Contributed by David Carrier / It’s difficult to imagine a more effective presentation of Clyfford Still’s work than “A Legacy for Buffalo,” now in the brand-new wing of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum. In four very high, white-walled galleries, the 33 paintings – most of them made between 1937 and 1963 and bearing Still’s distinctly prosaic and thematically unenlightening titles – have room to breathe and provide a full picture of Still’s early development.
The works here are very varied in color and format. In PH-47 (November 1953) there are flashes of blue on a dark background, with pink at the upper left. PH-38 (September 1955) incorporates dark red with a vertical line of lightning in lighter red. PH-82 (1947-8-A) consists of a broken field of jagged forms, reminiscent of those presented in Wilhelm Worringer’s account of Gothic sculpture. PH-301 (January 1947) has blacks and browns, on white background while PH-250 (1949-H) is a red near-monochrome. What unites these canvases is the handling of the paint, which is laid on in heavy layers.
Among his Abstract Expressionist peers – such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko – Still was the least sociable. While their works have become familiar, perhaps excessively so, his have not. Because he chose to withhold work from public view except on his own restrictive conditions, it is necessary to visit Buffalo or, as of 2011, the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, to see a large body of his paintings. Some observed during his lifetime that Still was the most original of the AbExers. It’s a credible proposition. Compare, for example, the sweeping gestures of his all-over paintings with de Kooning’s quite accessible gestural pictures or the paintings of Rothko’s that he based on an abstract stage set.
Much of so-called abstract painting derives its significance from the visually self-evident meanings of its marks. But Still’s mark-making does not betray any such expressive significance. Perhaps in line with his abrasive personality, it is tempting to characterize his paintings as negations. While they are impressive, they are not agreeable – they lack the overt beauty, grace, or delicacy of Pollock’s long gestures, de Kooning’s brushstrokes, or Rothko’s floating lozenges. A couple of Stills broadly resemble Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic, but, unlike Motherwell, Still never worked in series and therefore provided no discernible context. While early works like PH-137 (1945-K) may owe something to Surrealism or Joan Miro, and the shapes of Still’s roughly cut forms conceivably recall Ernst Kirchner’s figures, such strained comparisons ultimately confirm that Still is not really like anyone else. He was largely correct when he said that no one had influenced him.
If Pollock’s and de Kooning’s gestural works reveal the process of their making, Still’s paintings hold their secrets. How did he apply his paint? With a palette knife? It’s not clear. The radical abstractness of Still’s paintings lies in their detachment from any clear link to their physical genesis, like acheiropoieta, the Greek icons said not to be made by human hands. It’s a feature of his work that suits his secretive and solemn personality. But if his work’s sources are elusive, its mood is clear. He said, “These are not paintings in the usual sense; they are life and death merging in fearful union.” In that sense, Still’s paintings remain exemplars of the twentieth century.
In retrospect, informed by this exhibition, I wonder whether Still was a missing link of sorts. Had this long-delayed public presentation of his work taken place within his lifetime – he died in 1980 – twentieth-century art history could have been different. Suppose these works had been readily accessible in the 1970s, to post-minimalists struggling to extend abstraction and younger German painters of that era. They might well have been jolted out of stubborn self-isolation and painted differently, with greater appreciation for Abstract Expressionism’s deeper DNA. What became most influential was of course de Kooning’s gestural abstraction. And so, had Still’s mostly anti-gestural works been available, these artists might have gone in a different direction. In any event, now perhaps younger abstractionists will be inspired by this magnificently rich and mysterious if regrettably belated display. It deserves close and prolonged attention.
“Clyfford Still: A Legacy for Buffalo,” Buffalo AKG Art Museum, 1285 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY. Through February 19, 2024.
About the author: David Carrier is a former professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Princeton University; a Getty Scholar; and a Clark Fellow. He has lectured in China, Europe, India, Japan, New Zealand, and North America. He has published catalogue essays for many museums and art criticism for Apollo, artcritical, Artforum, Artus and Burlington Magazine. He has also been a guest editor for The Brooklyn Rail and is a regular contributor to Two Coats of Paint.