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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.”

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.”

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.

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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Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

19 replies on “When Painter Clyfford Still Sent Rubber Underpants to a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Female Art Critic”

  1. Oh, please! Such a crybaby article. Consider the possibility that Genauer got what she deserved for her ‘snarky’ review. With the underpants in the Smithsonian, Still’s rudeness is preserved for art historians–but so is the fact that Genauer’s opinions not only ‘did not prevail’ but are reflexively hostile and backward toward art she did not understand. The author’s characterizations of Still are really no more elevated than Still’s complaints, and this entire article seems a little desperate.

    1. Where is the final concluding sentence??? (Because she was a woman.) It DOES need saying, and the need will continue until the field is level.Her thoughts may not have prevailed, but words would have been enough insult. To send a physical object is so much more agreesive and was un-called-for.

  2. I don’t know…compared to the dressing down Rosenberg (and, very likely many others got), the rubber pants almost seems tame.

  3. Personally, I found the entire rubber pants thing hilarious. Who knew Still had such a sense of humor?

  4. Too bad this otherwise hilarious story had to be marketed as “sexism” to make it appear scandalous, when in fact the history of art criticism is filled with wild exchanges of vitriol. Turner sued a critic, and by winning helped canonize his work. Richard Tuttle was so distraught by negative reviews (Hilton Kramer said of the work “‘less’ has never been less than this”), he rode between subway cars so no one would see him. Chuck Close said to critic Deborah Solomon, “I don’t know how you live with yourself. It’s like being a meter maid – all you do is bring people misery.”

    Me thinks Ms. Dunne herself needs a pair of pampers?

  5. I don’t know what I am missing, but I don’t understand the need to use ‘potty language’, a language that is all too often used in these replies, and sometimes in the articles themselves.

    While, so far, the writing in the responses to this article have been of the sort one ought to expect — thoughtful and informative — nevertheless . . .

    Carey Dunne writes,
    “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.”

    And, not too surprisingly, from Clyfford Still,

    “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.”

    Note also how he resorts to other sorts of just being nasty: “salon raconteur”, “basic impotence” and “your vanity . . . “. This kind of rhetoric in many replies is also less than one might reasonably expect.

          1. It IS a serious comment.

            While you say it’s not what you meant, I think the comment reads better with the inverted commas. Do you have a suggestion for what term I might better have used? I’m not married to ‘potty language’ and I am open to suggestions. I chose the term to suggest what I consider to be a less than adult use of language in these contexts.

            I have no problems with any particular words, only how, when, and where they are used. I would not say, for instance, “The unambiguous bifurcation of an anomalous heterotrophic protist,” at least not to most children. On the other hand, the doors are open to a good deal of casual speech. I have always thought that with the exception of plays, movie scripts, novels, short stories, and so forth, written language was held to a standard different from spoken language. ‘Different’ is the operative word — not, ‘better’. Perhaps that is no longer the case.

            Finally, it ought not to go unsaid that in many ways I find the colorful aspects particular to many sorts of spoken language to be extraordinarily engaging. I grew up speaking one of them, and enjoy very much when I have the opportunity to use it.

          2. more than the silly term ‘potty language’ itself, I’m responding to what the term implies: that certain words and expressions are somehow off limits, when they’re generally just a means to convey emotional degree. (but if I was talking to you directly, I personally wouldn’t use them, knowing how you feel. I don’t think people are intentionally trying to be offensive when using ‘swear’ words, but I can only speak for myself.)

          3. I very much appreciate your comments. I believe you are sincere, and you make valid points. Yes. Folks are reflecting their emotions. I just think that in so many cases, emotions get in the way of one’s thinking. I find that having to find certain words in order to express myself as clearly as I can is well worthwhile. Perhaps it is not for others, or it is not something they care about.

            If you were talking to me directly, I hope you wouldn’t adjust anything. There’s nothing I haven’t heard, and nothing you might not hear me say. I just don’t think this forum deserves . . . ,. well, I think you get it (but it’s not that it is for me to say that anything is “off limits”, only that I would like people to express their often very pertinent points as clearly and uncluttered as possible, without the distractions of unnecessary rhetoric — something that I too, at times, may be guilty of).

            If you re-read the final paragraph of my original comment, I think you will understand that in your comment I would rather you had not used the word ‘silly’. You’d have made your point simply by writing, “more than the term ‘potty language’ itself, I’m responding to . . .” I’m really sorry that apparently you don’t like the term, as that suggests to me that I have not made my point. ‘Gutter language’ or ‘street language’ don’t quite make it. Perhaps too strong. And ‘swear words’ or ‘cuss words’ lack, in my opinion, a sufficient descriptive quality.

            Again, I take your comments. I just hope you don’t find me a prude. I would simply hope that people would express themselves in the most productive ways.

            p.s. I like the way you’ve made your point with so few words. I recognise that I tend to ramble on and on.

  6. Still, it seems was an odd duck. Read a chapter in A Complicated Marriage: My Life with Clement Greenberg by Janice Van Horne (2012, Counterpoint, Berkeley CA) He and his spouse Pat and daughter have a two hour visit with Clement and Janice. You just have to go wha…?

    If you visit the Still museum in Denver you will see it is a pretty good solution to a huge museological problem. But there is Clyfford tightly wrapped, hundreds of tightly wrapped paintings awaiting conservation. The guy who did not want to sell still does not want them to be seen. But you can pick up a great postcard of grain elevators on the prairie of Alberta. As a curator from the prairie west with a great taste for Mr. Still this is just the craziest thing. Paintings of grain elevators always the bain of galleries pressured by amateurs to exhibit such images.

    If you are within a drive of Buffalo get to the Albright – Knox to see Mark Bradford’s selection of over 20 Stills currently on view. Buffalo has 33 and there are few elsewhere. This is a great opp to see their collection always not up in such fulsome display.

  7. despite Genauer’s incompetent assessment of Still, Rothko and Pollock, Still’s juvenile response negates his valid gripe. A more measured and intelligent response would have been more productive, imo.

  8. Although Still is arrogantly deranged and Pollack is the most over-rated artist maybe ever, there should be more room for artists to respond to critics. It is usually just a one way street and a very wide one at that for the critics to have their moments of fame, and all to often to push their own agenda and confusions. I wish there was more room for artists to respond, diapers and all. For after all they are the creators; critics are spectators and back seat drivers.

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