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Thus Spake Still

Clyfford Still Museum
Denver, Colorado

I have never been strongly attracted to the feverish visionary heights that can be reached by a prophetic voice. Of course I feel the power of the Book of Lamentations, and Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, and Wagner’s Ring, and Blake’s apocalyptic extravaganzas. But there are other registers that touch me more deeply, or at least more directly. I think a convincing argument can be made that the prophetic mode does not come naturally to the visual artist, surely not to the visual artist in the modern world. I say this in a speculative spirit, by way of explaining a certain hesitation with which I approach the achievement of Clyfford Still. He was one of that obstreperous band of artists who became famous in New York in the years around 1950, known to one and all as the Abstract Expressionists, although the name made an uneasy fit with much of their work and did not really please them. Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Ad Reinhardt, and Barnett Newman were surely the last painters who believed that a work of art could strike with a force akin to the power of prophecy. Were they right? Could a painting exhibited in a gallery or a museum in New York City in 1950 have the impact of an epochal proclamation? And even if it had an Earth-shattering impact then, can it have such a power now?

At the Clyfford Still Museum, which opened in Denver in November, there should be a banner above the front door announcing, “THUS SPAKE STILL.” The strongest of the paintings in this museum dedicated solely to his work—they date from a ten-year period beginning in the early 1940s—are visions of a sort, sphinx-like and thunderous, as much Attic as Hebraic in their celebration of enigma. We are confronted with walls hewn of paint, the surfaces unsettled, scabrous in places, ranging in one composition from stretches of bare canvas to volcanic buildups of pigment. The colors, whether feverishly bright or burned to brown and black, coalesce into a hyperbolic chromatic poetry. There are fragments of imagery: veins of bright pigment running through dark masses that evoke rock formations, floating bits of flotsam and jetsam with rough-torn edges, shards pulled from the traceries of some shattered Gothic cathedral. The interlocking shapes are puzzle-like, jostling against one another, pushing forward and backward, stony substances submitting to the pressure of geological time. And the narrow rivers of paint in certain canvases can suggest rope tricks or a wooden staff becoming a serpent, the inanimate animated. The paintings exude a glowering lyricism.

And how do these canvases—thunderbolts to which there still clings some of the Romantic heat of the nineteenth century—look more than a decade after the close of what was a determinedly anti-Romantic century? The impact of Still’s rhetoric has cooled, and the visionary strangeness of his paintings has become familiar; the spectacle we are invited to contemplate takes on a retrospective cast. The idea of an abstract painting as a spiritual experience nowadays meets with resistance, the dreams of an alternative reality inaugurated by Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian having dwindled to something more like the promise of an atmospheric interlude, a moment’s respite. In Denver, where the natural beauty of the Rockies is never out of reach and the druggy mysticism that touched American life in the 1960s remains alive, people are ready to bliss out in front of one of Still’s enigmatic mindscapes. I saw more than one person contemplating a Still canvas with the same rapt attention they would bring to one of Colorado’s splendid sunsets. Such an approach is not entirely misguided. After all, didn’t Still want his paintings to be experienced as forces of nature?

Still had a good deal to say about what he wanted, and not only in paint; I hope the Clyfford Still Museum will someday make his collected writings available. The challenge posed by the powerful prose that he published in his lifetime has everything to do with his accentuation of the negative. He eagerly explains the many ways in which his paintings can be misunderstood, always highlighting the extent to which curators, dealers, and critics have muddled the meaning of the work. Like some of the artists who were for a time his friends, Still took upon himself a task he regarded as something like cleaning the Augean stables. He was going to purge the art world of all preconceptions, thereby preparing the groundwork for the entirely new kind of art that he and his contemporaries were creating. Reinhardt wanted “no illusions, no representations, no associations, no distortions.” Newman complained of the “confusion” in Kant’s and Hegel’s theories of beauty. De Kooning said that although he had learned a great deal from the European abstractionists, he was “completely weary of their ideas now.” And Still complained about the “self-appointed spokesmen and self-styled intellectuals with the lust of immaturity for leadership.” The dealer Betty Parsons, who represented Still, Rothko, Newman, and Pollock when they were at the height of their powers, called them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. No doubt she was kidding—but only up to a point. That image of eschatological warriors helps to explain the fire and brimstone in Still’s strongest paintings.

WHAT STILL would have thought of the design of the Clyfford Still Museum is impossible to say. But I can report that it is everything a museumgoer could hope for. The men and women involved in this enterprise—beginning with Dean Sobel, the museum’s director—have honored the artist’s spirit. The building, designed by Brad Cloepfil and his firm, Allied Works Architecture, is human-scaled and finely detailed, a compact rectangular structure enlivened with passages of wood screening and rough-hewn concrete. Although entirely autonomous, the Still Museum is set right next to the Denver Art Museum, and nothing could be further from Cloepfil’s exquisite restraint than the gonzo angularity of Daniel Libeskind’s 2006 addition to the DAM, which is about as audience-unfriendly a museum as I have ever seen. The Denver Art Museum deserves better: its collections are engaging, with strong holdings in the art of the Americas. Visitors will discover, among Denver’s Northwest Coast and Mesoamerican material, suggestive parallels with Still’s images and themes.

Cloepfil’s refusal to grandstand puts him firmly in the humanistic tradition of Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn. The felicities of the Clyfford Still Museum work on us gradually, refinements both visual and tactile to be discovered over repeated visits. The first floor of the two-story structure is devoted to biographical material, including audiovisual aids and vitrines containing catalogues, letters, and books from Still’s library. (There are also administrative offices and storage and conservation facilities.) Upstairs, Still’s tamped-down, belligerently murky abstract dramas come into focus in galleries that exude a monastic calm. Daylight is filtered through the ceiling’s open-work concrete panels. Some of the canvases are beautifully hung on concrete walls with striated surfaces that bear the impress of the wood molds in which they were cast. There could be no better setting for Still’s coruscated poetry.

The museum’s existence will be regarded as something of a miracle by those who know anything about its long, tortuous gestation. By the time Still died in Baltimore in 1980, at the age of seventy-five, he had been a longtime resident of rural Maryland and had spent at least a quarter of a century backing away from nearly everybody who took an interest in his work. As best he could, he rigorously controlled the dissemination of his paintings. He was reluctant to part with much of his work, and he often made near-replicas of paintings that were in other hands. An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979-1980, although Philippe de Montebello was the curator of record, was for all intents and purposes organized by Still and his second wife, Patricia. He left her with the responsibility of finding a permanent setting for the approximately eight hundred paintings in his possession. What he demanded was a freestanding museum where nothing but his own work would ever be exhibited.

For years there was something close to a total embargo even on information about what the estate contained. When the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden mounted a Still show in 2001, Patricia Still was thanked for her help, but the curators responsible for the catalogue appear to have been unable to say with any confidence what paintings were or were not in the estate. Reports have it that at one time or another nearly twenty cities vied for the chance to build a Still museum. Denver, where a nephew of Patricia Still lived, has been in the running twice. Their second bid—in 2003—came while Patricia Still was in discussions with Baltimore, which had a certain logic as being in the state where Still spent much of his later life, but Denver apparently came closest to fulfilling her understanding of her husband’s wishes.

Although Denver is not a city with which Still had any personal connection, the time I spent at the museum left me feeling that this is indeed the right place for his work. Still had deep roots in the West. He was born in North Dakota and grew up in Washington state and in Canada. Some of his first important canvases were painted while he lived in the Bay Area in the 1940s, where for a few years an abstract art with its own idiosyncratic rhythms flourished, in part under the aegis of Douglas MacAgy, a man too little remembered, who was director of the California School of Fine Arts in its heyday, when Still, Rothko, and Edward Corbett taught there. Still always wanted to be seen as a solitary visionary—a man unto himself, silhouetted against the vast American horizon—so it makes sense that a museum honoring him would be set at some distance from the maintraveled roads of modern art. He was also a highly cultivated man, and was surely aware that the audience for his work would have to be attuned to all that was sensuous and spirited in life; and Denver is a lively, sophisticated city. In Denver I felt flashes of the independent intellectual swagger that I have always associated with Northern California. At its best, at least in the mid-twentieth century, cultural life did have a different cast in the West, where academic ideas and ideals, for better and for worse, were easier to slough off or to ignore. Despite all the years Still spent back East, there is a West Coast insouciance about his work that I think Denver understands.

The opening selection from the roughly eight hundred paintings in the museum’s collection is a survey of Still’s entire career, covering some fifty years, from a very early landscape with deep perspectives and delicate Whistlerian brushwork to the late mural-scale canvases with their by then all-too-predictable ragged-edged forms. There is also a selection of works on paper as well as a couple of attempts at sculpture. The early galleries are fairly alarming, with canvases from the 1930s in which farmers and their families are turned into rustic grotesques, with terrifyingly deformed limbs and heads that make Daumier’s cruelest caricatures seem kind. Whatever Still had in mind, the results are catastrophic. Perhaps he meant to channel American Regionalism through the dark Northern sensibility of Hieronymus Bosch. Perhaps he meant to heroicize American agriculture by giving his farmers the grimaces of Mesoamerican idols. Who cares? These may well be the most repellent works done in America in a decade that saw more than its fair share of oil-cloth horrors. Even the art historian David Anfam, a sympathetic and subtle commentator and the adjunct curator at the museum, has referred to the “nightmarish distortion” in these works.

By the end of the 1930s, Still was beginning to disassemble his horrific pastorals, replacing his caricatures with inscrutable totems. While this was progress of some sort, the shift strikes me as uncomfortably abrupt, even though it took place over a period of years. For all that Still’s abstractions evoke the look and feel of the natural world, they may be insufficiently rooted in some deep-seated sense of natural forms and forces. What we observe as Still moves into his strongest work is not so much a formal evolution as a change of allegiance that has some of the bulldozer vehemence that I associate with the ideological fervor of political argument in those years. What remains constant from the 1930s to the 1940s is the self-consciously turgid palette and paint-handling, which Still may regard as a show of stand-alone masculine power, no matter that his allusions to the art of Miró and Native Americans put him squarely in line with the Surrealist tastes of the period. Certainly the blunt force of Still’s canvases does not invite art historical exegesis. His references to Miró’s cosmologies or to Northwest Coast art are carried off with a bravado that may be designed to dull the associations. Can a painting that is designed as an object of contemplation register simultaneously as an act of aggression? After spending some time with Still’s paintings, I believe that the answer is yes.

Still certainly knew how to make a painting that had an impact, and he never lost that ability. The presentation in this inaugural exhibition bids us think in chronological or biographical or evolutionary terms, but the work, the best and the worst of it, is so hellbent on striking us as timeless that the idea of development begins to seem beside the point. This may help us understand what is wrong with the work that began to come out of Still’s studio in the mid-1950s. Those canvases feel like counterfeit Stills, though sometimes they are very good fakes. They lack the tension of the finest work. Could it be that for Still, who was determined to give his paintings the aspect of eternity, real change became anathema? Although the color lightens and brightens in some of the work of the 1960s and the jagged shapes are at moments almost jaunty, Still never moves beyond the configurations he had arrived at before 1950. And as time goes on those configurations lose their saving ambiguity. They become flatter and flimsier, overly literal and too insistently allegorical. Whereas in the work of the late 1940s the geological allusions feel ambiguous and intuitive, a 113-inch-high painting in blacks and browns from 1957 might almost be a rendering of a cliff in the Grand Canyon. The sense of the magic as being in the making is leached out of the work. The size of the canvases becomes blandly aggressive, a giant paint-by-number that Still fills in by rote. Still seems to have known where he was going to arrive before he began the journey.

There are those who will rate Still’s work of the later decades more highly than I do, but I am fairly certain that nobody would argue that he ever painted more strongly than he did in the late 1940s. There is an intensification in the work of those years, a sense of arduous discovery, before which the later achievements, even if one experiences them as confident and expansive, inevitably pale. It is the same intensification that we witness in the work of so many of Still’s contemporaries in the years before 1950—in de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, Reinhardt, and Newman—and it must have something to do with the artists’ suddenly experiencing the extent of their powers, now released from the straitened circumstances of the Depression and the war. Whatever the particular situation of each artist, the sense of expansiveness in their paintings of the late 1940s and early 1950s reflects the turbulent movements of American history.

WHY DID THE Abstract Expressionists fail to sustain the energy of the late 1940s and early 1950s? There are many answers to this question. Some will say that the question is not even worth asking, except to point out that a great many artists rapidly lose the focus and the intensity that characterize their early or middle years. But in Still’s case—and he may not be unique—I believe that the growing achievements of American art precipitated a personal crisis. For Still, the experience of taking his place in the history of twentiethcentury American art raised a host of problems. To become a part of history meant becoming a part of a tradition, which did not sit easily with Still’s sense of himself as a solitary explorer.

In 1952, Still published a startling and to my mind deeply disturbing statement about the nature of tradition. He referred to “the totalitarian hegemony of this tradition I despise.” He wrote that a “body of history matured into dogma, authority, tradition” had grown up around the act of painting. This statement, excerpted from a letter to the curator Dorothy Miller, was published in the catalogue of “Fifteen Americans,” an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that burnished the reputations not only of Still but also of Pollock and Rothko. Perhaps I am making too much of Still’s association of tradition and “totalitarian hegemony”—he liked to speak in riddles, and his statement may be hard to parse. But “totalitarian” is a very strong word to use, especially less than a decade after the defeat of Hitler. And Still’s meaning strikes me as fairly clear. “We all bear the burden of this tradition on our backs,” he writes, “but I cannot hold it a privilege to be a pallbearer of my spirit in its name.” Still’s words go well beyond even the most hostile views of tradition that had been voiced by painters earlier in the modern century. He is not so much suggesting that the artist must start anew—a perfectly understandable impulse—as he is saying that the past offers nothing of any value from which to begin. But can an artist really function without some belief in tradition? What tradition teaches is that art’s present is continuous with art’s past and art’s future.

There are certainly nuances to Still’s thinking. In the striking text that he published in the catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective, which draws on letters and texts written much earlier, Still’s cussedness is engaging, and his resistance to orthodoxies—especially the orthodoxies of the avant-garde—can be very appealing. Like many of his friends, he had no patience with the teachings of the Bauhaus, which by the end of World War II were embraced by art schools and universities all across the United States, and offered a unified approach to the study of painting, sculpture, architecture, and the decorative and graphic arts—an approach that Still was not wrong to find in some ways dehumanizing. I take great pleasure in Still’s takedown of Buckminster Fuller, whose visit to a college where Still was teaching he describes as a “foxy-grandpa farce. The intellectuals, so-called, of the campus and platform, fearful of freedom and guilty unto rottenness for the price they have paid for their slippery security, fall on their knees before him.” It is naughty fun to read Still on his colleagues, who “moan for the condition of the Congolese and clutch their pale martinis on moonlit terraces. They are convinced Adlai [Stevenson] will take care of them, which he will, but not, in the end, to the end in the way they hope for.”

There is a great deal to celebrate in Still’s brilliant diatribes, even if he is sometimes involved with his own kind of “foxy-grandpa farce.” The Clyfford Still Museum could only have been conceived by a man who refused to accept the comfortable assumptions of the art world that was coming of age as he became famous. Even as he was bombarded by curators, critics, dealers, and collectors who wanted to help him cash in on his soaring reputation, he retreated—only (one assumes) selling enough to assure himself a comfortable life. The Still Museum has opened at a time when there is hardly any development relating to twentieth-century art, whether in the museums or the universities, that does not involve some market calculation, some cash nexus. Would the Arshile Gorky retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art a couple of years ago have ever seen the light of day if the Gagosian Gallery were not taking an interest in the artist’s work? And could it be that the white-hot market in de Kooning’s late canvases was a factor in the Museum of Modern Art’s decision to mount its retrospective? The city of Denver, in the process of setting up the Clyfford Still Museum, has itself entered the market. Four paintings from the estate of the artist’s widow—as distinct from the artist’s own estate—were sold last November at Sotheby’s for a total of $114 million, with the proceeds going to the museum’s endowment. But at least for now the museum’s quality of otherworldliness has been sustained. No matter what the pressures of the marketplace—and there are no future plans to sell works from the collection—visitors to these galleries will feel that they are in the presence of an American artist who refused to play the game.

While Still is by no means the only insider in twentieth-century art who wanted to become an outsider, his story is fairly astonishing. Still’s work was embraced by Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons, the two most adventuresome art dealers of the years during and immediately after World War II. And Clement Greenberg, by many estimates the foremost critic of the time, made Still’s work a centerpiece of what is often regarded as his most important essay, “‘American-Type’ Painting,” in 1955. But Still would have none of it. In 1951, he explained in a letter to Betty Parsons that he no longer wanted to exhibit in public. Although that was not quite the end of his involvement with the New York galleries, there was no question that he was in retreat. And after reading Greenberg’s “‘American-Type’ Painting,” Still wrote to the critic to set him straight, voicing considerable discomfort with the way his work had been represented. Even the most congenial attempt to present or explicate his work struck Still as constraining. I don’t know quite what to make of all this. Still’s resistance to the machinations of the art world was admirable. At the same time, his skepticism was so pervasive as to signal a rejection of the warp and woof of culture—and if one rejects culture entirely, what is left?

In Denver, Clyfford Still’s dreams have been fulfilled. He is at last presented in splendid isolation—as the painter who stepped out of the history of painting. Say what you will, he is certainly the most sophisticated outsider artist who ever lived. He holds his prophetic images aloft, and we are left to wonder whether his shreds of brilliant yellow, red, and orange pigment are the embers of a spent conflagration or the sparks of conflagrations to come.

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic. This article appeared in the March 1, 2012 issue of the magazine.