Interviews

AbEx Redux: The Clyfford Still You May Not Know

Memory, Myth & Magic exhibition installation photographs. Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Colorado (all images courtesy © Clyfford Still Museum unless otherwise noted)
“Memory, Myth & Magic” exhibition installation view, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Colorado (all images courtesy © Clyfford Still Museum unless otherwise noted)

Best known as the man responsible for the massive Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: A Catalogue Raisonné, British art historian David Anfam has more recently been focusing on another mid-20th-century American artist, Clyfford Still, whose flame-like works that have their own luminosity. “You can turn the lights out. The paintings will carry their own fire,” he once said.

Anfam’s latest project is an exhibition that probes the Abstract Expressionist’s early work, works on paper, and sculptures, along with his more famous canvases. Titled Memory, Myth & Magic, the show is currently on view at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado. I caught up with Anfam to discuss Still’s work and what he discovered about the artist during his research.

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“Memory, Myth & Magic” exhibition installation view, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Colorado

Hrag Vartanian: What do you see as one of the biggest misconceptions about Still’s work?

David Anfam (photo courtesy David Anfam)
David Anfam (photo courtesy David Anfam)

David Anfam: That it’s monolithic, that he’s a one-image man. In terms of media and imagery Still was the opposite — he was one of and perhaps the most diverse of the Abstract Expressionists. Over almost exactly sixty years there was almost nothing he didn’t explore. Tiny canvases, huge ones, works on paper — ranging from pencil drawings and pastels to etchings, lithographs, and a screen print — three sculptures … you name it. And he even took a few fascinating photographs and wrote a short screenplay.

The imagery is just as various, too. Realistic landscapes and portraits, sharply observed vignettes of people and things, nightmarishly grim allegories and comparable abstractions alongside lyrical, serene, and uplifted pictures. Among the Abstract Expressionists maybe only Pollock comes close in the reach of his ambition. But I grant that the work has a kind of intensity too that’s difficult for some people to take, at least in large doses.

Lastly, although Still’s paintings are often considered raw to the point of being crude, he could actually draw with great assurance from an early age. He had a natural talent for line and a deft touch. Without naming names, I can think of more than one Abstract Expressionist who didn’t possess these abilities outright.

HV: Looking at his work from the 1920s and 30s, I couldn’t help but notice how pretty many of the works appear. I never associated the word “pretty” with Still’s body of work before, so I wanted to ask you about your take on those early works.

DA: I’m not sure if “pretty” is altogether the right word, but I do see your point. Still’s outlook always seemed to face in two different directions. One side of him saw reality’s dark, menacing side. I call this his spooky “gothic” vision. Another looked at the beauty of the natural world, finding a measure of redemption there. He had an acute eye for color, finding the most unexpected tints — lilac, pinks, turquoise, gold, and dusky purple — in the sky, foliage, even humble objects and details. In a sense, he wasn’t afraid of being precious.

The two Still sculptures in the Denver show date from 1938 (right) and 1943 (left) and they are both roughly 30" (76cm) in height.
The two Still sculptures in the Denver show dating from 1938 (right) and 1943 (left), both roughly 30″ (76cm) in height

HV: Few people think of Still as a sculptor, but the two works in your show look surprisingly Modernist (perhaps even Expressionist or Constructivist) and little like his paintings of the same period. What was he looking at during the period that might explain his sculptural interests or influences?

DA: Still’s knowledge of art history was so extensive (you can partly tell this from his library) that sometimes it’s easier to say what he was not looking at.

Seriously, with the sculptures, I am sure he knew Picasso’s linear “wire” (steel rod) constructions of the late 1920s done in collaboration with González. Perhaps there’s also a whiff of Brancusi’s rough-hewn manner in Still’s two wood carvings. The key point is that for those he chose a subtractive method, whereas his third sculpture is instead additive  — that is, constructive, assembled rather than hacked away. Overall, he’s rehearsing the two distinct ways for dealing with three dimensions.

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“Memory, Myth & Magic” exhibition installation view, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Colorado

HV: Can you tell me about the 10 works in your show that have never been seen before at the Clyfford Still Museum? One of them is an important canvas from the artist’s 1946 Peggy Guggenheim debut show, correct?

Clyfford Still, "The Spectre and the Perroquet" (1945)
Clyfford Still, “The Spectre and the Perroquet” (1945)

DA: Yes, that’s the painting that was called in the 1946 show’s brochure “The Spectre and the Perroquet.” It refers to an early 20th-century book on ancient Greek mythology that he knew, Jane Harrison’s Themis — as did some of the other titles listed then. What is intriguing is how these canvases reveal Still on the cusp between a residual figuration — they include vestiges of rising monstrous presences, solar discs, snaking shapes, and so on—and the full-fledged abstraction that he reached within a year. Then again, Still had already done radical compositions before that time. It was typical of him to swing backwards and forwards stylistically. This is why certain works now look “advanced” for their date, while others appear retrogressive.

Indeed, in 1968, Still did a group of seven pastels that are frankly representational, depicting the prairie scenes he knew from half a century earlier. He named them “Memory” — which is one reason for the present exhibition’s title. You can’t understand Still’s chronology without realizing how dialectical it was with its knowing shifts, as it were, between past, present, and future. He regarded these contrasting directions as parts of one greater whole. The selection tries to open some windows onto these diverse perspectives — of which the Peggy Guggenheim show’s “moment” was just one juncture.

HV: I’ve seen a good number of works by Clyfford Still, but I have to admit that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a work on paper before. Your show really highlights his drawings. Why do you think his drawings are not better known?

DA: Simple: until now, the overwhelming majority of them were removed from the public eye in the artist’s studio and his estate.

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“Memory, Myth & Magic” exhibition installation view, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Colorado

HV: Is there anything about Still’s drawings that make him unique in the milieu of Abstract Expressionism? They certainly appear to have a delicacy that doesn’t exist in his large paintings.

DA: As mentioned, Still was a natural draftsman. Consequently, his graphic methods were even more varied than they could be on canvas, where his handling was determined by the implements used: brush and especially the palette knife. The lithographic crayon, the pastel stick, the ink pen, pencil, and the woodcut’s chisel immediately gave him a wider roster of material effects. Also, his ideas are often laid down with the utmost clarity on paper, as if they were at once the schematic reductions of bigger possibilities and pregnant blueprints for them. The works on paper make Still’s whole creative process visible, as I hope to demonstrate in a future exhibition.

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“Memory, Myth & Magic” exhibition installation view, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Colorado

HV: Still appears to be one of those artists who’s well-known for one exceptionally powerful period of work that coincides with the height of the New York School, but his later work is less known. What do you think he was exploring in those late works that makes them significant?

DA: In the later years, he was seeing how far he could push himself. Sometimes, the look is ultra-minimal, almost as though he were consciously aware of formulating an ultima maniera, a nervy late style. Then again, his early landscapes could be remarkably sparse, like Turner’s unfinished compositions. In other words, you might say that his beginnings spoke proleptically to his ends. A related, though polar, aspect to the late work is its conscious regression to quasi-figuration. Few abstract artists have been so haunted by the ghosts of representation. I suspect he fostered these pictorial revenants as a strategy to reverse up the one-way street that was Greenbergian modernism. Guston did this blatantly; Still did it, well, his way.

An early (left) pastel work by Still dating from 1923 and a late work (right) in the same medium from 1968.
An early (left) pastel work by Still dating from 1923 and a late work (right) in the same medium from 1968

HV: In the early and late works, Still often draws landscapes, but those are completely missing from his works from the 1940s and ’50s. Why do you think that was — perhaps he was sublimating the landscape into his large canvases? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

DA: From around the time of the Peggy Guggenheim show in early 1946 through to the mid 1950s, Still was exploring the flip side of landscape — the beleaguered traces of the living presence that in his existential scenario activated its spaces. This is why the works of that period project an aura of inwardness, as the “life lines” and ever more shredded fragments of what were once recognizable protagonists do battle with the pictorial forces of darkness, scorched radiance, claustrophobic surfaces, and voids figured as mostly imploding fields. Not for nothing did Still call these paintings “life and death merging in fearful union.” Yet the life and death at stake is not a matter of illustration — it’s there in the harsh, tactile battleground of the paintwork. And just in case anybody should think of this as melodramatic preaching in pigment, the paintings often have a bafflingly blunt immediacy, as though Still were saying, “Take that. It’s my slap in your face.” No wonder he also termed them “parables for the blind.” If you don’t get it, he’s saying, “get outta here, you don’t deserve to belong in my world.” It might not be to everybody’s taste, yet nobody can deny its strong, magical stuff.

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“Memory, Myth & Magic” exhibition installation view, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Colorado

HV: What do you think Still’s legacy is in the history of art?

DA: In effect, Still’s been a sleeping giant of the twentieth century — now, I hope, fully awoken.

Memory, Myth & Magic is currently on view at the Clyfford Still Museum (1250 Bannock Street, Denver, Colorado) until September 29.

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