Clyfford Still: A Tiger, Emancipated.

Painter and provocateur Clyfford Still developed his unique style during the Abstract Expressionism explosion of the mid-20th century. One of his works, Untitled (PH-58) (1951), is a mostly monochromatic behemoth [1]. In the interest of performing an analysis of Still’s choice to rely on the use of one color to actuate his composition, we shall compare Untitled to a wholly-monochromatic work by painter Gerhard Richter, Grau (Grey) (1976).

Untitled, oil on canvas, Clyfford Still 1951
Untitled
Oil on canvas
Clyfford Still, 1951

When artists constrict their palettes they employ the use of limited color to define the emotional provocations of a composition. However, when an artist decides to introduce a proportionally diminutive amount of color into an otherwise achromatic composition, the power of each magnifies. Still’s proportions of chromatic and achromatic space in Untitled serve to illuminate the canvas as a whole, to intensify the textures that build space and create dynamism, to voice the joy of his gestural process, and ultimately to challenge historical conventions about the interaction between viewer and art.

To facilitate this analysis, a brief description of Grau will orient the reader towards theoretical observations in Untitled as it establishes a visual benchmark in the monochromatic format. Richter’s composition uses medium-grey semi-gloss paint, whose surface sheen manipulates reflected light, creates form, and instigates an introspective experience of the work. His use of one paint pigment magnifies the effects of varied brushstroke and surface textures, while several patches of stippling and chunking provide the viewer with moments of disruption dispersed amongst the chromatic homogeny. His choice of grey removes emotional relationships a viewer normally creates with chromatic imagery. Finally, the work prides itself as a single-color composition, reinforced by the artist’s titling, which both announces the color as the subject and stops short of providing any explanation to its meaning.

With this imagery in mind we can turn our sight to Still’s complex intentions. Approaching Untitled from afar, the viewer becomes aware of many differing elements to its composition, though the undeniable mass of black is certainly the first thing one should notice. While Untitled may seem overwhelmingly black, chromatic contrasts reveal themselves as the viewer extends their introduction to the work. In the right-third of the canvas is a thin, dwindling strip of red paint, running from the top edge, disappearing as it reaches bottom. Scattered throughout the work are small dots of peach, crimson and white, no larger than the head of a push-pin, while a patch of glazed brown dwells near the top-left edge of the canvas. Lastly, a formal mass of color exists in the lower-left corner of the canvas, an L-shaped bent-arch of crimson that bleeds off the edge. In contrast, Richter’s composition is obviously absent of any chromatic enhancements.

However, a viewer can get lost amongst the darkness of Untitled without noticing the auxiliary colors, as Still has taken the time to vary his primary pigment. Because he created his own paint by grinding pigments with boiled linseed oil, he fashioned a range of blacks with characteristics that mutate from rain-coated asphalt to pulverized charcoal, their resulting sheen adjusted by proportional modifications of oil in the mix [2][3]. This studio skill is on display in Untitled, one patch of black differing from the next, creating depth of form through surface reflectivity. All of this achromatic variation heightens the intensity of the auxiliary colors, instigating an optical chorus between the scattered dots. This chorus, in turn, heightens the effects of the varied blacks, providing value references as the eye shifts. Together, they mimic the visual call-and-response device common in classical music.

Where Richter paid attention to the element of sheen, using his semi-gloss paint to simultaneously reflect and absorb light proportionate to viewing distance, Still instead oscillates the push-pull of light through varied reflectivity, shattering the formation of a division between the composition and a viewer’s space. Moreover, while Richter creates an illusion of a static, glassine crust, mimicking the surface of a mirror, Still’s achromatic variety adds an orthogonal dynamism to his work, creating an internal depth that begins at the picture plane. This dynamism and opening of the surface work to invite the viewer into the composition, an experience further emphasized by the painting’s size and stature, especially in close examination.

Even with this invitation to go inwards, the evident textures echo ambient light and rebound introspection back towards the gallery’s space. Still uses a palette knife to create this ricochet, alternating between patchy blots, jerky chucks, and chunky globs. These mutations of form — repeating themes of jagged gesture — cause the surface to facet. In its thinnest proportions, Still’s blacks resemble a smoky sfumato. Elsewhere, conglomerations of pigment assemble like craggy volcanic sea line. Variations in pressure with the palette knife cause its edge to scape the canvas, creating fine lines that terminate as fast as they appear. His forceful application dislodges flecks and under the knife’s capture they grate the surface before being deposited somewhere into a pile or removed entirely.

Additionally, Untitled features identifiable forms — a rectangle and a circle — something rather uncommon for Still since he sought neither organic nor non-organic form in his work [4]. The rectangle, whose form is proportionate to the whole composition, hovers near the geometric center of the canvas, shifted slightly to the right. As such, the red, dwindling strip of paint that divides the whole canvas intersects this rectangle, chops it in the same proportions as the whole, and fabricates the rectangle as a miniature frame-within-a-frame. As the viewer focuses on this rectangle, its corners work in concert with the outer corners of the painting to create a mirage of perspective, though this trompe l’oeil quickly disappears once the eyes stretch to question the visual frolic — an illusion formed only in periphery. Still creates this rectangle as if it is embossed; the shape is embedded underneath both the red division and the surrounding black density. The circle — a small, incomplete spheroid of black — hangs off the red division slightly above the rectangle, and does little more than provide an interesting space for rest or confusion as the viewer questions the significance of this area.

Still’s agile hand really works its way around the composition, and his skillful use of palette knives to create texture is undeniable. Conversely, Richter uses a brush to build texture, coating the picture plane through oceanic gesture, sweeping back and forth, creating cascades of fine line. The delicacy used to create Grau‘s texture also prevents its discovery until the viewer approaches the canvas up-close. Grau, too, integrates unusual elements, except Richter included nothing of the geometrical sort. His stipples intentionally create mystery, their presence contrasting the broad lushness of the canvas’s accumulated brushstrokes. Like Still, Richter extracts and re-embeds flecks, although his effort is limited to one small area. Consequently, both artists’ adoration of texture confirms how crucial tactility is to their work, a tactility in space a viewer can connect with, especially in light of their non-objective implementations.

This non-objectivity in Still’s paintings can make interpretation of their experience difficult, evident when gallery-goers make remarks about a struggle to associate with his style [5]. For instance, much of Still’s work has been described in terms of nature, perhaps in an effort to identify what a viewer might see, using words that could provoke conventional imagery for an untrained eye. As such, a litany of observations exist, characterizations from landscapes to chasms, flotsam to fire, accretion to dirt [6][7][8]. Of the tendency to categorize his work this way, Still had just one thing to say: “I paint only myself, not nature” [9]. Additionally, as art historian John Golding points out, Still’s ingenuity even stifles usage of the traditional vocabulary employed to analyze art [10].

A worthwhile interpretation of Untitled then starts by investigating its creation. An exhibition history compiled by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art shortly after acquiring the painting — part of a gift of twenty-eight canvases from the artist — details its origins. Still began the canvas in 1949, while he was living in San Francisco, as a black field of color with some blue and yellow. It moved with Still to New York City the following year, where it was nearly covered with another layer of black paint. First exhibited there in early 1951 at Betty Parsons Gallery, Still, unhappy with its “public exposure,” another chapter in his longstanding distaste for the gallery economy, added the red division and slathered it with black pigment once more before declaring it complete [11]. Twenty-four years later, the painting would return to San Francisco.

Still’s dissatisfaction with its initial exhibition juxtaposed against his repeated resurfacing with black paint reads as an act of redaction. While Still may have sought to redact parts of a conversation with himself that had already occurred, based on his assertions that he was his only subject, or parts of a conversation from the publicity of exhibition, based on his sour remarks, his ideas shortly after the completion of Untitled suggest he held deeper intentions. In his artist’s statement contributed to the 1952 exhibition “15 Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, he scorns the “totalitarian hegemony” of painting’s traditional provocations influenced by accumulated subjective experience [12]. He opposes the observational tactic of self-reflection and posits that those who can overcome this tendency will truly understand his work, qualifying a viewer’s objective experience as discrete from the artist’s subjective intentions [13]. Still didn’t only want to edit a conversation that had happened, he also wanted to stop one that hadn’t yet ended, a conversation not just between one viewer and his work, but between all viewers of art everywhere.

Nevertheless, Still would make contradictory statements over the years that seemed to embrace hegemonic response to his work. In a 1956 diary entry he accepts his ability to “bring forth the flaming life,” using the imagery of fire that writers like Jed Perl would use fifty years later [14]. Then, in 1963, Still was quoted as saying if the viewer “finds in [Still’s paintings] an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look to the state of his own soul,” a direct opposition to his hope for viewers to avoid this method [15].

Perhaps Still gave a more rounded read about his work, and specifically Untitled in its completed state, during its first exhibition in 1963 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. His artist statement for that exhibition states his rejection of an interest in both environment and time, regarding place as temporary and time as limiting, then qualifying his practice as one of emancipation [16]. What Still sought emancipation from besides the institutional trappings of the art industry and the hegemony of art history is unclear. To conjecture that he sought escape from some form of internal strife might receive support, considering his reputation as a caustic individual preceded him, insofar that even his colleague Ad Reinhardt once called him an “arsonist” for his rhetoric [17]. While numerous accounts of abrasiveness and terse, tense negotiations pepper his history, one does not hear about a wild drunkenness or lascivious brazenness common of artists from that era, as is the case with Jackson Pollock or Joan Mitchell. In fact, one gets the impression Still enjoyed being the curmudgeon he was. His rough edges aside, Still was just a difficult, resolute man, comfortable in the private freedom of his studio.

This enjoyment of freedom was likely Still’s personal emancipation. No-analysis. No-history. No-place. No-time. In the same diary entry using nature symbolism to describe his results, he says, “a great free joy surges through me when I work . . . and with tense slashes and a few thrusts the beautiful white fields receive their color” [18]. That’s some beautiful, sensual imagery for a caustic arsonist.

Richter also sought his own sense of emancipation while he painted Grau. Enduring numerous comparisons to Pop art at the same time he was confused about the direction of his practice, he began to paint achromatic compositions [19]. His colorless, non-objective work would ultimately replace his own use of imagery from popular culture as subject matter, after expressly stating his lack of interest in Pop art [20]. Accordingly, Grau, a mirror-like illusion on a texture-laden surface, emancipated the viewer from the extroversion of Pop art, instead leading them towards an active introspection as they interacted with the work. Similarly, Still’s personal emancipation led his texture-dependent practice, and his intentions were to emancipate others from the same constraints he despised as he developed his radical style.

These efforts of emancipation are perhaps rooted in both artists’ shared admiration of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche [21][22]. Nietzsche’s interest in the arts is evident in his book Human, All Too Human, devoting a whole chapter to its discussion. In the course of the book’s elaboration of societal hegemonies, Nietzsche remarks, “all great artists have been great workers, inexhaustible not only in invention but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering,” affirming Richter’s efforts of illusion and Still’s efforts of redaction [23].

Although, maybe Reinhardt was correct to baptize Still as an arsonist. Still’s vigor and joy surely burned deep inside him. After all, what would fuel a man to make over 1000 mighty paintings in his lifetime, innumerable drawings and studies, hoard them all — save 150 odd canvases strategically strewn across the world — and legally bound them to his estate until a museum dedicated solely to his oeuvre was built strictly for their housing? [24]. That fuel was the same passion that Still exhibited when, as a painting professor in the 1940s, he recited the poetry of William Blake as part of his instruction [25]. It is no coincidence then, that a favorite poem of Still’s, “The Tyger,” would include this stanza [26]:

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

Still, with his passionate convictions about the experience and joy of art, publicly, voraciously dared to seize his deep, burning fire.


[1] In the interest of moving away from the use of formal titles to avoid categorizing his works, Still, with his wife and daughter, developed a serialized numbering system to catalog his works. These PH numbers refer to artist’s official record and are employed for art historical purposes as means to identify paintings in his oeuvre.
[2] D. Anfam. “Clyfford Still’s Art: Between the Quick and the Dead.” Clyfford Still: Paintings 1944-1960. (New Haven: Yale University, 2001.) pg 39.
[3] P. Plagens. “Seeing The Sublime.” Smithsonian 42.8, 2011.
[4] D. Kunitz. “Clyfford Still: the importance of being earnest.” New Criterion 20.2, 2001.
[5] Plagens.
[6] Kunitz.
[7] J. Perl. “Thus Spake Still.” New Republic 243.3, 2012.
[8] S. Landauer. “Clyfford Still and Abstract Expressionism in San Francisco.” Clyfford Still. T. Kellein. ed. (Munich: Prestel, 1992.) pp 91-102.
[9] quoted in J. Benjamin Townsend. “An Interview With Clyfford Still.” Albright-Knox Gallery Notes XXIV.2, 1961. pg 11.
[10] J. Golding. Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and Still. (Princeton: Princeton University, 2000.) pg 200.
[11] San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Clyfford Still. (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1976.) pg 68.
[12] Quoted in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. pg 120.
[13] Ibid, pp 120-121.
[14] Ibid, pg 122.
[15] Quoted in Kunitz.
[16] San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. pg 123.
[17] H. Cooper. “Still against himself.” Artforum International 39.10, 2001.
[18] San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. pg 122.
[19] G. Richter. Writings 1961-2007. (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2009.) pp 91-92.
[20] Ibid, pp 60-61.
[21] Ibid, pg 446.
[22] Kunitz.
[23] F. Nietzsche. Human, All Too Human. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. (United Kingdom: Cambridge University, 1986.) pg 83.
[24] Perl.
[25] Cooper.
[26] W. Blake. “The Tyger.” 1794.

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