Contemporary Art

A New World

By Dr. David Anfam
On 29 June, Clyfford Still's 1947 masterpiece PH-144 will feature in Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction. Here, art historian David Anfam writes on the importance of the present work – both within Still's oeuvre, as well as in the broader context of 20th-century American art.

T hroughout the 1940s Clyfford Still’s art developed with lightning speed. His career path also moved fast. Near the decade’s start Still resigned his professorship at Washington State College, Pullman, then relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. There, he eventually worked in the wartime shipbuilding industry. Notwithstanding, Still held his first solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art in March 1943. Significantly, it would be in the same city that he created PH-144 (formerly bearing the alpha-numeric designation 1947-Y-No.1).1 Indeed, it was paintings of this caliber that soon were largely responsible for influencing what became the “San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism”. In contrast, PH-144 owes no influence to anything other than Still’s own unique vision. Fresh as the day it was done, this masterpiece – crackling with energy – epitomizes Still at the peak of his powers.

CLYFFORD STILL, PH-144 (1947-Y-NO.1), 1947. The present work. Estimate $25,000,000 – 35,000,000.
Fresh as the day it was done, this masterpiece – crackling with energy – epitomizes Still at the peak of his powers.

By 1945 Still moved to New York City and made his debut there the following February with another solo show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery. But in spirit he remained a man of the American West. Aptly, Still returned that fall to teach at San Francisco’s California School of Fine Arts. Radical in its abstraction, PH-144 nevertheless has its ultimate roots in the artist’s time “working out West, and alone” (to recall the words that another, fledgling Abstract Expressionist had famously attributed to him). That Still could summon elements first experienced in the landscapes of the Canadian prairies and Washington State long before and transform them beyond recognition reflects his capacity to distil ideas and sensations to their utmost painterly essence.2


In Still’s case, this process involved internalizing the confrontation – at once ominous and awe-inspiring – between the self and space. Simply put, the vertical embodied a life force that might either fuse with nature and/or the horizon or triumph over it. This is why the artist once spoke about life and death merging in “fearful union”. Elsewhere, he described his early paintings as mostly “records of air and light. Yet always and inevitably with the rising forms of the vertical necessity of life dominating the horizon. For in such a land a man must stand upright, if he would live. And so was born and became intrinsic this elemental characteristic of my life and work.” Looking intently at the raw surfaces and pictorial dynamics of PH-144, we see this drama in full play.

To the left of the composition a spectral presence rises through the entire height of the image. Its fiery alizarin crimson core suggests a visceral vitality held firm, while also writhing, by the ambient black that reaches laterally beyond the canvas edge. In the lower right quadrant, this darkness seems to prevail – accentuated by the strong blue rivulets. Night, so to speak, versus day. Troweling white pigment upon the bare canvas, Still establishes a spatiality as hard to define as it is vivid to behold.

At upper right a golden and russet outburst presides over the two masses: light battling the shadows. The parts of this indelible whole feel as though they are simultaneously expanding beyond the frame and being compacted together. The picture’s dimensions – neither vast nor diminutive – amplify this tension. Scant wonder that the artist once mentioned an “implosion of infinities”. True, remnants of the figure and landscape may lurk in the distant visual ancestry to PH-144. Now, though, they have been changed into what Still termed “a whole new world for which there are no words.” To experience such a world is to enter the ineffable dimension that belongs to art of the highest order.3

1. That Still subsequently returned to the motifs of PH-144 twice in that same year indicates how germane he considered this initial version to be.
2. On the artist’s capacity for constantly transforming his imagery, see David Anfam, Repeat/Recreate: Clyfford Still’s “Replicas” (Denver: Clyfford Still Museum Research Center, 2015).
3. I have a vivid memory of the afternoon in December 1977 when I went to the Anderson Collection. Vivid since Hunk said he was soon going off to play tennis with… Frank Stella. Secondly and above all, because the art matched and even surpassed several of the extraordinary private collections that this twenty-two year old student had already been lucky enough to see on his first trip to America.

© Art Ex Ltd 2020

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