- Clyfford Still
- signed and dated Clyfford 1948; signed, titled and inscribed on the reverse
- oil on canvas
- 75 x 69 5/8 in. 190.5 x 176.8 cm.
Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in April 1974
New York, Cornelia St. studio, Private Showing, 1948
San Francisco, Metart Gallery, Clyfford Still, June - July 1950
Buffalo, Albright Art Gallery, Clyfford Still, November - December 1959, cat. no. 36
Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, Institute of Contemporary Art, Clyfford Still, October - November 1963, pl. 8, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Clyfford Still, 1969-70, cat. no. 14, p. 31, illustrated in color
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Still’s incomparable streak of individualism led to an often combative relationship with the commercialism of art galleries, and he withdrew from the New York art world in the late 1950s, eventually settling in Maryland. As noted with the opening of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver in 2011, 94% of this artist’s oeuvre was gifted to this institution from the estates of Mr. and Mrs. Still, reflecting their life-time legacy of donating 69 works to museums such as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (1964), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1975) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1986). Records now indicate that only 24 works on paper and 77 paintings remain in private hands, mostly acquired through dealers during his New Yorkyears or Marlborough-Gerson Gallery’s purchase of a large number of works from Still in 1969. During that time, the artist and his wife also occasionally consigned his work to auction, including 1948-H, which was sold at Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York in April 1969 and purchased by Marlborough-Gerson Gallery. In 1974, 1948-H entered the present collection and has not been exhibited or published since.
1948-H is a testament to Still’s quest for new forms and concepts in painting, but as demonstrated by the current Vincent/Clyfford exhibition at the Clyfford Still Museum, the artist engaged with the modernist masters who preceded him. Paul Cézanne was the subject of Still’s graduate thesis at Washington State College in 1935, and both Van Gogh and Cézanne appear to be touchstones for Still with their identity as outsiders and their seismic innovations that broke new ground in the concepts of oil painting. However, Still’s dialogue with both artists was not as an acolyte; rather he saw his role as taking up the challenge of carrying their nascent ideas to their proper and full conclusion. Almost like the craggy surfaces of Cézanne’s mountainscapes, 1948-H evokes the jagged elements that provided the inherent structure of Still’s mature compositions and embodies his drive to evolve Cézanne’s conflation of color, form, plane and space into an even more unified whole of stronger emotive power. As his friend Mark Rothko famously wrote in the introduction to the catalogue for Still’s first one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century, “Every shape becomes an organic entity, inviting a multiplicity of associations inherent in all living things. …a profound and moving experience.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Art of This Century, First Exhibition, Paintings: Clyfford Still, 1946, n.p.)
Even more resonant is the comparison of the energized canvases of Van Gogh, particularly the nocturnal canvases such as The Starry Night from 1889, with the sumptuous mastery of color and paint application in 1948-H. Through gesture, thickly impastoed paint strokes, bold yet balanced color palettes and a bravura use of spatial eloquence, one can surmise Van Gogh as another critical muse for Still. Yet unlike his forebear, no vestige of traditional subject matter persists in Still’s work, jettisoned in the mid-1940s just as he was to meet the other Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman in New York through the agency of Rothko. During the time he painted 1948-H in San Francisco, Still was also regularly visiting New York with the hope of creating a school that would foster individual artistic freedom. The impact of his canvases on the New York painters was significantly related to transformative shifts in each of their painterly styles. The coincident timing of these burgeoning developments is not surprising when one considers that Still and the New York artists co-existed in the same milieu reflected in the 1943 statement crafted by Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb and Rothko: “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.” (New York Times, June 13, 1943, section 2, p. 9)
Newman, Rothko and Still shared a common goal of achieving the “sublime” in art with the minimal tools of color and form, yet Newman and Still further shared a technical means and virtuosity in common. While Newman was already at work on his famous “Zip” paintings when Still arrived in New York in 1945-46, the vertical shafts take on a more boldly textured application further establishing the “zips” as the core of his compositions. Painterly gesture and thick application enlivened the canvases of both artists in the late 1940s, highlighting the tensile vibrancy of oil paint’s physical qualities. Just as in the plunging and notched edges of Still’s color in 1948-H, line and color fuse together to assert the mystery and dynamism of life. 1948-H is the more remarkable for achieving this energy and vitality with a color palette of restrained balance that exhibits Still’s remarkable dexterity in close tonal ranges. 1948-H resonates and hums with a tense equilibrium between shiny and matte blacks, deep and bright blues, and a rich, dusky brown. Flashes and flecks of white, red and yellow disrupt the velvety rich darker hues, almost cracking the surfaces like fissures in a steep rockface as they draw our eye inexorably. The great curator Katherine Kuh noted Still’s chromatic daring with the darker end of the palette which Van Gogh would have surely also admired. “Beneath opaque blacks and other nocturnal colours [Still] compressed energies that finally fermented into a molten existence of their own. With him pigment and colour were already one, but it was the surging undercurrents that turned his paintings into living organisms. He seemed to squeeze light out of black. His canvasses no longer represented nature, but, charged with the immutable laws of nature, asserted their own physical identity.” (K. Kuh, “Still, the Enigma”, Vogue, 1 February 1970, p. 183)
In the text for the 1990 exhibition of Still’s work subtitled Dark Hues/Close Values, Ben Heller further advanced this thesis specifically in relation to the paintings of the late 1940s and 1950s, Still’s great period of discovery. The paintings exhibited were divided into categories – blues, yellows, maroons and blacks – each revelatory of a particular aspect of Still’s manipulative genius for color values, surface, tension, edge and void. For Heller, the Blue paintings explored close values most intensively, allowing the texture of the surface to animate the canvas. In the Black paintings, the subject he intuited was “Beyond the Canvas”, where Still’s all-over compositions exist past the edge of the canvas and embrace the void. 1948-H embraces both chromatic realms and aesthetic premises and fully incarnates Heller’s insightful commentary on Still’s genius for form through color. “Color is broad, flat; it fills and flows. It is mystical, intense, direct. Where line is descriptive, analytical, intellectual and rational, color, like music, is sensory, the carrier of emotion, the key access to the source of our feelings and instincts. Still used color to gain access to that source; he bent it to his every purpose. His is somber, dramatic, vivid, brilliant, robust, subtle. He flooded, suffused, flicked, gentled. His colors advance, recede, rise and fall, live in space, create shape and produce emotive power…” (Exh. Cat., New York, Mary Boone Gallery, Clyfford Still: Dark Hues/Close Values, 1990, n.p.) In this provocative and inspiring manner, Clyfford Still harnessed the organic qualities of painting through gesture, textured surface, bravura use of color and muscular composition. 1948-H exemplifies his belief in the integrity of a rigorously personal style of painting that belonged to no movement and addressed universal themes of life, death, freedom and oppression that were the essence of philosophical discourse in the post-war world of the 1940s.