Clyfford Still was one of the pioneers of the postwar abstract expressionist movement that propelled American painting into the forefront of the international art world. Yet he is not nearly as well-known as others in his generation of ab-exers -- Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, for example -- whose careers blossomed during the late 1940s and 1950s.
If Still's place among the founders of abstract expressionism is less prominent -- though no less secure -- than that of his peers, it is partly the artist's own fault.
He distrusted critics, museum curators and collectors intensely and threw up all sorts of barriers to deny them, and the public, unencumbered access to his work.
His relations with fellow artists were also stormy: He dismissed much of the art of the past as irrelevant, and during the 1920s he walked out of a studio class at the Art Students League in New York after only 15 minutes, declaring the school had nothing to teach him.
And though earlier in his career he expressed the highest admiration toward kindred spirits like Mark Rothko, whose large saturated fields of color created effects similar to Still's own mural-sized abstractions, toward the end of his life he wasn't even on speaking terms with many of his former friends. Eventually he stipulated that none of the substantial gifts of paintings he donated to museums on the East and West coasts could ever be shown in exhibitions that included other artists.
As a result, opportunities to see Still's work don't often come around, which is why the new show of the artist's paintings at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington is not to be missed (the 39 paintings in the present exhibition come from private collections and museums that escaped the restrictions Still placed on most of his artwork). "Clyfford Still: Paintings 1944-1960" runs through Sept. 16 and covers the most significant period in the painter's career, the years when he perfected the large-scale abstractions that were his singular contribution.
Heirs to the pioneers
Still's paintings were often described in terms of the "gestural painting" and "action painting" used to distinguish other members of the New York School in the 1940s and '50s, but Still himself rejected such categorizations. The appearance of his studio, unlike the widely publicized pictures by Hans Namuth of Pollock's scattered pots and tubes, was obsessively neat and clean -- Still even wore a white shirt and tie under his smock while painting -- and his working method, though rapid, was rigorously deliberate and calculated. (Though in hindsight the same might be said of Pollock, Namuth's pictures showed him engaged in wild creative frenzy, an image Still found distasteful.)
Still and Pollock did share other similarities, however. Both grew up in western America -- Still was born in Grandin, N.D., in 1904 and grew up in Spokane, Wash., and Bow Island in Canada's Alberta province before coming east -- and both created styles of abstraction that echoed the vast, open landscapes of their boyhoods.
Both considered themselves rugged individualists, heirs to the Western pioneer tradition. And both attached profound metaphysical significance to their work.
"Let no man undervalue the implications of this work or its power for life -- or for death, if it is misused," Still once wrote.
Such apocalyptic pronouncements suggested a tendency toward megalomania that often cropped up in Still's life. But a new sense of pictorial space that Still, Pollock, Rothko and their contemporaries were creating also genuinely was an attempt to enlarge the possibilities of the human spirit.
Geometry in painting
Viewers of the Hirshhorn show are apt to find many of Still's large-scale abstractions both simpler and somehow more obviously beautiful than Pollock's, less complicated and demanding than de Kooning's, less predictably symmetrical than Rothko's. It's hard to believe that 50 years ago this work struck people as baffling and intimidating, or that the artist who created it felt himself such a misunderstood and embattled figure; today Still's paintings look more like a primer on the movement, easy pieces designed to gradually acquaint viewers with the new pictorial language before moving on to more difficult stuff. But the impression of simplicity in Still's mature style requires explanation.
Start with geometry. All the ab-exers worked out their own personal geometry to map the new sense of pictorial space. Pollock loved curvilinear forms -- long, sinuous ribbons of paint and splatters that echoed the parabolic trajectories of pigments that were poured, dripped or flicked from the tip of a brush onto the canvas. Rothko's forms, by contrast, were rectilinear -- squares of intense color embedded within other squares whose hues pulsed and vibrated against each other on the retina.