Amongst the foremost figures of American Abstract Expressionism, Still’s influential role within that movement cannot be overstated, especially as one examines the impact of his paintings when first unveiled in New York in early 1946 – mere months before the creation of the present work. Within PH-399, the limitless ground, rugged silhouettes, and saturated hues of the artist’s mature production are already fully expressed, creating a composition at once explosive and elegant, raw and refined; in comparison, the paintings of Still’s contemporaries within the New York school offer only tantalizing glimpses of the aesthetic choices that would eventually define their mature and revolutionary styles. Painted years before Motherwell’s first Elegy or de Kooning’s first Woman, PH-399 is an early and masterful realization of Still’s distinctive vision, presenting its viewer with the full depths of the artist’s innovative abstract vernacular. Underscoring Still’s commitment to independent aesthetic evolution, the artist would eventually withdraw from the pressures and influences of the New York art establishment several years later, in pursuit of a more individualized practice. In the wake of this departure, Still maintained relationships with only a select group of trusted curators and institutions, including Gordon Smith, the director of the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. In 1959, Smith invited the artist to organize and curate his own exhibition there, granting him complete control over the exhibition’s content, design, and installation. For this seminal show—the artist’s first large-scale survey, and his first exhibition since ending ties with commercial representation in 1951—Still personally selected PH-399 as one of the 72 paintings to be included. After the exhibition, Still made a landmark gift of 31 paintings to the museum; speaking about the gift, the artist noted: “To all who would know the meaning and responsibilities of freedom, intrinsic and absolute, these works are dedicated.” (The artist quoted in Exh. Cat., Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Clyfford Still: Thirty-three Paintings in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1966, p. 18) Echoing Still’s unwavering commitment to creative freedom within its compelling abstract forms, PH-399 stands as enduring monument to the aesthetic originality which has, over the intervening decades, come to define Still’s singular contribution to twentieth-century art.
In every way exemplary of Still’s radical creative vision, PH-399 is a stirring testament to the steely intensity and unwavering purpose with which the artist approached his abstract canvases, never faltering in his determination to express the inexpressible. In his introductory essay for an exhibition of Still’s work, Ben Heller eloquently describes the essential qualities of Still’s practice: “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.” (Ben Heller in Exh. Cat., New York, Mary Boone Gallery, Clyfford Still: Dark Hues/Close Values, 1990, n.p.) Exemplary of this apt summation, PH-399 is archetypal of Still’s most compelling canvases; while resolutely abstract, Still’s suggestive forms project a narrative based not on figural representation, but on a spellbinding synthesis of color, contour and painterly dynamism. As with the greatest examples of Rothko’s exquisite hovering forms, or of Barnett Newman’s precise yet profound linear zips, Still’s fields of unfettered expression elicit deep and instantaneous emotions. While Rothko and Newman’s iconic canvases draw immense power from their saturated hues, the purest intention—and ultimate power —of PH-399 lies within the compelling contours of Still’s searing abstract forms. Heller describes: “The subject of these paintings: Edge. Not the edge of the canvas, but the torn, jagged, moving edge which defines shape. Still’s edge is his particular, his singular trademark. It is line, it is form, but it is also more than simply line, does more than just traverse. It is his carrier of movement; it creates direction, speed, and activity. It is rough and even; it upsets and soothes. It sets pace by creeping or swiftly thrusting, by penetrating and bisecting. It is irregular; it twists and turns. It can be smooth and clean as a knife.” (Ben Heller in Ibid., n.p.) Juxtaposing his stygian crags against a creamy ground, Still achieves a riveting tension between light and dark, aperture and expanse, action and stillness; while the inky tendrils seem apt to spread across the silvery fields, their jagged perimeters are contained within delicate seams of scarlet and yellow pigment that, while never making contact with their darker counterparts, structure the composition to create an exquisitely balanced whole.
Within Still’s revered corpus of canvases from this period, PH-399 achieves a formal elegance within its abstract forms that is rivaled by only the artist’s best-known masterworks. The dominant monochrome of the canvas enacts a stark simplicity reminiscent of a sweeping arctic tundra or plunging cavernous abyss, as Still articulates a gripping visual drama within the most essential of artistic means. Exemplified by PH-399, Still’s paintings of the later 1940s are notable for the artist’s use of white paint, rather than raw canvas, to contrast his darker forms; in her essay for the catalogue of Still’s 1979-1980 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, scholar Katharine Kuh reflects: “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.” (Katharine Kuh in Exh. Cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Clyfford Still, 1979-1980, p. 12) Indeed, against the stark intensity of Still’s white ground and dominant black forms, his selective use of saturated color—electrifying orange, yellow, and scarlet pigment—is all the more searing for its restraint. Kuh describes: “Beneath opaque blacks and other nocturnal colors [Still] compressed energies that finally fermented into a molten existence of their own. With him pigment and color 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.” (Katharine Kuh, “Still, the Enigma,” Vogue, February 1970, p. 183) Even within his darkest and lightest forms, Still’s canvas hums with a tense equilibrium between a velvety matte black contrasted with glossier ebony, a snowy white shadowed by silvery dimples of dappled gray. In every nuanced daub, PH-399 is profoundly representative of Still’s extraordinary painterly spirit, presenting its viewer with a glimpse into the depths of his extraordinary brilliance and enduring as a physical measure of his unrivaled artistic magnitude. Describing the significance of Still’s output in terms highly fitting for the present work, Kuh concludes: “The man is his work. The two cannot be separated. I doubt if anything could have sidetracked Clyfford Still. And one feels the same way about his paintings. Majestic, serious, sometimes somber, sometimes exhilarating, they seem to grow of their own free will. Nothing contains them, nothing stops them. How exactly they were painted seems irrelevant; it is their total impact that counts. These canvases are not built on themes about life; they are an extension of life, a key to ourselves, to our pierced universe, and, above all, a key to Clyfford Still.” (Katharine Kuh in in Exh. Cat., Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Clyfford Still: Thirty-three Paintings in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1966, p. 11)
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