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The Inscrutable Clyfford Still

The Clyfford Still showcase closes August 29th. (photo by Benjamin Gardner)

The Albright-Knox showcases one of its trickiest modern masters

The art of Clyfford Still is about as tough as it gets. But see enough of his paintings at one time, in one place, and they start to make sense. Not so much in terms of where he was coming from—that would have to do with huge matters of angst and ambiguity in the middle years of a century that had thus far featured two world wars and related unspeakable crimes and horrors, and promise of more to come—but more in terms of where he was heading with his art, which was by and large a more peaceful place. Maybe more spiritual. But the result was a more composed art. Less essentially contentious.

The 31 paintings the artist donated to Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1964 are currently on display at the gallery. These works run the gamut of the artist’s productive years.

He could be just about inscrutable, particularly in the early years, where it’s hard to get a handhold or foothold on what’s going on. There are no images in most of the works. Nor even a clear sense of orientation. Horizontals clash with verticals. Nor are foregrounds and backgrounds clearly distinct. Colors clash. Formless forms contend. The overall feeling is of all-encompassing, all-pervasive conflict.

Or you could think of it as just pure painting. Just paint on canvas. (Viscid paint, in somber colors, forcefully applied in furious brushstrokes and stabs.) But the purity is scant consolation if you want to know what it all means. But what it means may not be translatable. May not be expressible in any other language than painting.

When imagery sneaks in, it’s almost as if inadvertently on the part of the artist. Or in spite of the artist. And again you don’t know what it means. A mostly black painting from 1945 is split down the middle by an erratic white stripe. Maybe the crack of doom. Some cosmic fault line. Or the lightning that sparks the primal ooze. But schizoid, at any rate.

By the late 1940s, early 1950s, by fits and starts, he seems to begin to take control of the chaos. Conflict still reigns supreme, but not everything clashes. Foregrounds and backgrounds start to be distinguishable.

An emblematic work of this period is almost all black again, with a few small but significant disparate areas—one of them black, too, but gloss black, whereas the overall black is more matte—like some undercurrent turbulent hot liquid erupting through the relatively cooler skinned-over surface that had previously managed to contain it. Conflict still, but comprehensible. With a clear sense of foreground and background, and even, in this case, the governing physical laws.

Two huge works on the north wall of the main gallery seem to recapitulate the watershed moment in the artist’s outlook somewhere right around mid-century.

The one on the right, from 1947, is predominantly black (again), but with whitish areas at the sides breaking in. But the black still firmly in control. The overall effect not of complete disharmony. Of tension, still, but not like the earlier all-out war of colors and forms. More like a truce. Co-existence.

The one on the left, from 1951, is predominantly yellow. Almost cheery. Almost upbeat. And the disparate tans and off-whites at the sides—this piece does seem to be a more relaxed reworking of the 1947 painting—not so much oppositional as just dissimilar. And whereas in the earlier works, part of the confrontational quality of the contrasting color areas had to do with the aggressive brush application of viscid paint to canvas, here the paints seem to just flow, be made to flow, onto the canvas. Contrasting color areas confront not in a spirit of conflict but concord. Something like peaceful acceptance of mutual difference. For the sake of the rainbow.

In the gallery east of the main gallery, a painting from 1950 is unusual for this artist for its forthright presentation of primary colors—red, yellow, blue—in balanced array. Another from 1950 features a black central blob and a yellow blob above that reads like a sun, so that the central black portion reads like some mystical floating mountain, perhaps. A jagged blue horizontal segment at the bottom establishes unambiguous orientation for this mystical/natural scenario.

In the gallery west, a work from 1955, predominantly in red and disparate but not discordant tones, conveys an almost color field sense of unperturbed flow and blend of poured paint, as much the effect of the liquid property of the paint as the artistic purpose of the painter. And from 1963, a predominantly white painting with erupting black recalls the almost all-black work from the watershed period, recalling in turn the all-out war works. So conflict again, at end of career as at the beginning. But under control now. Intelligible. In black and white. And surface and background.

Still seriously distrusted art galleries and art establishment in general, but he hit it off with Gordon Smith, director, and Seymour Knox, Jr., chairman of the Albright-Knox, who put on an exhibit of Still’s work in 1959 over which they gave Still complete artistic control, in gratitude for which he later gave the Albright-Knox the 31 paintings.

In a letter to Gordon Smith at the time of the exhibit, Still vents about “sinister implications” of art museum procedures and practices, “not the least of which is that of compromising for academic approval the most significant meanings and lessons of comtemporary painting,” as he puts it.

He was an artist of enormous integrity, in his steadfast refusal to sentimentalize, and uncompromising adherence to pure painterly abstractionist principles. Not to mention his refusal to play games with the galleries and the academic establishment.

The Clyfford Still exhibit continues through August 29.

jack foran

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