truly international palette when it came to art historical scholarship. He consulted books and articles by Ambroise Vollard, Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Maurice Raynal, Joachim Gasquet, Leo Tolstoy, and George Santayana.
Perused today, Still’s study inevitably calls for a further re-examination of the visual work he produced around the same time he was writing it, and in particular the formal and thematic similarities readily apparent between say, Still’s recently discovered Grand Coulee Dam (1937)
Fig. 4 - Clyfford Still, Grand Coulee Dam, 1937
Fig. 5 - Paul Cézanne, The Railway Cutting, 1870
(Neue Pinakothek, Munich)
Fig. 6 - Clyfford Still, photo of two lost paintings from the mid-30s
Fig. 7 - Paul Cézanne, Le Negre Scipion, 1865 (Sao Paulo Museum
of Art, Sao Paulo), and Cézanne, Preparation for the Funeral, 1869
[Fig. 4] and Cézanne’s Railway Cutting (c. 1869) [Fig. 5]; Still’s Untitled (Indian Houses, Nespelem) (1936) and Cézanne’s Mill on the Couleuvre at Pontoise (1881) or Cézanne’s Oil Mill (c. 1872) (which was reproduced in Tristan Klingsor’s 1928 Cézanne, one of the books cited in Still’s Thesis); the exsanguinated figures in Still’s lost paintings from the mid-30s [Fig. 6] and those that frequently appear in Cézanne’s often violent early images, including Le Negre Scipion (1867) and Autopsy (1865) [Fig. 7]; the hollowed-out head in Still’s Untitled (1935) [Fig. 8] and the many skulls that populate Cézanne’s work from the mid-1860s forward, including the one found in Cézanne’s The Boy with a Skull [Fig 9], a painting specifically metioned by Still in his Thesis. The extant similarities found in these works challenge and complicate received notions about Still’s so-called Regionalist period and his purported blind adherence to the aesthetic ideologies of the movement’s most vociferous zealot, Thomas Craven, who he went out of his way to visit in the fall of 1934 after his stay at Yaddo, an artist’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York.11 These works open up the possibility that Still’s mid-1930s paintings have more to do with his ongoing engagement with Cézanne’s legacy than they do with the reigning aesthetic concomitently promulgated by Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry.
Equally fascinating is the way in which Still’s thesis on Cézanne looks forward as it excavates the (his) past. He concludes his entire study with the enigmatic open-ended statement: “The ultimate realization of Cézanne’s contribution and ideal remains with the artists of the future.”12 In a line that recalls Baudelaire’s famous “you are only the first in the decrepitude of your art” comment to Manet, Still writes: “We cannot escape the conclusion that potentially and intrinsically Cézanne was the Primitive of his art.”13 The historical avant-gardes, Still contends, have missed something in their uses and abuses of Cézanne – the “Cubists, Vorticists, Chromists, and Surrealists” represent “derivations,” or “fragments of his means,” rather than “continuations” of him.14 Further, he posits, Cézanne’s work has nothing to do with
“the studio pattern-makers, the ingenious manipulators of lines and colors and theories, in fact, almost all the entire academy of modernism.”15 Implicitly, Still issues forth a challenge to his readers, then, as well as today: can we “estrange” ourselves, in the Brechtian sense, from what has become the institutionalized Cézanne? Can we see Cézanne’s works with fresh eyes, without looking at them though the distorting lens of Cubism, Expressionism, and Geometric Abstraction (as exemplified by the Bauhaus and/or Mondrian), which for Still constitute modernism’s three-headed Cerberus? That Still was able to accomplish precisely this, which is to say, develop a species of postwar abstraction not directly beholden to any of the major early 20th century Isms, may in fact be his biggest claim to fame.
In “Still’s Writings and Late Work,” Chapter 7 of his unpublished 1984 doctoral dissertation written at the Courtauld Institute, David Anfam intimates at how the “authoritative and intermittently passionate tone” of Still’s thesis “does foreshadow future tendencies.” He also briefly considers the ways in which Still’s technical analysis of Cézanne’s work “anticipates important parts of [his] later artistic theory.”16 With the benefit of 30 years hindsight, it seems high time to follow Anfam’s lead and address the following related questions: To what extent did Still see himself as Cézanne’s ultimate “realizer?” What specific connection is there, if any, between Still’s Thesis on Cézanne and his later mature paintings? Or, put in slightly different terms, to what extent does Still’s Thesis on Cézanne contain the seeds of a theory of painting – an art, which, according to Still, is nothing less than an “instrument of thought”17 – that would, at a profoundly structural and conceptual level, continue to inform the artist’s practice in the postwar period? And, at the risk of overextending ourselves here, we might very well ask: to what extent does “Cézanne: A Study in Evaluation” shed light on Still’s ideas about how an artist’s work should be remembered, viewed, and experienced once he or she is gone? In other words, can Still’s thesis on Cézanne provide us with some insight into the latent hopes that he harbored for his own posterity, the afterlives of his paintings, and the role they should play in his own posthumous museum – his final, carefully-orchestrated, unifying work of art?
Admittedly, an endeavor such as this is a highly speculative, if not anachronistic, one insofar as it presupposes that something of the thirty-one year old Still, the young art student (and art historian) fully under Cézanne’s spell, lives on in the person he was to become in the postwar period. It requires a leap of faith, or “an unqualified act” as Still might have phrased it, across the great divide, both personal and historical, that separates Still the prewar figurative/landscape painter and avowed Cézanne admirer from Still the postwar abstractionist who frequently stressed his need to reject “the combined and sterile conclusions of European painting”18 and who, in 1955, included Cézanne’s name on a list of important influences he claimed he ultimately had to “move beyond.”19
The answers to those questions broached above are nonetheless worth pursuing for two main reasons. First and foremost, because it is difficult to take Still’s postwar parricidal rantings seriously. As is often the case with an artist and the target of his or her “anxiety of influence,” Still came to reject Cézanne because, simply stated, he saw him as someone worthy of rejecting (he places him in esteemed company to be sure – Hegel, Kierkegaard, Freud, Picasso, Kandinsky, Plato, Marx, Aquinas, Spangler, Einstein, Croce, and Monet also made the list). Disavowels rarely equate to clean breaks, especially in the history of art, and Still was well aware of this. In a letter written to critic Clement Greenberg around this time he confessed: “It seems to be a consistent paradox of human frailty that those who owe the most to another in the realm of the fine arts are those who will most deeply resent and deny the debt. Especially does this seem imperative when the debtor is encouraged to walk on his own two feet and find his own resolution.”20 Elsewhere, Still relied on Ernst Haeckel’s influential late 19th century theories to explain his relationship to the European tradition (read: Cézanne): “ontogeny suggested that the way through the maze of sterility required a recapitulation of my phylogenic inheritance.”21 And Still, of course, was clever enough to realize that in rejecting Cézanne, he was following in his master’s footsteps; afterall, it was Cézanne who felt it necessary to part ways with Pissaro, his own father figure, before he declared, “the modern artist must forget everything that came before.”22 At the same time, there is doubtless something historically specific about Still’s rejection of Cézanne in the mid-1950s which has to do with his ongoing attempts to define himself as a lone wolf vis-à-vis the other Abstract Expressionists who at this juncture were busily claiming their allegiances to a host of late 19th century figures including, in addition to Cézanne (Willem de Kooning and Jack Tworkov), Charles Baudelaire (William Baziotes) and Albert Pinkham Ryder (Jackson Pollock).23
Fig. 10 - Paul Cézanne, View of the Domaine
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
Fig. 11 - Still, PH-589 1959
(Denver Art Museum)
Secondly, it can be argued, connections between Still’s postwar work and Cézanne are worth pursuing because the existing visual evidence impels us to do so. A side-by-side comparison of one of Cézanne’s late paintings, say for example, View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph, 1888-1890, a.k.a., La Colline des Pauvres (The Hill of the Poor) [Fig. 10], (which Still saw in person when he visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1925), and one of Still’s mature postwar canvases, e.g. PH-589, 1959 [Fig. 11] immediately reveals certain affinities, many of which, to wit, are explicitly portended in the artist’s 1935 Thesis. First and foremost, there is the two artists’ similar application of paint, their undeniable raw facture, built up with a palette-knife in each case, which results in their shared craggy, scaborous surfaces. This is precisely what Still, in his thesis, describes as Cézanne’s “grim, almost brutal earthiness.”24 With their similarly handled surfaces, both artists sucessfully break down the division between the optic and the haptic, and manage, in the words of Yve-Alain Bois, “to splice viewing with touching.”25 In his thesis Still eloquently emphasizes Cézanne’s “tactual” application of paint and takes pains to describe the way his predecessor “feels” his way around his forms.26 Cézanne and Still similarly dismantle Albertian perspective by giving equal emphasis to figure and ground. Speaking about an unspecified Cézanne painting in his Thesis, Still demonstrates how “the mass of a parasol pine” in the foreground “is concieved primarily as a form that must above all else sympathize . . . with Mont Sainte Victoire in the background.”27 Still would certainly argree with Theodore Reff’s observation that in Cézanne’s paintngs: “verticals rest on the surface and never converge to a vanishing point . . . there are no orthogonals.”28 Evidence for this appears in the present painting by Cézanne, as well as countless others, including his House of the Hanged Man (1873), and those that purposefully contain geographical structures which, instead of moving away from the viewer and suggesting a horizontal register inside of the illusionistic space of the picture, form a façade flush with the two-dimensional surface of the canvas itself, e.g., The Bibemus Quarry (c. 1895), and Rocks at Fontainebleau (c. 1894-1898). The same effect can be seen in the faint blue trace found in Still’s painting reproduced above, as well as in his breakthrough mature works, especially, Jamais (1944) and Self-Portrait (1944). These paintings all contain thin, elongated forms which climb vertically instead of recededing toward a vanishing point, as would a depicted path or a winding road inside the picture’s ficticious space. And finally, we see in both artists’ works, especially in the upper left-hand corner of Cézanne’s painting (which the artist certified to his friends was indeed “finished”) the rejection of contour and the purposeful and strategic use of undeliniated forms that reach across sections of blank canvas or larger fields of color. Still accurately describes Cézanne’s open forms as having “ragged, detached edges,” and “varied and elusive contours”29 which play off of the empty sections of canvas inbetween them – the “contrasts” or “transitions,”30 as he refers to them.* * *
Still’s Thesis is divided into two main sections, a biographical preamble, and a technical “study in evaluation” of Cézanne’s method by way of a rigorous formal examination of a few select paintings. In the first section Still makes it clear that his return to Cézanne is motivated niether by naïve hero worship nor fashionable trends in current art historical thinking. He is well-versed in the game he is entering, and begins, following Maurice Denis, by admitting that Cézanne has already become a kind of modernist institution.
“For almost a third of a century Paul Cézanne has been the most influential figure in modern painting. His letters alone have formed the technical basis of one great modern school. He casually mentions geometric figures and another school is born. He admires Poussin and immediately that artist becomes the God of a third group.”31
Still is not interested in jumping on the bandwagon and joining one of these groups or in perpetuating received ideas about the “academic” Cézanne. Instead, he wants to penetrate directly to the source in hopes of more fully understanding the mind of the artist who gave rise to all of this. In the opening pages of his Thesis Still includes some carefully chosen biographical morsels. He writes:
“[Cézanne] distinguished himself by his conscientious application to studies, his slowness of perception, outbursts of violent temper, and a timidity augmented by physical uncouthness . . . Shy and awkward, with a rolling provincial dialect and few social graces he endeavored to conceal his inferiority by violent displays of temper and foul-mouthed impudence.”32
Shortly thereafter, Still focuses on Cézanne’s troubled stance contra ossified art establishments and recounts the time when, in 1866, the young struggling artist sent two of his canvases to the Louvre:
“They were refused, and Cézanne arrogantly lodged protest with the superintendent of the Beaux Arts! Certainly there was something naïve about a man who could assume that a Bouguereau and an early, raw Cézanne could hang on the same wall. The event was, however, the beginning of Cézanne’s long but futile assault on the front door of the Academy.”33
“In his every move we see the maladjustment of the crude, groping Provincial brought face to face with facile and urbane gentlemen. To maintain self-respect he discredited their ability . . . recognizing his inability to meet the world on its own terms he wisely withdrew to the refuge of his work . . . he always painted.”34
Still, it bears repeating, is speaking about Cézanne, not himself here. Uncannily, these passages do seem to foreshadow the person Still would become, as well as the public persona he would adopt, in the immediate postwar period. Moreover, they clearly predict his later, chronic distrust of the Museum and the Academy. It is obvious from the onset of his thesis that Still, one of the only Abstract Expresionists born while Cézanne was still alive, feels a personal connection to his modernist forefather. And understandably so; Cézanne, notoriously warry of the contamination of painting by “the literary spirit”35 in his own time, was a provincial outsider who never felt at home in Paris, just as the North Dakota born, and perpetually peripatetic Still, never felt comfortable in New York City. Likewise, both artists were suspicious of the other “urbane gentlemen” associated with their respective movements. In his Thesis, borrowing from Vollard’s study of Cézanne, Still writes:
“There [at the Café Guerbois], around Manet, were gathered the most representative of the new revolt. Such names as Desboutin, Stevens, Degas, Minet, Renoir, Bazille, Zola, Cladel, Burty, Durantly come sharply to mind. Cézanne was introduced to the group by Guillemet. But from the beginning Cézanne was not one of them. ‘They’re not worth a cent,’ he said to Guillemet. ‘They dress themselves up like a pack of lawyers.’ By way of showing his disapproval he played the cynic.”
Still would, in essence, say the same thing about the other Abstract Expressionists just before his first show in New York at Peggy Guggenheim’s Gallery, February 12 -March 2, 1946:
“Successful artists look like businessmen. . . The fact is, [the other Abstract Expressionists] are shrewd, politically sensitive, and tough businesmen who dabble in painting. Of good intellegence and fair insight, a spark of creative revolt can scarcely be found in the entire lot. They are merely competent people equally at home and able in any field they might enter. But they all know who they are painting for and why, and it is not for the edification of the mind or the soul.”36
(The irony is thick here, given that Still drove a Jaguar and wore a perpetual tie, even whilst playing a pick-up game of baseball.) At the end of his life, free from pecuniary concerns, Cézanne eventually returned to the South for good, just as Still, after achieving his own financial freedom, chose to isolate himself in rural Maryland, from 1961 until his death. And, like the Cézanne he describes, Still was of course always quick to discredit the abilities of his peers.37
Following this (auto)biographical introduction, Still spends the rest of his Thesis discussing the technical and formal aspects, or what he refers to as (borrowing a term common in early American art criticism) the “plastic elements” found in Cézanne’s canvases. From this point forward Still tacitly makes the case that it takes one artist to truly comprehend another artist’s work. In contrast to the overabundance of sterile academic writing on Cézanne, Still’s Thesis takes the form of a discussion between two artists, rich in what we might call “studio talk,” which seeks to verbally express, á la Roger Fry, the unmediated and present tense engagement with the physical qualities of Cézanne’s paintings, and accordingly, the visceral effects they have on the viewer. In the second half of his thesis Still spends the majority of his time concentrating on two specific elements: his predecessor’s handling of “form” and “color.”
Cézanne’s work, Still contends, represents a “radical departure . . . from popular standards of imitation”38 insofar as in it “form” is not used to describe anything in reality; form is “willfully used for an aesthetic rather than purely representative function.”39 In Cézanne’s hands, forms become autonomous entities in their own right, as opposed to signs standing for something else inside the illusionistic space of the picture. Liberated from the job of depicting, describing, and carrying meaning, Cézanne’s forms, Still argues, inevitably end up taking on a life of their own, on the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. To this end Still is careful to remind his reader that “other qualities than merely the third dimension occupied [Cézanne].”40 Color, claims Still, is similarly used by Cézanne in a non-mimetic and unmotivated manner. Cézanne’s liberated use of color, he explicates, is “scientifically false but aesthetically profound and far-reaching.”41 Like form, color is something his predecessor transforms into an autonomous material element; it is disconnected from any an object that it purportedly supplements. According to Still, Cézanne also says goodbye to Romantic vestigages of color as a stand-in for some imagined internal psychological or emotional state. In the postwar period Still readily admitted that he likewise “endeavored . . . to disembarass color from all conventional, familiar associations and responses.”42 Still also spends time commenting on how Cézanne innovatively employs a “narrow gamut of color values.” This, coupled with Cezanne’s insistence on “diffused light,” Still says, guarantees that his predecessor’s colors push forward and remain flush with the canvas’ two-dimensional surface.43 Interestingly enough, this is precisely what Greenberg will say about Still’s postwar use of color in his 1955 article “American-Type Painting,” the same article in which he announces that Still, not Pollock, is America’s “most important living painter.” As Greenberg puts it: “Still’s service was to show how the contours of a shape could be made less conspicuous, and therefore less dangerous to the “integrity” of the flat surface, by narrowing the value contrast its color made with that of the shapes or areas adjacent to it.”44
Although Still points out that one of Cezanne’s “most important contributions to the evolution of modern art” was his ability “to realize form in color rather than make color look like form,”45 he does not argue that one of these plastic elements is subordinate to the other. Rather, he situates them on equal footing and demonstrates the extent to which color and form are inextricably intertwined in Cézanne’s praxis. To more accurately describe the relationship between these two elments, Still feels obliged to invent the hyphenated neologism: “color-forms.” Equally important is Still’s contention that Cézanne’s autonomous, two-dimensional “color-forms,” once produced by the artist, have the ability move “laterally” across the surface canvas and enter into a dialogue with others.46 His comments on this aspect of Cézanne’s art are not far from Rainer Maria Rilke’s, as expressed in a letter to his wife dated November 4, 1907, wherein the poet observes Cézanne’s discrete color units “speaking with and against each other . . . turbulent in their inner conversation.”47 Above all, Still seems fascinated with the way in which Cézanne’s color-forms remain disparate entities and yet, at the same time, necessarily work together to create the painting’s pictorial composition in its entirety. He quotes Cézanne as saying: “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.”48 Indeed, the importance of color-forms and the unprecedented and dynamic relationship between the part and the whole resides at the heart of Still’s idiosyncratic and highly original interpretation of Cézanne. In Still’s estimation, this is what other commentators on Cézanne’s work have unfortunately missed. Specifically, he admonishes Roger Fry for focusing too much on “the particular” in Cezanne’s paintings, and unltimately, for wrongly championing the part over the whole in his oeuvre.49 Still reemphasizes this idea throughout his Thesis: e.g., “[Cézanne’s color-forms] assume their proper significance only in relation to all the other elements in the canvas . . .” and, “[Cézanne] was compelled to crowd many segments into a unified whole.”50 Further, Still revels at how, for Cézanne, “relating the aesthetic elements took precedence over his affection for the emotive fragments of things. The particular or superficial became subordinated to the whole. And the implications become manifold.”51
Not surprisingly, it is precisely at this juncture in his Thesis that Still first begins to employ the terms “structure” and “organization” to illuminate the open-ended, ongoing operative strategy behind Cézanne’s lively fusion of the part and whole. A full decade before Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s groundbreaking essay “Cezanne’s Doubt” (1945), wherein the French phenomenologist posits that the painter’s great achievement was to take into consideration “lived perspective” – as opposed to the idealized, decorporealized, and monocular system of perspective established in Quattrocento Italy – and to show “the birth of order through spontaneous organization,” Still insists on the importance of Cézanne’s “organization of sensations,” his perpetual “searchings,” and his “almost infinite readjustments, alterations, and modifications.”52 Above all, Still is attracted to the ways in which Cézanne renders complacent looking impossible, and how his viewer, in turn, is forced to participate in the artist’s organizational process, in the work’s structuring, and in the active unification the work’s parts (its “color-forms”) into a global compositional whole.
A more apposite description of Still’s postwar canvases and their intended effects on museumgoers, even today, would be difficult to formulate. Deeply embedded within Still’s 1935 Thesis on Cézanne, then, we arrive at a series of closely related concepts, a theory of painting even, that can help us better understand Sill’s mature canvases and the way that he uses his own “color-forms” to emphasize and the dynamic structural and organizational relationship between the part and the whole, which defines his entire mature oeuvre. Futhermore, Still’s re-reading of these aspects of Cézanne’s painterly practice can give us insight into what it is, exactly, that makes one of Still’s mature paintings, take for example [Fig. 12 Still, 1950-A no. 2], so different from those being produced by other Abstract Expressionists around the same time. On the “form” side of the equation, we can see the way that Still’s color-forms are unlike Adolph Gottlieb’s “blasts” [Fig. 13] or Mark Rothko’s mid-50s “multi-forms.” Even though Gottlieb and Rothko’s signature mature forms likewise reject contour, they ultimately retain a traditional figure-ground relationship. Their forms remain centralized, static, and isolated, and consequently, do not enter into a contrapuntal fugue with the other forms present in their indivudual canvases, as do Still’s. Although abstract, their forms continue to occupy a place on an three dimensional stage, painting’s traditional space of narrativity – in Rothko’s own words, “the shapes in [my] pictures are the performers.”53 In Still’s paintings, form and ground are given equal status; the “performance” must therefore take place “laterally” across the canvas’ surface. And, unlike other paintings done at this time, e.g., Ad
Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting, No. 87, 1957 (MoMA), Still’s abstract forms never organize themselves into a regular, monadic pattern. As Still himself said, they are closer to the random “thrust of the flame” than they are to the predictable “oscillation of the wave.”54 The relationship between one form and the whole composition in Still’s postwar abstractions is never simply about pars totalis or pars pro toto – to the chagrin of physicists-turned-amateur art historians everywhere, there is little chance of finding fractal patterns hidden within Still’s works. On the “color” side of the equation, we can see how Still’s combination of color and form prevent his works from becoming simple monochromes or facile examples of postwar “Color Field” painting, even though his name is often associated with this side of Abstract Expressionism. At times, it is true, Still creates walls of color dominated by one single hue, but these are never uninterrupted, constant expanses of color. For example, Still’s nearly all blue painting, 1950-M No. 1 (1950) at the Hirshhorn, has less to do with the resuscitation of the monochrome in postwar neo-avant garde painterly practice, á la Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue from the series Line Form Color (1951, MoMA, New York)55, than it does with the fluctuating, depth-canceling blues found in Cézanne’s Lake Annecy (1896). Still’s strategic use of blank sections of canvas in between his color-forms also shares a propinquity with Cézanne’s late works [Fig. 14]. They function very differently than Barnett Newman’s famous postwar “zips.” Whereas Newman’s zips, as exemplified in Vir Heroicus Sublimus (1951) [Fig. 15], are standardized elements that
divide a consistant monochromatic field while simultaneously conjuring up the upright “heroic” human figure and its attendent humanistic ideals, Still’s blank spaces, which neither cut nor divide, are used to increase the intensity of the interrelationsps between the parts (the color-forms) and the whole (the entire composition). Still’s color-forms stretch and strain to reach across his empty sections; his blanks are not absences, but rather compositional elements in their own right, pregnant with tension. More accurately stated, they act as espacements or “spacings” in the sense that Cézanne’s contemporary Stephane Mallarmé [Fig. 16] (and later, Jacques Derrida) would give the term. Color, form, and the blank spaces inbetween them are the three elements that make up the formal language of Cézanne and Still’s canvases. What scholar Hubert Damisch has written about Cézanne’s late paintings could be equally applied to a large number of Still’s mature postwar canvases:
“The lateral relations between one dab and another, one tone and another [de touche à touche, de ton à ton] definitely win out over the vertical relation between figures and their referent, the only relation understood by any reading limited to the order of verbal denotation. It is laterality that in its turn establishes itself as the order of literality, in which even the “blanks” assume an importance . . . and in which the substratum of the painting becomes the equivalent of emptiness, the same void that constituted a substratum upon which, according to Epicurus, atoms clustered together in variable order and arrangement, “like letters which, althought there are not many of them, nevertheless, when they are arranged in different ways, produce innumerable words.”56
Still’s color-forms and the spaces inbetween them replace words with a rudimentary nonverbal language of his own making – an “instrument more perfect than words.”
When addressing Still’s mature paintings Anglo-American critics rarely take into account Still’s tension filled blank spaces, and the important relationship between the part and the whole. This is unfortunate given Still’s emphasis on this subject in his Thesis on Cézanne and in his later postwar statements about his own work. There are two notable exceptions to this. The first is Robert Rosenblum’s influential article, “The Abstract Sublime,” published in 1961, which agues that Still’s works, like those in the Northern Romantic tradition, powerfully juxtapose the overwhelmingly immense with the minisculesque. Rosenblum futher develops this idea in his full-length book, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko, published in 1975, wherein he makes several interesting comparisons between Still’s work and a relatively obscure interwar American painter, August Vincent Track, who, among other things, was admired, collected and exhibited by Ducan Phillips. For Rosenblum’s argument to work, however, Still’s images must be representational and legible; to his mind, Still’s color-forms are inspired by “the incommenserable elements of nature” such as “clouds,” “mountains,” “stalagtites.”57 However, my approach here is more structuralist in nature, and I want to let Still’s paintings remain abstract. Keeping in mind Still’s own thoughts on the importance of “structure” and “organization,” in his praxis, and his frequent description of groupings of his paintings as “sets,” I am more inclined to heed Claude Lévi-Strauss’ reminder [here, substituting “work of art” for “mask”] that the importance of “a work of art is not primarily what it represents, but what it transforms” in any given “transformation set.”58 In final analysis Rosenblum’s interpretation can be seen as a fairly simplistic extension of the Romantic cult of the ruin and a wholesale application of popularized concepts about the sublime circulating in the mid-50s. Still was skeptical of critics who ventured down this hermeneutic path when writing about his work. Just after Rosenblum’s article was published, he told one interviewer:
“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. The dictator types have made a cliché of ‘sublime’ conceits throughout the centuries to impress and subjugate the ignorant or desperate . . .”59
In his 1977 Artforum essay, “Clyfford Still: The Ethics of Art,” Donald Kuspit comes closer to arriving at the heart of the matter. Unlike Rosenblum, he is not concerned with what Still’s color-forms might stand for or represent. Instead, he focuses on their internal dynamism within Still’s mature compositions, and the effect this has on the viewer. Following Still’s own admission that “by 1941, space and the figure in my canvases had been resolved into a total psychic unity,” Kuspit considers Still to be an action painter, but not in the normal sense of the term: “Still’s art is act-ive . . The focus is never fixed or finalized . . . and it is to be consciously confronted rather than passively accepted.”60 Kuspit goes on to emphasize the importance of the relationship between the part and the whole in Still’s works, and the power of those tension filled spaces in between, which he calls “fringes.” According to Kuspit these are the moments that “give Still’s best works their special character,” they “articulate the inarticulate,” they “connect and disconnect,” and “unite and within unity differentiate in a ceaseless flux.”61 His thoughts on Still’s “fringes” echoes Still’s praise, 40 years earlier, of Cézanne’s purposeful use of “elusive contours” and “transitions.” Kuspit further explicates:
“Still’s achievement is to make all “parts” of the picture seem to have an affinity with one another, so that the picture as a whole seems the differentiation of a unified field. The fringes are differentiations or “exeptional” nuances which momentarily stablize the field of perception to intimate unity without turning it into permanent organization. Still’s “forms” always remain transitive, fugitive, fringelike, so that they can generate the sense of affinity which communicates unity without forfeiting freedom – without making it seem predetermined, but rather the result of autonomous perception.”62
There is, it follows, some basis for Still’s often quasi-religious peachings about his art. In Kuspit’s words:
“Why is such perception more ethical than aesthetic in import? Why are the fringes not simply another way of communicating the sublime “unity” at the end of infinity and, so, a unity experienced yet invisible – ambigiously known? Because aesthetic perception is concerned with grasping the final unity and final form of the painting – with it as a picture. In the last analysis, aesthetic perception has no patience with the process of perception itself, with the choices or alternatives in that process . . . The permanent flux in the field of [one of Still’s paintings] epitomizes a situation of ethical choice rather than aesthetic finality or certainty of sensation.”63
Kuspit sees a similar “conflict between implicit forces” present in the forms that reach across the chasm in Jackson Pollock’s The Deep (1953) [Fig. 17]. Still wrote a letter of admiration to Pollock (dated October 29, 1953) shortly before he created it:
“Went up to [Sidney] Janis’s gallery with Barney [Newman] the other day & took the liberty of pushing into the office to see some of the paintings you did this summer. What each work said, what its position, what each achieved you must know. But above all these details and attentions, the great thing, to see, came through. It was here a man had been at work, at the profoundest work a man can do, facing up to what he is and aspires to. I left the room with the gratitude & renewal of courage that always comes at such moments. This is just my way of saying thanks, & with the hope that some of my work has brought some of the same to you.”64
These comments, coming from someone about whom Pollock once said, “he makes the rest of us look academic,”65 must have meant a great deal. Pollock’s biographers claim that this contact with Still in fact inspired him to make The Deep, which may very well be his most Still-like painting. However, as it is widely known, Still was both a creator and a destroyer; if he had given Pollock hope with this letter, he soon took it away. On December 3, 1955, Still, angry over the fact that Pollock did not send him an invitation to his 1955 Janis retrospective, sent him a nasty missive: “Dear Jack, I did not receive and invitation to your show. This makes me somewhat curious. . . is it that you are ashamed of [your work]?” Already deeply depressed, this ostensibly sent Pollock over the edge.66 After Pollock’s death, Still showed some remorse about this episode. In a conversation conducted with Thomas Albright in 1976 Still claimed that after this he went to visit Pollock at home in East Hampton one night in 1956. Pollock was drunk. Still was about to drive to Spokane Washington and invited Pollock to make the journey with him, to drive his own car, and to meet up with him at regular points along the way. Their first rendezvous was to have been in Pennsylvania, but Pollock never showed up. A few days later Still heard about Pollock’s death. Still claimed, “if he’d come, he might still be alive today. He could have had a fresh start . . . I’d always warned him about that car. It was an old Chrysler that Peggy Guggenheim had given him in exchange for a picture. It wasn’t balanced right, it couldn’t handle the curves.”67 In truth Still had little sympathy for other artists’ personal problems. When he learned of his former friend Mark Rothko’s suicide in February of 1970, he purportedly responded cooly: “I’m not surprised . . . He lost his way a long time ago.”68
In contrast to the extant work of American critics, several theoretically-minded French art historians, including Hubert Damisch, Daniel Arasse, Louis Marin and Georges Didi-Huberman, have more thoroughly considered the relaionship between the part and the whole in painting.69 Unfortunately, however, their ideas have not been applied to Still’s mature work. At the end of his Confronting Images, Didi-Huberman introduces the French term pan – variously translated into English as “piece, patch, morsel, part, facet, or section” – which might be helpful for us to think about in relation to Still’s color-forms.70 Etymologically speaking, pan (Lat. pannus) implies a torn, frayed part of a flat surface or cloth, which seems especially relevant to Still’s contour-less, “tattered” “fringes.” Didi-Huberman opposes the pan to the “detail,” given the latter’s association with an isolatable, iconographically legible element or vehicle of meaning (we should recall that Still, throughout his Thesis, likewise prefers to speak of Cézanne’s color-forms as “particulars” or "fragments," instead of “details”). The pan, unlike the detail, is a materialistic not illusionistic element; it is a formless eruption of paint on the surface of the canvas which confounds transparency and iconographic legibility. Normally when viewing a painting one has to choose between seeing the detail or the whole; it is impossible to see both at once. The pan however is different, it is always inseperable from the whole, and as such, encourages global, active looking. Didi-Huberman prefers to keep pan in French because of its paradoxical nature; it is a word that can mean both part or whole simultaneously. To some extent its dual nature translates into English as well. For example, a “panel,” is a group of individuals assembled as a whole; one thinks also of the way in which we use a term like “Pan-American” or Pangaea, the ancient supercontinent from which all the individual contents as we know them today emerged. Interesting in this context is Still’s recently discovered Map of Europe painting from 1941 [Fig. 18], a transitional piece completed just before the advent of his mature abstract idiom. It appears to be an incohate map of Europe, a Pangaea of color-forms. It is not clear if the shifting “states” are pulling apart or fusing together. Still’s best mature paintings all contain a similar tension between compression and expansion, between coming together to form a primordal whole and fracturing into parts which threaten to drift off the edges of the canvas, beyond, as he put it, “the bounds of [its] limiting field.”71
In his Thesis on Cézanne, Still contends that each one of the artist’s paintings constitutes an essential part of the larger whole of his lifework, and he laments that the Cézanne’s “ultimate synthesis” was “not revealed . . . in [his] life-time” – this, he implies, is posterity’s responsibility.72 After the war Still went out of his way to continually remind those who would listen that, similarly, “No painting stops with itself, is complete of itself. It is a continuation of previous paintings and renewed in successive ones.”73 And, he stressed the underlying unity between one of his paintings and the whole of his oeuvre: “My work in its entirety,” he opined, “is like a symphony in which each painting has its part.”74 Still’s statements here give us some inisight into the “ultimate synthesis” he hoped his paintings would eventually experience in the collective space of his postumous one-man museum. And, they begin to make more sense when considered in the context of the unique way in which Still’s individual paintings were meant to interact with each other in the retrospective show he meticulously organized at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in November of 1979 [Fig. 19], months before his death. It was not so much an exhibition of
paintings as it was a mid-twentieth century gesamtkunstwerk, a carefully orchestrated painterly-architectural-environment. Museum goers were asked to leave the rest of the museum behind as they walked into Still’s self-fashioned world, where one individual canvas led to and played off of the next, just as the individual color-forms inside one of Still’s painting conversed with others next to it, to create an overall effect. In the space of the exhibition, each painting went beyond its limits, expanded horizontally, and interacted as a whole with the other paintings on display. The interstitial blank walls of the Met’s galleries functioned like those sections of empty canvas found between color-forms in the majority of Still’s mature canvases.
That museumgoers had to enter into a totality created by Still from start to finish is precisely what so irked Greenberg. In a late review of Still’s retrospective at the Met, published just after the artist had passed away, the critic made it clear that he could not stand the fact that Still had “imposed itself” in the museum “as the artist imposed himself in person when he was alive.”75 According to Greenberg, this imposition stemmed from the fact that Still’s pictures were excessively wide, and that they seemed to expand beyond their individual limits. In Greenberg’s words:
“Still cannot manage even relative wideness, let alone a canvas whose width exceeded its height. The latter seems to have left him too much alone with himself: walls limit height as they don’t width, and if any abstract painter ever needed the benefit of externally imposed limits it was Still. He should have been commissioned to do pictures that fitted into alcoves.”76
After this Greenberg abruptly switches gears and begins to comment on the Met’s catalog for the show:
“The color reproductions in the Met catalogue are rather good as color reproductions go. And Still often looks better in reproduction than in the original. Some of the plates of paintings that are wider than high spread across two pages, but five of these are printed on single pages that are extended by folded-in flaps. At first glance these flaps, left folded in with only there blank sides visible, looked to me like wide white margins, so that the uncovered parts of the plates seemed to show complete pictures. The effect was startling: I’d seen none of these in the show, and three of them looked better than almost anything I had seen, at least among the post-1950 paintings. In the next instant I became aware of the inadvertant cropping. But the surprise kept repeating itself thanks to the cursorioness with which I continued to leaf through the catalogue. Also when I left the flaps unfolded so that they alone were in sight when the book was closed. That tickled me. Long ago I’d felt that verticle cropping would have helped ever so many of Clyff’s canvases . . . Some of the wide ones had seemed to me to call not just for cropping but for bisecting, for dividing one picture into two better ones.”77
Greenberg’s description here is fascinating, not only because it proves that Still was right after all, his critics were “butchers” out to chop him up (!), but also because as he focuses his attention on the Met’s catalog he simultaneously begins to describe Still’s great contribution to modern painting in terms of page layout – “Still’s originality lay, among other things, in his laying out, designing . . .” Greenberg implies that the novelty of Still’s painterly enterprise consists in his ability to carefully position his individual color-forms and canvases like words on a page, and by extension, to transform the space of the museum into a kind of book, written, designed, and layed out by the artist. The problem, according to Greenberg is that Still cannot control his “tightness of layout.”78 Just as the reproductions of Still’s paintings in the Met’s catalog do not stay on their individual pages, the artist’s canvases in the Museum’s gallery spaces refuse to stay in their alcoves and instead expand horizontally until they interact with others hanging close by. The museum as book which must be read in a certain way, written and layed out by the artist as (dead) author. Such notions suggest that there might just be conceptual side to Still’s oeuvre, and its afterlives.
Still the phenomenologist? Still the structuralist? These two ideas are not so hard to fathom. But Still, the conceptualist? Still, an artist interested in institutional critique avant la lettre? In many ways, it would be hard to come up with a less fitting description of the artist. To be sure, Still was a painters’ painter if there ever was one and as such seems to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from modernism’s conceptualist par excellence, Marcel Duchamp. In fact Still enjoyed defining himself against him. When, in 1964, Artforum juxtaposed a picture of Duchamp’s ready-made “masterpiece” [Still’s description] Fountain (1917), and Still’s painting, 1957-K, he wrote a letter to the Editor and stated, “I take the liberty of mentioning one point which I feel is most appropriate and pertinent, whether intended or not. Few men could better exemplify the antithesis of my work than Marcel Duchamp.” Here, Still doth protest too much. His hyperbolic statements notwithstanding, Still had more in common with Duchamp than he cared to admit. The two artists in fact knew each other, having first met in April of 1949 when Duchamp participated in
“The Western Round Table on Modern Art” a conference at the San Francisco Museum of Art, organized by Still and Douglas MacAgy, then Director of the California School of Fine Arts. Still chose to not participate but later went out of his way to defend those artists who did (i.e., Duchamp) against a host of hostile critics: “Never did I believe that such hatred of art and artists would be so publicly stated by the people who live on it,” he wrote afterwards. For Still, their negative comments amounted to little more than “Pedestrian verbage laid down by passing professionals.”79 Duchamp, like Still, had similarly started out his career devoted to the “cult of Cézanne,” as is evinced in his Chess Players (1911) [Fig. 20], before he decided to give up painting – because, he claimed, he “couldn’t stand the smell” – in favor of making ready-mades. For his part, Still was not opposed to, like Duchamp, making replicas of his own work, and, lest we forget, in the postwar period Still played a central role in creating, along with Abstract Expressionism’s most conceptually minded adherents, Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb, The Subjects of the Artists in 1948. All of which perhaps explains why Still found it necessary to add the following qualification to the end of his aforementioned letter to the Editor: “Please remember I speak without rancor – I have known Duchamp personally and well for many years . . .When all the social platitudes and psychological clichés are forgotten the issues will become clearer. When all the work of our hands and minds have been sublimated to symbols the essence of our commitment will remain revealed in the pages of your magazine.”80 Still, conceptualist? Ultimately, an approach such as this could help us better understand the whole of his lifework and its realization in his one-man museum. Harry Cooper, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., has already provocatively described Still’s entire career as a kind of “thought experiment.”81 At the very least we should admit that Still, as curator Katherine Kuh has observed, was “fixated on the problem of posthumous fame” and spent a great deal of mental and conceptual energy trying to “outwit history”82 – and he did, to date Still is the only Abstract Expressionist who has his own room at the Met, and he is the first to get his own one-man museum.
Near the end of his 1935 Master’s Thesis Still turns his attention to Cézanne’s Card Players (1892) (Metropolitan Museum of Art) [Fig. 21], a “mature and consumate” canvas that he clearly admires more than others. By way of conclusion, we can at this point begin to read between the lines and speculate on what it was about this painting that so intrigued Still. He is not interested, like Cézanne scholar Erle Loran, in in discovering a hidden structure underlying the tableau’s composition.83 Nor does he want to argue that this painting somehow paves the way for 20th century abstraction by illustrating Cézanne’s oft-quoted dictum stating that “everything in nature is a cylinder, sphere, or cone.” Still, in fact, couldn’t stomach this commonplace interpretation, which he refers to in his Master’s Thesis as an “academic platitude of prehistoric pedagogy.”84 Rather, we can begin to imagine that what fascinated Still about this painting was not so much what it shows or represents, but rather what it suggests at an operational and conceptual level.
The model of the card game, I think, can ultimately help us theorize Still’s overall enterprise, lifework, and posthumous museum. It is a particularly apt model, especially if we think of the ways in which Still so deftly played his cards during his career (entering into and stepping out of the museum circuit and/or art market), at times showing his hand, at other times purposefully obscuring it (the same might be said about Still’s artistic “hand,” or application of paint, which paradoxically was at once highly expressive, yet detached and impersonal). Any card game, like any painting, has two potential temporalities, one that is diachronic, and the other is synchronic – two poles which equate to the history of the game vs. the “presentness” of the match.85 Bridge, the game, for example, was invented at a certain place and time in history, which is to say in Russia in the late nineteenth century, and its rules evolved over time, on a diachronic vector. At some point it was decided that each player is only allowed a certain number cards at any given time, only so many “tricks” per play, etc. This is the history of the game. But a particular match of bridge between players always takes place in a perpetual present tense, on a synchronic temporal spectrum independent from the history of the game. Players must make the most out of the cards they have been dealt at that very moment, and plan, structure and organize their moves accordingly. Cézanne and Still, we might say, both do something similar to this when they organize the color-forms on their respective canvases. And, further, they ask the same of us when we look at their paintings; we must enter into the presentness of the match with them. Still, who was quite self-conscious of this synchronic, atemporal dimension, once said, “The only space and time I am conscious of in my work is the space and time in which they were painted.”86 His best works invite us to enter into the space of this perpetual present with him.
In his book, Moves: Playing Chess and Cards with the Museum (1997), Hubert Damisch discusses the ways in which curators must “play cards” with the permanent collection of objects in their museums, endlessly reshuffling the same deck to create new relationships and make new thought-provoking connections between them. Their challenge, Damisch reminds us, is to “transform the museum into a laboratory -- at least into a place for experimentation;” to set up a “ludic” scheme which admits to the fact that a museum is at once a system and the product of a history, at once diachronic and synchronic, linear and simultaneous.87 In the postwar period, Still’s Oedipal rivalry with Cézanne resolved itself into a competition with himself, an ongoing game of solitaire, wherein he began to use his own paintings as readymade playing cards. The Clyfford Still Museum, the gameboard, or more accurately stated, the gamespace where Still’s game of solitaire will continue to be played out, has been built, and its very stucture will allow for – all apologies to Greenberg – the horizontal interaction between one mature Still painting and the next. Fittingly, the Museum’s first floor includes an innovative, fully-visible “deep” storage system. Behind a wall of glass museumgoers can see Still's paintings arranged upright in front of them, on a series of sliding tracks, waiting like cards in a player's hand, for their chance to enter into the ongoing match upstairs in the galleries.
It remains to be seen if it will be possible for the Clyfford Still Museum to fulfill the utopian goals the artist envisioned, which is to say, if it will be a “place free of politics and academics,”88 and “a neutral environment which becomes whatever one chooses to make of it.”89 The “deck” of cards (or “set” of paintings) that Still left us will always remain the same, but the number of possible combinations of his individual canvases is forever limitless. This author, for one, is looking forward to playing cards with the artist in the years to come, ad infinitum, still.