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When Painter Clyfford Still Sent Rubber Underpants to a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Female Art Critic

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Rubber underpants, circa 1960. Emily Genauer papers, circa 1920s-1990s. (All images copyright and courtesy of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

In 1952, years before she won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, art critic Emily Genauer received a pair of rubber underpants in the mail — the kind of underpants babies wore before the advent of disposable diapers. “Hoping this will aid in concealing your Sunday affliction,” read a card attached to the beige garment. “With the compliments of Clyfford Still.” 

One of the leading figures in Abstract Expressionism, Still had taken offense to a snarky review in the New York Herald Tribune, where Genauer was chief art critic from 1949 to 1966. In the review, of the show Fifteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art, Genauer wrote:

“The majority of the group belong to the self-styled ‘avant-garde.’ ‘Avant-chic’ is perhaps a better name for them. It is difficult to accept the enormous panoramas of emptiness contributed by men like Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, or the tangled skein-of-wool panels of Jackson Pollock as works blazing new trails for meaningful creative expression in the future.”

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Though her opinions on leading Abstract Expressionists would not prevail, Genauer made sure Still’s pigheaded response to her review would go down in history: She kept the underpants and eventually donated them to the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, where they remain to this day. In an undated typescript unearthed from the Emily Genauer Papers at the AAA, Genauer reflects on rediscovering the rubber underpants amid her files full of “ancient items.”

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Emily Genauer, undated typescript (The Emily Genauer Papers, Courtesy of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution) (Click to enlarge)

The typo-riddled typescript reads:

It was a Shakespeare character — I forget in which play, who went to hell for his hoarding. It could happen to me. My files are jammed with ancient items I have regularly intended at years end to throw out. Only I [find] as I flip the crumbling clippings that they’re alive still with unsolved riddles, questions unanswered, puzzles that very likely I’ll never understand.

For instance, I find now — how could I miss it — a pair of baby’s rubber pants/How many years ago was it children wore rubber pants? my grandchildren were into discardable paper pants. The pants lie in a small [box, gaily] wrapped for Christmas, and as I see it, a memory comes back. Some forty years ago I wrote a review of paintings by an artist called Clyfford Still which I didn’t like at all. They were very largees [sic] pretentious and brutal expanses of thick, impasto pigment mostly sll-black [sic] or sullen sgray [sic], broken into here and there along the edges with one or two small streaks of color. Resting on the pants in Styll’s pwn [sic] hand was a card reading, “Hope this will aid in concealing your Sunday affliction. With the compliments of Clyfford Still”. Whatever else that card concealed it was not my tears. Artists can simply not be that crude, I thought.

Oh, but they could be that crude. The incident of the rubber underpants is an example of the sexism that pervaded the 1950s art world, and, specifically, the Abstract Expressionist movement. It was also classic Still: In the 1950s, the notoriously irascible painter grew to hate all art critics. “Yes, there was sexism, but Still’s caustic response is really more a pure expression of his cantankerous personality than anything else,” Liza Kirwin, deputy director at the Archives of American Art, tells Hyperallergic. In other words, it takes a special kind of asshole to go out of his way to buy a pair of rubber underpants and put them in the mail with a caustic little note implying Genauer’s writing is shit.

The mailing of the underpants was just one of Still’s many temper tantrums in response to critics who failed to see that his works were “not paintings in the usual sense, [but] life and death, merging in fearful union,” as he pretentiously characterized them. Sometimes Still’s attitude toward critics approached paranoia — he seemed to think they were all out to get him. Responding to a review in The Nation of a solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, Still wrote, “The motives underlying the review are calculating and sinister beyond casual credibility. The killers are on the prowl with the Commissars pointing the way. It is a murderous document as it was intended to be.”

In a rabid 1952 letter to critic Harold Rosenberg in response to a review in Art News, Still wrote: “One does not just shit on the floor, break furniture, indulge in Eighth street gutter epithets after trying to impress one’s public with the moral and intellectual principles of a reformed salon raconteur. Whether it is due to your basic impotence as a creative writer, your envy of the few artist men who can and do walk with courage in a day when only mice are considered men, or whether your vanity and need for praise, regardless of the source, caused you to drop your guard, I cannot know.” Our resident armchair psychologist sees this scolding about “vanity and need for praise” and “shit[ting] on the floor” as a textbook case of projection.

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Rubber underpants, circa 1960. Emily Genauer papers, circa 1920s-1990s. (All images copyright and courtesy of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

But though Still’s letters to male critics were petulant and delusional, at least he used his words, as kindergarten teachers implore angry kids to do, instead of bullying them with rubber underpants. Genauer, it appears, got special treatment.

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