- Clyfford Still
- Signed Clyfford Still and dated 1947 (lower right); signed Clyfford and titled PH-218 and inscribed 1947-K twice on the reverse
- Oil on canvas
- 63 x 40 inches
Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Philips, Dayton, Ohio
Hokin Gallery, Chicago
Barbara Divver Fine Arts, New York
Acquired from the above by A. Alfred Taubman in January 1981
New York, Cornelia Street Studio, Private Showing, 1948
New York, 23rd Street Studio, Private Showing, 1955, 1956 and 1957
Buffalo, Albright Art Gallery, The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Paintings by Clyfford Still, November 5 - December 13, 1959, no. 27
Philadelphia, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Clyfford Still, October 18 - December 15, 1963, no. 5, illustrated in the catalogue
New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Inc., Clyfford Still, November 1969 - January 1970, cat. no. 10, illustrated in color in the catalogue (as 1947-K)
Ohio, Dayton Art Institute, Contemporary Art from Dayton Collections, June 23 - September 16, 1970
John P. O'Neill, ed., "Documentary Photographs," Clyfford Still (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1979, illustrated p. 210 (in installation at Albright Art Gallery, 1959)
Dean Sobel and David Anfam, Clyfford Still: The Artist's Museum, New York, 2012, fig. 15, illustrated p. 27 (in installation at Albright Art Gallery, 1959)
PH-218 is a critical early touchstone of Still’s practice and was exhibited in two of his first major solo museum exhibitions, at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo in 1959 and at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in 1963. Still’s masterful paint applications are on full display in the seemingly spontaneous, yet utterly cohesive, abstracted forms that stride across the surface of the present work. The predominating hues of rich blue, black, golden brown and maroon red exhibit a fascinating and mysterious array of both tonal and textural varieties as they concurrently merge with, and expose, their unprimed canvas ground. These various fields of color commune with one another entirely organically, punctuated at distinct spots by vibrant accents of white and vivid yellow. Resolutely abstract, PH-218 projects a narrative based not on figural representation but on a spellbinding synthesis of color, contour and painterly dynamism. Still approached each of his canvases with a formidable sense of purpose and a deep desire to express the inexpressible; each stroke, each nuance of surface, each color was assiduously applied as a compelling means of self-expression and universal import.
Still’s corpus is the ultimate testament to the artist’s unique genius for creating compositions that exude a sense of the living spirit. 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” (exhibition catalogue, New York, Mary Boone Gallery, Clyfford Still: Dark Hues/Close Values, 1990, n.p.). Exemplary of this apt summation, the present work is consequently archetypal amongst Still’s most significant canvases. From Still’s earliest explorations into Surrealist-tinged abstraction of the late 1930s and 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 the artist’s inspiring career is wrapped in a story of location and movement. Unique among the major figures of the day, Still lived and worked amid the creative communities of the East and West Coast at mid-century. Still’s first one-man museum show was at the Museum of Art in San Francisco in 1943, but he would also show at the legendary Manhattan galleries during the same period, championed by his friends Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. When his 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 it was in the creative hotbed of New York Abstract Expressionism that Still would -- for a time -- find his most inspiring community of fellow artists. Unlike Jackson Pollock, David Smith or Willem de Kooning, the pursuit of the sublime was a common goal for Newman, Still and Rothko, who shared a deep personal and professional kinship. All three were passionately adamant about the manner 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.
Viewing PH-218 is an undeniably overwhelming and awe-inspiring experience on its own. As with the greatest examples of Mark Rothko’s sublime color field paintings, or Barnett Newman’s stunningly simple ‘zips,’ Clyfford Still’s fields of unfettered artistic expression elicit deep and instantaneous emotions. When viewed in person it is impossible not to feel entirely subsumed by the swirling, sweeping strokes of pigment. Through color and its palette knife application, Still imbued PH-218 with a pronounced presence, thereby creating a visual 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…” (Ibid, n.p.).
Still’s oeuvre is indispensable to the birth of Abstract Expressionism and he intentionally belonged to no one genre of art. He believed in the integrity of a rigorously personal style of painting that was an organic part of the individual creator rather than derived from a movement or discipline. For Still, painting should –- above all else -- be a pure and singular totality that could speak to the soul and address universal themes of life, death, freedom and oppression that were the very essence of philosophical discourse in the postwar world at mid-century. His credo, as it applied to the viewer and to his conception of the role of the artist, is perhaps best summarized 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, Clyfford Still: The Artist’s Museum, New York, 2012, p. 101).
AN APPRECIATION OF PH-218
By Thomas Kellein
In 1963 Clyfford Still donated a representative selection of 31 works to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo; in 1975 he followed this with a donation of 28 paintings to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. After his death, Still’s widow Patricia gave ten additional paintings to the New York Metropolitan Museum’s newly opened wing for 20th Century Art as a memorial to the greatest exhibition Still’s work had received during his lifetime. The idea of these three large donations was to place a very particular, discrete part of a total collection in each of those museums. Still was not only the first painter to develop the Big Canvas into an artistic form; he also wanted rooms of his own and asked that his authority with regard to the installation of his art be respected.
Since 1961 Still lived and worked in Maryland, outside metropolitan Baltimore and far from New York. He avoided social contact with the art scene, and he despised artists who wanted to be commercial. Of the more than 2,000 works he created, roughly 80 were donated and approximately 100 were sold before the posthumous founding of his museum in Denver, so that to this day an acquisition of one of his paintings is a very special event. However, Still did not want to be isolated. He traveled and corresponded a great deal. After his exhibition debuts with Peggy Guggenheim in 1946 and with Betty Parsons in 1947, he furnished exhibition catalogues in the course of the following decades with trenchant statements. “It was a journey that one must make, walking straight and alone,” he wrote significantly on New Year’s Day 1959 to the Director of the Albright Art Gallery, Gordon Smith, on the occasion of his first exhibition in Buffalo, to characterize his artistic development as a path fraught with dangers.
Clyfford Still thought of himself as the survivor of an Odyssey. As early as 1946 his colleague Robert Motherwell described him as “the most original. A bolt out of the blue.” His main theme at the beginning of his painting career was American prairie landscapes with standing human figures. From 1938 on he numbered his works and made the artistic choice of using a palette knife besides his brush on the canvas. His figures became less and less products of drawing and assumed more and more the appearance of islands of color, almost like parts of nature. These islands developed into landscapes, both earthy and multicolored, to become emphatically contrasting structures whose formal relationships were almost impossible to interpret without knowledge of the preceding depictions of themes of solitude and danger in his work. Especially during the years of World War 2, Still struggled to define an independent pictorial language and developed his mutually repelling and attracting forms, his slow continental drift in painting. The pictorial elements do not join into a stable order, as they do in Mondrian. Nor do we find archaic or surreal themes. Instead the surfaces appear as crusts, as crude matter, laid on with the palette knife, ample stretches slashed through, as if in a desert, by flashes of light or even lightning bolts.
PH-218, which was painted in San Francisco in 1947, where Still taught for four years at the California School of Fine Arts, presents masses of color that combine the darting and blazing vitality of fire with a quality of somber gloom. This wholly original work, somewhat reminiscent of El Greco’s dramatic spaces, evinces heights and depths, colors and light. Stylistically we can already discern the articulate form of tranquility that is typical of Still. His works breathe, sing, and are silent. They give rise to an experience of grandeur, genesis, and vastness that will continue to live in American art decades later, not only in Minimal Art and in Land Art.