- Clyfford Still
- PH - 21
- signed and dated Clyfford 1962; signed Clyfford, numbered PH-21, dated 1962 twice and inscribed Westminster on the reverse
- oil on canvas
- 77 x 68 3/4 in. 195.6 x 174.7 cm.
Acquired by the present owner from the above in October 1993
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The artist cited in Dean Sobel and David Anfam, Clyfford Still: The Artist’s Museum, New York, 2012, p. 101
"...these surging open canvases bear witness to a new optimism, to an escalating power.’’
Katherine Kuh in Exh. Cat., Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Clyfford Still: Thirty-three Paintings in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1966, p. 11
Clyfford Still’s significant place at the forefront of the art history of the Twentieth Century is unquestioned, and his role in the birth of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School is freshly chronicled and celebrated by the 2012 opening of the magnificent Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. While scholarly dissertations have long focused on Still’s cataclysmic influence in both New York and California in the vital years of the 1940s and 1950s, the sheer breadth and depth of his entire output is fully on display in the eponymous museum. While Still purposely removed himself from the commercial gallery world in 1961, his creative journey continued full force in the quiet countryside of Maryland. Paintings such as PH-21 from 1962 demonstrate the artist’s intent was to more intimately commune with his artistic practice, and a new sense of exuberance, sweep and power in his canvases speaks of the confidence and liberation of the mature artist in his prime. PH-21 with its floating forms of color, jaggedly defined by Still’s masterful paint applications, amply testifies that Still may have left the stage but his creative spirit continued to speak. In his essay for the 1990 exhibition of Still’s work at the Mary Boone Gallery, Ben Heller eloquently and concisely summarized the essential qualities of Still’s work that allowed him to be among the first to create paintings free of depiction, narrative and symbolism. “Color, surface, edge, scale, shape, verticality, pressure, tension, relaxation, movement, grandeur – these are the painter’s tools. To speak of them as subjects for paintings is but a way to draw attention to Still’s ingenious and highly personal manipulations of these tools, to his fusion of technique, image and power, the means by which he acts upon our feelings, the essence of his mystery and greatness.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Mary Boone Gallery, Clyfford Still: Dark Hues/Close Values, 1990, n. p.) PH-21 is quintessential Clyfford Still in its palette of blue, white, reds, yellow and black, and in its expressive brushwork, all combining to convey Still’s unique genius in creating compositions that exude a sense of the living spirit.
From Still’s earliest explorations into Surrealist-tinged abstraction of the late 1930s/early 1940s to the landmark abstract creations of the late 1940s and ending with the majesty of the paintings of the 1960s and 1970s, each seminal stage in Still’s inspiring career is wrapped in a story of location and movement. Still’s innovative style developed during two decades of simultaneous association with New York City and the California Bay area at mid-century, as he alternated between the two coasts. While Still’s first one-man museum show was at the Museum of Art in San Francisco in 1943, he would also show at the legendary Manhattan galleries of the period in the late 1940s, championed by his friends Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Rothko had joined Peggy Guggenheim’s ground-breaking gallery, Art of This Century (1942-1947) in Fall 1943, just a short time after meeting Still in Berkeley. When Still began a year-long stay in New York in 1945, Rothko introduced the artist and dealer, and Still’s first one-man New York exhibition opened at Art of This Century in February 1946. Rothko wrote the introduction to the catalogue, extolling Still’s radical and revelatory work, and Still joined the group of avant-garde artists whose career was launched or furthered by Guggenheim, including Jackson Pollock. Barnett Newman’s participation in the artistic program at Betty Parson’s Gallery was critical to Still’s transition to her gallery in 1947, when Guggenheim closed Art of This Century to return to Europe. It is fitting therefore that these two artists bear the closest affinity to Still’s own concepts and beliefs about art. Unlike Pollock, David Smith or Willem de Kooning, the pursuit of the sublime was a common goal for Newman, Still and Rothko. All three were passionately adamant about the environment in which their work should be viewed and stressed the value of experiencing their art in a plenitude of canvases that could co-relate with one another.
The two fellow artists were therefore well placed to sense Still’s growing disaffection with the New York gallery world that encompassed salesmanship, public and critical response, as well as the commitment of fellow artists. Newman organized exhibitions and wrote texts for the Betty Parsons Gallery, and was overseeing Still’s 1950 exhibition there, prompting a letter from Rothko in Paris on April 6th of that year which reveals their awareness of Still’s sensitivity. “I realize this must be the day that you are working on Clyff’s canvases. And so I send my many thanks and my hopes that Clyff will get something he wants out of the show [April 7-May 6], or at least not be bruised too deeply.” (Miguel López-Remiro, ed., Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, New Haven and London, 2006, p. 66) Although Still had moved to New York City in 1951, he gradually withdrew from participation in commercial galleries around the time of his inclusion in Dorothy Miller’s influential 15 Americans show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1952. Still’s interactions with the New York art world – and even his fellow artists – became complicated and strained, as Still fought to maintain his purist vision of art as a faith, unalloyed by commercial concerns or outside critical analysis. Soon after his 1959 retrospective organized at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, in which the artist had selected the works for inclusion, Still departed for a summer teaching position in Colorado and subsequently moved with his wife Patricia to Westminster, Maryland in 1961.
In December 1963, a letter from Still to the critic Kenneth Sawyer appeared in Artforum which expressed the artist’s reaction to a 1959 article by Sawyer entitled “The Importance of a Wall: Galleries.” After a long letter that amounted to a diatribe against commercialism that indicted dealers and artists alike, Still ended with a summation that characterizes his move to the rolling hills of the Maryland countryside. “It has always been my hope to create a free place or area of life where an idea can transcend politics, ambition and commerce. It will perhaps always remain a hope. But I must believe that somewhere there may be an exception…The truth is usually hard and sometimes bitter, but if man is to live, it must live. ’’ (Excerpted from Exh. Cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Clyfford Still, 1979, p. 54)
The Stills settled on a twenty-two acre farm in Westminster, northwest of Baltimore, Maryland. The artist set up his studio in the spacious barn and was to paint there for the remainder of his life, even after the Stills moved to another home in the neighboring town of New Windsor. As Dean Sobel, director of the Clyfford Still Museum, has noted: “[Still’s] work underwent many significant changes during this period. .. .The paintings of the 1960s and 1970s are marked by a lighter palette and touch, and what could be described as an openness and economy of imagery. While Still began to exploit the qualities of bare canvas in the late 1940s, his use of emptiness and void as expressive devices reached its fullest potential in these late paintings….thereby implanting a sense of ethereality into his previously densely painted fields.” (Dean Sobel and David Anfam, Clyfford Still: The Artist’s Museum, New York, 2012, pp. 29-30) A comparison between PH-23 (1944-1945), PH-945 (1946) and the present work, PH-21 (1962) illustrates this trajectory: the 1944-45 painting incorporated unpainted canvas yet Still’s vertical painterly forms remain unified, grounded and centralized in the center of the composition, while the bare canvas of PH-21 fully inhabits the composition, playing the same role as the painted color forms; all harmoniously relate spatially and chromatically with one another and equally extend beyond the outer boundaries of the painting.
PH-945 from the following year of 1946 is a more indicative example of the “densely painted fields” of the artist’s great paintings of the late 1940s, yet here Still employed white paint rather than bare canvas to open up the composition. This practice was noted by Katherine Kuh in her essay for the catalogue of Still’s 1979-1980 show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In [Still's]work white is no less important than black. Sometimes a canvas is painted white; or, in reverse, bare canvas is allowed to interact with painted areas. In neither case, whether covered with pigment or left partly exposed, does any work by Still depend on a conventional background. All elements are interrelated and share equal validity. Breaking accepted rules, the artist forces normally receding colors to advance and advancing colors to recede…..” (Exh. Cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Clyfford Still, 1979-1980, p. 12) His palette and manipulation of color values was a crucial element of Still’s work; PH-21 consists of his favored colors of reds, black, blue, yellow and white, all expertly balanced in brilliant hues co-existing with the creamy void of the bare canvas. Through color and its application with a palette knife, Still embodied the “actors” of his drama through edge, surface, luminosity, texture and expression. As Ben Heller wrote: “I suggest that our primary response to Still is emotional,…We feel, react to, and are stirred by the maelstrom of forces Still assembled. …But of course the most immediate of all our responses is to 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….” (Exh. Cat., New York, Mary Boone Gallery, Ibid., n. p.)
Katherine Kuh, a writer on art and the influential curator at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1950s, had visited Still’s studio in Westminster and wrote intimately and movingly of the painter’s work of this period. Kuh contributed a forward to the catalogue for the 1966 Albright-Knox Art Gallery exhibition celebrating Clyfford Still’s 1964 gift of thirty-one paintings to the museum (ranging in date from 1937 to 1963). As Still had retreated to Maryland, the public sightings and awareness of his later work such as PH-21 came at careful intervals orchestrated by the artist, who emerged from time to time to collaborate with museums on an exhibition or negotiate a sale of more than 40 works to the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery for a selling exhibition in 1969. Kuh’s excitement at viewing the artist’s work of the early 1960s is palpable in her 1966 text: “To visit Still’s studio in Maryland and see his chronological progression is to recognize uncompromising growth…Here in comparative isolation, his work has noticeably changed. The recent paintings, vast in scale and totally liberated from any fixed focus, sweep upward with frank exuberance. Measured and disciplined as always, these surging open canvases bear witness to a new optimism, to an escalating power.’’ (Exh. Cat., Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Clyfford Still: Thirty-three Paintings in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1966, p. 11) Visually, PH-21 from 1962 embodies Kuh’s words with the brilliance of palette, balance of hues and forms, and spirit of life that it so strongly conveys to the viewer. Here, we encounter the Still who broke all rules and boldly created his own type of art, unique even in the company of other revolutionary stylists such as Pollock, Rothko and Newman. Yet, the painter of PH-21 also displays confidence and wisdom earned over the years, particularly in his relocation to Maryland.
More than a decade later, Kuh also wrote the catalogue essay for the 1979-1980 exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which proved to be the final retrospective in the artist’s lifetime and resulted in the donation of ten paintings to the museum by Mrs. Patricia Still in 1986. In a fittingly elegiac tone, Kuh wrote “Repeatedly one returns to [Still’s] late works which are freer, surer, more open and electrifying than anything this artist has done before. Like certain painters of the past – I think immediately of Titian, Turner, Degas, Monet and Cézanne – he becomes increasingly daring as he grows older. Now nothing is static; everything flows or floats in a majestic interplay.” (Exh. Cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ibid., p. 12) Such tributes can be applied to Still’s fellow artists of the 1940s-1950s who were also extending their significant oeuvres into the 1960s and beyond. While their days of friendship were past, an aesthetic kinship can be seen in viewing Barnett Newman’s masterpieces, such as White Fire II from 1960 and The Stations of the Cross works from 1958-1966, created in the final decade before his death in 1970. Like Still, de Kooning had a creative rebirth in his move to Easthampton in the 1960s and his paintings of the 1970s, such as Untitled III from 1975, are visual statements on his revitalized love for the properties of paint and the optical joys of color and light. For Still, of course, any sense of fulfillment, pride or confidence on the part of the artist toward his own work was only part of his goal and vision as an artist. Clyfford Still’s aesthetic creed saw art as crucial to man’s ability to live in the modern world, and each viewer’s individual creative communion with paintings such as PH-21 was as essential to his art as the painter’s act of creation. Still’s credo, as it applied to the viewer and to his conception of the role of the artist, is perhaps best summed up in his own words, “I want the spectator to be reassured that something that he values within himself has been touched and found a kind of correspondence. That being alive, having the courage, not just to be different but to go your own way, accepting responsibility for what you do best, has value, is worth the labor.” (Excerpted in Dean Sobel and David Anfam, Ibid., p. 101)