Saturday, April 6, 2013

Clyfford Still: The Artist's Museum by Dean Sobel

If there was a Mt. Rushmore for 20th century American artists it should probably include Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still. (I'm hoping to ameliorate my biased choices by leaving the fourth spot open for your choice.) Besides noticing my bias, your second reaction was probably to wonder exactly who Still is. I'd call him the best American artist you don't know about.

Consider this. Jackson Pollock - "Jack the Dripper," perhaps the most revolutionary painter of the 20th century - said "Still makes the rest of us look academic."

Fortunately, there's now the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, a seemingly fabulous venue for the near entirety of Still's work. The first part of Clyfford Still: The Artist's Museum is Dean Sobel's recounting of how the museum came to be. You must understand that while many 20th century abstract painters tried to exert more and more control over how and where their work was displayed, Still has been the only one to have his wish granted in the extreme. As per the terms of his will, all of the works in his estate would be given to the American city that would build and maintain in perpetuity a museum dedicated solely to his work. We all owe the city of Denver a great deal of thanks (as well as a visit) because now that the overwhelming majority of Still's work is available for viewing and study we're starting to learn (and unlearn) more about him.

And that's the second part of The Artist's Museum: David Anfam's insightful essay on Still's career. His early years in Alberta, Canada and the American Northwest were dominated by his father's fateful farming experience which likely drilled into Still the struggle between man and machine and nature. The first painting that hints at his mature style is PH-77 from 1936. In it you can see the strength of his brushwork, the elongation of the human forms, the intertwining of earth and person.

Clyfford Still, PH-77, 1936 source
Within a year Still's work began the trend toward abstraction. In PH-343 from 1937 we see a flattening into the picture plane of the forms of man and machine and a gravitation from form to color.

Clyfford Still, PH-343, 1937 source
By the 1940s, Still's work seriously began its transformation to pure abstraction. I find this intermediate period similar to Rothko's from which the "multiform" works arose. It has been called Still's desire to blend man and the earth into a single union. PH-313 from 1942 is a great example.

Clyfford Still, PH-313, 1942. source
In the 1950s Still's mature style reached full stride. The book includes 78 plates, several of which fold out into two-page spreads, and show Still's mature style in detail.

Clyfford Still, PH-605, 1950, pp. 186-187
The Still to which I have easiest access is 1956 J No. 1 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. I think it exemplifies what is great in Still's work - color, balance, energy, depth, motion, intellect.

Clyfford Still, 1956 J No. 1, 1956
Still described his paintings simply. "They are life and death merging in fearful union."

Anfam is more eloquent. "Effects of concealment and a menacing, lugubrious otherness repeatedly meet an eye-opening onslaught of tactile immediacy and sheer chroma."

I just say Still's paintings are some of the most powerful, riveting, and engaging that I've ever seen.