A little-known part of Clyfford Still’s oeuvre are his “replicas”—near-identical copies of his past works. Currently the subject of a show at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, the “replicas,” the Abstract Expressionist said, were ways of working through ideas so important, they couldn’t be pinned down in a single painting. Still believed in the power of painting, and that belief was a major subject in an interview with Thomas Albright in the March 1976 issue of ARTnews. Following his major gift of 28 paintings to SFMOMA, Still spoke to Albright about why he continued to make art, what it was like to be a part of the New York School, and how he dealt with Jackson Pollock when he was drunk. The full interview follows below. —Alex Greenberger
“A Conversation With Clyfford Still”
By Thomas Albright
The pioneer Abstract Expressionist talks about the legends that have grown up around him, his battles with the art establishment, the early days of the New York School, and his gift of 28 paintings to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
People have generally found almost anything easier to deal with than the stark confrontation with a work of art on the terms which governed its creation. They rather surround art with interpretation, analysis and a host of other elaborations which have become part of a gigantic verbal superstructure designed to make art more comfortable—and profitable. Within the framework of this superstructure, Clyfford Still’s painting has been generally misunderstood and his attitude has been considered arrogant. Still’s resolute refusal to “explain” his work, for example, has frequently been interpreted as uncommunicativeness, although it could be argued that no other artist in recent times has been more concerned about communication; one need only look at Still’s recent and important gift of 28 paintings, spanning 40 years of his career, to the newly redesignated San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Together with two works that already belong to the museum and three on loan from the artist, the paintings were unveiled in a landmark exhibition that opened the new year: they will later be transferred to a permanent installation in a specially redesigned museum gallery.
As with his donation of 31 paintings to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo 12 years ago, the San Francisco gift carries the stipulation that the group of paintings must be kept intact. Still’s insistence upon controlling the exact circumstances under which his work is shown, coupled with the exhaustive documentation of each work’s exhibition history, would suggest that he regards the presentation of his paintings as an integral extension of the creative process. (A full color catalogue also includes more biographical material on—and by—Still than has heretofore been published.)
The legends that have grown up around Clyfford Still—his mysterious appearance one fall day in 1946 at the California School of Fine Arts “wearing a long black overcoat” (the story sounds more like the Annunciation with each retelling); his image among former students as “black angel,” Zen priest or messianic prophet, depending on whom you talk to; his rare public statements as well as his silences—all contribute to a persona that seems, in many ways, to be inexplicable. Much of the mystery, however, resolves into perfect sense if one draws a proper distinction between the “art world,” with its commercialism, politicking and rat-race competition for prestige and glory, and the organic process of growth and development that is fundamental to art itself. Still’s notorious “demands,” his legendary aloofness and attacks on critical exegises of his work—even the most favorable—are really nothing more nor less than an attempt to assert that the “art world” must revolve around art and the artist, rather than the other way around, and to reaffirm the primacy of the visual experience over the verbal. As one views the results of this lifelong commitment of Still’s ranged around the walls of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, one can only agree that the effort has been magnificently rewarded.
If former students remember Still as a “black monk,” others recall that he used to enjoy polishing the chrome on a sleek silver Jaguar and going to baseball games. Thus it was not the voice of some Old Testament prophet at the other end of the telephone, recently, at precisely 3 p.m., the hour Still had agreed to call to arrange a meeting. The figure who sat across the table with his wife at the launch the following day seemed impressively fit. At 71, Still continues to project a quiet strength and vigor from his towering frame, and his features—graced by a trim beard and flowing white hair—retain a youthful handsomeness. A certain formality marked the introductions, but it quickly gave way to an easy, conversational candor—dignified, gracious, straightforward, warm without being overly familiar and, unexpectedly, sparked by flashes of wry humor. Sometimes this humor has a slightly caustic edge, but for the most part it is gentle and accepting, and he does not spare himself as an occasional target (“It’s been said that whenever Still writes anything, it’s a manifesto”). Still frequently refers to his art as “this instrument,” but he will also casually call his paintings “pictures.” A vein of warm sentiment is bared as he speaks of his two daughters (one lives with her family in San Francisco, the other is a semi-professional photographer in New York), recalls his fondness for Jackson Pollock or talks about a portrait of his wife that he drew last year—his first “realistic” work in almost two decades (“I thought I might have lost my touch, but it turned out stronger than ever.”)
If he is not a demigod, neither does Still conform to the pattern of suffering and early death which seemed to plague the New York painters with whom he was associated during the early flowering of Abstract Expressionism.
“You have to live a long time,” said Still, whose first one-man show (at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1943) did not occur until he was almost 39 years old. “If Turner had died when he was 40, he would have been just another respectable British painter.
“Art is a force for life, not death,” he added. “It is a matter of joy.”
Still has by no means mellowed in his lifelong battle against the forces of the art establishment. He spoke of rejecting a recent offer by one museum to give him a major one-man show (“They weren’t willing to demonstrate a real commitment”), and of refusing the repeated overtures of a major publishing house that professed interest in doing a book on his work (“They demanded a picture before they would proceed”). He wanted no notes taken of his conversation, which is reconstructed here from vivid recollection, and he remained silent about those aspects of his art which can only properly be seen.
“People should look at the work itself and determine its meaning to them,” Still said, adding: “I prefer the innocent reaction of those who might think they see cloud shapes in my paintings to what Clement Greenberg says that he sees in them.”
But he seemed to welcome the opportunity to clarify the many myths that have grown up around his life (“Reality is much more interesting”), stating that his major obstacle is a virtually total recall that makes it difficult to edit his reminiscences.
“It was cold that day,” he shrugged in reference to that fabled “long black overcoat.” Actually, Still explained, he came to the California School of Fine Arts to see the late Douglas McAgy, who had recently been appointed director of the school. Still had a letter of introduction from Robert Neuhaus, who was just leaving his post as chief curator at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and who had been a friend since Still’s residence in the Bay Area during the early ‘40s. It was six weeks into the semester, and McAgy told Still that no openings were available. Shortly afterwards, McAgy visited New York and attended a William Baziotes show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery. Still later learned from Baziotes that McAgy, impressed, had offered Baziotes a job in San Francisco. He replied, “You’ve got Still out there, haven’t you?” “Still? Oh yes,” McAgy responded, and on his return he called the artist in to teach—“a small commercial art class made up of students who hadn’t been able to get into other classes,” as Still now characterizes it.
Still had already had his first one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim’s earlier that year, (in February-March, 1946), but had sold only a single work—to Peggy Guggenheim. His return to the West Coast that fall was dictated primarily, he said, by “financial survival,” although he had not fared very well in trying to find teaching work when he had first landed in San Francisco (“It was the nearest big city”) in 1941, following eight years of state college teaching in Washington. At that time, he had applied for a job at CSFA, to be told by “a very haughty girl at the desk” that only artists who were “well known” were hired. “That was all right with me. I’d had it with teaching,” said Still, who instead worked in ship and aircraft yards. (“I’ve spent a lot of my life around machinery,” he said, referring to his youth on a farm in the Alberta prairies. “There’s a very practical side to my nature which has been very helpful to me. It’s kept me from falling into some traps.”) He developed his abstract painting and also did numerous portraits; both aspects of his work were included in his first show in 1943 at the San Francisco Museum. Following the show, Still left for the East Coast to teach in Richmond, Virginia, between 1943 and 1945, and later moved to New York and settled in the city in 1945.
Still had met Mark Rothko at a mutual friend’s in Berkeley during the early ’40s; in New York, he encountered him again. As Still describes it, Rothko persisted in asking to see Still’s work; Still kept saying he would drop by and visit Rothko instead. Eventually, he did so. They walked together to a nearby park, shook hands and parted—“I thought forever.” But a couple of weeks later, Rothko was knocking at Still’s door. When Rothko saw Still’s paintings, he insisted that Peggy Guggenheim must take a look. She came by, was unable to choose among four paintings that she saw, and took all of them to install in a space that she reserved for “trial balloons” amid her stable of established 20th-Century masters: Léger, Braque and Picasso. The display created “a kind of sensation, also a resentment, almost from the start,” Still said. “At the time, the Bauhaus and Surrealism—in their broadest senses—were the only accepted schools. Anything contrary to them was looked upon with the deepest suspicion and hostility.” Nevertheless, Still’s first New York show at the Art of This Century—for which Rothko wrote a catalogue introduction—grew out of this initial exposure. “I didn’t see any reason not to show; I had the paintings, and there were no restrictions,” he said, emphasizing that neither then nor later has he ever signed a contract with any gallery.
Still has frequently been credited with single-handedly introducing Abstract Expressionism to the Bay Area when he taught at the California School of Fine Arts between 1946 and 1950, but he tended to play down the importance of his influence, and to speak of his teaching job as an economic cushion that helped him advance his own art.
“They were totally mired in the 20th century,” he said of the students at the school, most of whom were World War II veterans attending on the GI Bill. “They knew about everything that was happening in New York and Europe. Five minutes after it happened, it would be reproduced in the art magazines. About half were trained artists, and a few were full-fledged professionals. Most had been through the war, and they’d seen more than I had. How could a stick like me teach them anything?”
Many San Francisco students tended to imitate the more superficial aspects of his style, Still added. “For various reasons—lack of maturity, perhaps, or lack of seriousness on the part of the students—my influence here was less important than it has been in New York.” He emphasized that the story of influences was complex—and often reciprocal. “Half a dozen major painters of the New York School have expressed their indebtedness to each other. They have thanked me, and I have thanked them.”
Still continued to spend his summers in New York during the years he taught at CFSA, and when the school’s progressive administration came to an abrupt halt with McAgy’s resignation in 1950, Still returned to Manhattan (“New York is my home”). He spent most of the next decade there, interspersed with periodic trips cross-country, before moving to his present home in rural Maryland.
“I did what had to be done to survive,” he said of the celebrated battles that frequently erupted with dealers, museum administrators and critics during those years. But the stakes involved in survival became clear as Still spoke of his associations with other New York artists, particularly Rothko and Pollock.
“We were all quite different. There was no cabal, no gang, no real movement, although we shared certain basic attitudes, a basic vocabulary. These were strong people. They had their hands on a strong thing. I think I may have been the only one who fully realized how strong this thing was. When you have a tiger by the tail, you don’t deal with it lightly.”
Still characterized the New York art world of the ’40s and early ’50s as being strongly colored by the attitude of the European emerigés who arrived there just before and during World War II. “They brought with them the idea of the artist as a social man. They painted for the art world, and made overtures to dealers and critics. Each was trying to corner his own publicity man.”
Rothko he portrayed as a more or less willing victim of the system, alternately making overtures to the art world and withdrawing his work from exhibitions, unable to pull up stakes from New York. (“He once said ruefully, ‘Clyff, you’re so much more mobile than I,’” Still recalled.) As for Pollock, Still recounted a visit made to that artist’s East Hampton home one night when Pollock was roaring drunk. Still, about to make a trip to Spokane, tried to talk Pollock into coming west with him, driving his own car but meeting regularly at points along the way. Their first meeting place was to have been in Pennsylvania, but Pollock failed to show; a few days later, stopping in Wisconsin to meet his wife, Still saw Pollock’s obituary in the newspaper.
“If he’d have come, he might still be alive today,” Still said. “He could have had a fresh start. He was trying to, but forcing it… they had him all in knots. It can’t be forced, it has to come naturally.
“I’d always warned him about that car,” he added. “It was an old Chrysler that Peggy Guggenheim had given him in exchange for a picture. It wasn’t balanced right, it couldn’t handle the curves.”
Still seemed to speak of these battles primarily in the past tense now—they are, after all, struggles in which he has prevailed and triumphed. Yet, apparently unaware of the inspiration that his integrity and uncompromising attitude have exerted on a generation of younger artists, he frequently voiced misgivings that his conduct would be interpreted in terms of “bitterness, self-pity or iconoclasm.” He expressed surprise and humility toward accolades that he received from Allan Kaprow, Richard Serra and others at a recent gathering in New York (Still said he continues to visit the city about once a month).
He makes clear, however, that his role has been that of a fighter rather than a “drop out.” “I know many artists pictured me sitting in my studio feeling angry and bitter,” he said in recounting a much publicized battle with a dealer. “But I was having the time of my life.
“I assure you that I never intended to be a moral force for younger artists,” he added. “When I die, people will say—they are saying it already—that I acted ruthlessly and amorally, with ingratitude to those toward whom I should be grateful. And they will be correct. At the same time, I can think of no other way for a serious artist to achieve his ends than by doing what I did… I set about to show that his instrument—the limited means of the paint on canvas—was important.” He spoke of continuing inspiration he found in the independence achieved by Turner in his mature work, and by Rembrandt in his last years. (“The portraits with just a turban around his head, and his face suggesting he’d had a little too much schnaps. The early art was a joke, but you have to take into account the people he painted for.”) As for his gift to the San Fransisco Museum, Still compared his attempt to present a cross-section of his work to a recent Sviatoslav Richter concert he had attended—an all-Beethoven program, not the usual fare but “beautifully chosen to represent the fullness of Beethoven’s art.
“The individual paintings are important, but the most important thing is is a man’s life work,” said Still. “It’s the idea behind them that counts. These paintings form only a fragment, but it’s enough, I hope, that this idea will emerge from them.”
Still has clearly selected the 28 works with meticulous concern for illuminating the main lines of his development, and they emphasize a number of significant points. By far the most important one is that Still is steadfastly painting—and not at all in the manner of an artist who has passed the peak in his career. Indeed, a monumental canvas that dates from 1974 is one of the most sweeping, powerful paintings he has ever done, with a richness of color and texture that links it to the work Still was doing in the ’50s. The collection also belies the impression Still’s painting has progressively “thinned out” during the past two decades; in fact, it shows that he has alternated between thick, richly troweled surfaces and more thinly applied pigments, surrounded by large expanses of bare canvas, throughout much of his career. It is clear that Still is as obstinately resilient to settling into a comfortable manner, or formula, as ever.
The earliest of these 28 paintings was done in 1934. Its subject is a striding male figure, painted in austere, earthen colors and in a broad, sharply chiseled Expressionistic style which has remote resemblances to Soutine, but which also looks ahead (somewhat uncannily) to the Bay Region figurative style that grew up in the early ’50s as a reaction against Still’s influence. In this painting, Still states the theme that he has continued to develop more and more metaphorically and abstractly in his art, and which he has pursued with unyielding singlemindedness in the conduct of his life: The lone individual moving with towering self-confidence through a neutral environment which becomes whatever one choses to make of it.
Distinct lines of continuity link this painting to the more abstract works of the late ’30s, in which human forms give way to massive, bonelike shapes in dramatically contrasting colors. One can detect certain analogies in these paintings, too—Marsden Hartley, Orozco and Picasso—but, as the museum’s director, Henry Hopkins, has observed, the history of Still’s “influences” is almost entirely a story of successive rejections of influences. (A concurrent museum show of drawings and small paintings by Arshile Gorky provided a graphic reminder of the nature of the influences that prevailed, and the strength of their hold on American artists, during those years.)
By 1942, only a geometric shape recalling the stylized motifs of Northwest Indian art (in a painting done on blue denim) remains as a figurative reference point, combined with a jagged line that slices through an austere color ground like a raw nerve. Still has referred to this linear force, which assumes increasing importance in later paintings, as a “life-line,” the only symbolic reference he will volunteer about his work.
Certain tenuous allusions to figure or landscape lingered in Still’s paintings until he began teaching in San Francisco in 1946. Some paintings from those years seem to indicate that Still was exploring vaguely mythical ideas. This aspect of his art was emphasized in Rothko’s catalogue introduction to Still’s first New York show at Peggy Guggenheim’s: “It is significant that Still, working out West and alone, has arrived at pictorial conclusions so allied to those of the small band of Myth Makers who have emerged here during the war. The fact that his is a completely new facet of this idea, using unprecedented forms and completely personal methods, attests further to the vitality of this movement… Still expresses the tragic-religious drama which is generic to all Myths, at all times, no matter where they occur.”
For all practical purposes, however, Still’s paintings of the early ’40s are overwhelmingly abstract. Working in almost total isolation, first in New York State, later in Oakland, California, Still had arrived by 1943, at a style that was more radical in its abstraction, and more sweeping in scale, than the work of any New York School artists of that time.
The niceties of drawing, the decorative graces of color, the dynamics of composition—all rapidly vanished from Still’s paintings of the ’40s. They were supplanted by a new esthetic wherein traditional concepts of “beauty” and “ugliness” were replaced by grandeur of raw and elemental Thereness, transcendent in its implications. It is a presence of jagged, shredded, opaque forms, of scabrous or sodden colors and surfaces which are, paradoxically, agitated an convulsive in their internal movements, and awesomely still in their totality.
This, at least, is so of his more densely textured work. The evolution of Still’s art during the following years by no means follows a straight line, but charts a zigzag course which, within the boundaries of his already totally individual and identifiable style, seems to oscillate, as it simultaneously advances and clarifies itself between polarities of expression. Frequently, Still seems to work backward and forward in time, returning to earlier concepts and themes, and developing them into the future; as Hopkins notes in his introduction to exhibition catalogue, a strong component of Still’s stylistic evolution “consist of looking back to earlier works for sustenance, especially when he feels he is reaching into an area beyond his knowledge of himself.”
Still himself hints at an underlying polarity in a note from his diary (February 11, 1956) which the catalogue reprints: “A great free joy surges through me when I work… With tense slashes and a few thrusts the beautiful white fields receive their color and the works is finished in a few minutes. (Like Belmonte weaving the pattern of his being by twisting the powerful bulls around him, I seem to achieve a comparable ecstasy in bringing forth the flaming life through these large responsive areas of canvas. And as the blues or reds or blacks leap and quiver in their tenuous ambience or rise in austere thrusts to carry their power infinitely beyond the bounds of the limiting field, I move with them and find a resurrection from the moribund oppressions that held me only hours ago.) Only are they complete too soon, and I must quickly move on to another to keep the spirit alive an unburdened by the labor my Puritan reflexes tell me must be the cost of any joy.”
While the paintings of the early ’50s achieve an unparalleled richness in color, built up in great, unyielding vertical walls that suggest infinite extension, he was at the same time creating works of such austerity as 1950-K-No. 1, an immense square of bare canvas galvanically activated by three crucial elements—a smallish blue area, a smaller bit of red and a tiny yellow daub. The obdurate immobility of 1956-D appeared in the same year as the clangorous, precariously balanced PH-393. The Spartan economy of 1950-51-No. 2 is a counterweighted by the lush, vivid colors and dramatic contrasts of PH-968, done in 1951-52. The power with which Still forges combinations of dissonant, seemingly incompatible hues; his control over more “appealing” harmonies so that they never cross over into decoration; the manner in which his huge, asymmetrical compositions are kept in place solely by a thin, ragged edge or the tiniest shape in one corner; all challenge the old “laws” of color and design. Perhaps there are precedents in oriental painting, but as one contemplates Still’s work, it is primarily music that comes to mind: the complex orchestration of color and texture, the dynamic choreography of his shapes, the manner in which a narrow edge of yellow elicits optical afterimages that suffuse and irradiate an otherwise somber blue field with the magical fore of harmonic overtones. Like music, these paintings suggest expansion into infinite time as well as space, and, as in music is pure sound, these paintings are pure vision.
The three large paintings dating from 1974 seem to constitute Still’s counterpart to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: dizzying in the tumultuous, diagonal movement of their gestural, but highly controlled shapes—in contrast to the solidity and verticality of the works immediately preceding; harboring both calm and conflict; achieving jubilant exultation. For all their individual magnificence, however, no one of these paintings eclipses any other; the huge, exhilarating spacious canvases of recent years cast their radiance over the blunt and earthbound quality of the very earliest paintings; this, in turn, resonates throughout Still’s mature work with a persistent undertone of epic heroism. So much, however, for words. “My work is in the paintings,” Still has written. “There I function and there alone would I be understood.”
Still’s painting has sometimes been likened to such natural phenomena as the Grand Canyon; while naive to suppose that his forms or surfaces have literal parallels with nature, the analogy seems apt in a poetic sense. His works have the overriding presence of natural elements or living organisms, governed solely by the law of inevitability—what Still has called “the organic lesson” and Kandinsky, “inner necessity.” The would-be critic is like a tour guide who recites geological data and points out anthropomorphic formations in the cliff faces.
Each of Still’s paintings is clearly a unique way-point along a path that leads deeper and deeper into the recesses of his own being. The “subject” of his work is, ultimately, art—not art history, which is the concern of so much other recent art–but the continuing creative journey, the work that Harold Rosenberg has described as a process of “engagement,” by which, through constant gnawing and hacking, “a mind is created.”