Thursday, May 31, 2012

Art News


By Charles Kessler

Screen shot of L.A.MoCA’s Land Art exhibition website showing Robert Smithson's Spirial Jetty, 1970.  
The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's exhibition Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 (until September 3, 2012) has a website that uses Google Maps to display the most well-known sites including Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, the Christos’ Wrapped Coast and Claes Oldenberg’s The Hole.

How to Make It in the Art World is a list of 18 “rules” written by Jerry Saltz and other critics and contributors to New York Magazine. Some are fun and interesting; others will test the tolerance of any "ilunga" (see below).

This has nothing to do with art, but it’s a nice break — 25 Handy Words That Simply Don’t Exist In EnglishSome of my favorites:
Arigata-meiwaku (Japanese): An act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favor, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude.
Gigil (pronounced Gheegle; Filipino): The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute.
Ilunga (Tshiluba, Congo): A person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.
Pena ajena (Mexican Spanish): The embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation.

Finally, this weekend is the biggest art event of the year in Bushwick — Bushwick Open Studios. This year there will be more than 500 studios (this is not a typo!) as well as many concerts, dances, performances and other events. Best bet: begin at 56 Bogart Street (across from the Morgan Street L train) where most of the galleries are located, and work your way south and east.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

San Fransisco Art Fairs

By Patter Hellstrom

What makes San Francisco unique in the ever-growing world of international fairs? This viewer suggests that along with the standard fare, a new Bay Area aesthetic is developing through a mixture of collaborative technology, innovation and accessible art with a handmade quality.  Tech innovation is a given in San Francisco with biotech in Mission Bay, tech start-ups in South Park, the rising power of the Twitter-verse in the Mid-Market and venture capitalists encamped in Silicon Valley. Technology may appear to be the inverse of handcrafted art, one step removed from the artists’ hand. In the Bay Area these disparate impulses of technology and handcraft often emerge simultaneously and on rare occasion merge as well.

Sleek and sophisticated, Art MRKT offered over 70 modern and contemporary galleries with a mix of art from giants in the art making tradition like DeStaebler, Hockney, and Butterfield, to international works from Asia seen at Frey Norris Gallery, to a handmade soulful style emerging in San Francisco with the Bierboff's postcards at Eli Ridgeway, Laky’s language-based relief sculpture at Cain Schulte and Preds’ confiscated creations at  Jack Fischer galleries.
Elisheva Biernoff, Encounter, 2012, oil on plywood and acrylic on plywood, 2.5 x 2.5 inches and 2.75 x 2 inches (Eli Ridgeway Gallery).

Michele Pred, Travelers, 2011, 42 x 36 inches, airport confiscated scissors, wood and polyester, edition variete (Jack Fisher Gallery).
These standouts present ongoing excellent work that reaches the viewers on a personal level in scale, material and concept. With work so open and thoughtful, the viewer is drawn in with its’ authenticity.

Art MRKT also took a bold innovative step in programming in this their second year, offering private tours of collections. To say those collections were a treat is an understatement. The private collection visits complete the story. Galleries provide an array of art choices, the collectors shared their vision, telling their stories of a passionate trajectory in finding, curating and living with art.
Mary Daniel Hobson, Nocturne, 1999, kodalith and mixed media, 13" x 11" framed (private collection).
John Slepia, Stamen, 2009, mixed media, estimated size 14" x 10" x 10" (private collection).
ArtPad SF was the energetic, emerging and innovative center of the three fairs. ArtPad, a hotel fair with a motel edge, offered about 40 galleries surrounding a 1950’s vintage swimming pool, creating an oasis in the middle of the city. Johansson Projects offered a standout among those galleries with hybrid animal forms by Misako Inaoka.
Misako Inaoka, Flowers, 2012, mixed media 24 x 18 x 10 inches (Johansson Projects).
Inventive programming was offered like The Urban Canvas: Art and Technology Take Over, panel discussion.  ZERO 1 network of collaboration, offered focus to that discussion with its’ upcoming plans for their biennial Sept - Dec 2012, growing to cover the Bay Area with over 100 artists and 42 organizational partners that are regional, national and international. ZERO 1 designs platforms for artists to create innovative work exploring the role of art and technology as is seen at SFMOMA with Jim Campbell’s Exploded Views; a commissioned work installed in the atrium.  Upcoming The Bay Lights by Leo Villareal will light up a mile of the Bay Bridge with 25,000 LED lights in a spectacular marriage of art and tech. ArtPad also debuted Mark Pauline’s Spine Robot, designed for a theatrical urban event.

 SF Fine Art Fair offered 70 galleries and programming included a discussion with legendary artist William T. Wiley, Lifetime Achievement award for patron Mrs. Roselyn C. Swig, and the everyday revolution of art accessibility – the Mobile Photography exhibition.
Emily Rose, Conflict, limited edition print, 10 x 13 inches (The Mobile Photography Exhibition)
Here tech adds a layer of accessibility. ArtHaus Gallery presented this gem of a show that invited more than 2200 submissions from 114 countries making the quote, “the best camera is the one you have with you” relevant.  A ubiquitous camera phone in hand has become common to fair viewing, snapping a picture, a label and that amazing moment when we are filled with visual joy. Here those moments of reverie become an attentive exhibition.


Patter Hellstrom is an artist who lives and works in San Francisco.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dance Parade 2012

By Charles Kessler

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One of the most joyous New York City events is the annual Dance Parade. This year thousands of participants danced down lower Manhattan beginning at Broadway and 20th Street and eventually making their way to Tompkins Square Park where there was a free festival with dance performances, workshops, lessons and lots of merry-making. Seventy-five different dance styles were represented from African to Zumba, and from Ballet to Modern. Here are some photos:
Bolivian dancers resting in Tompkins Square Park.

Jersey City was well represented. Here is our own Donald Gallagher groovin' along with Jamaican DanceHall Aerobics.
And Jersey City's Nimbus Dance Works performed an excerpt from choreographer Pedro Ruiz's Danzon. The the wires overhead were a surprise they dealt with admirably.
The company's 6th annual Jersey City Spring Season will be at Grace Church in Jersey City, June 7-9, 2012. You can purchase tickets here. Try not to miss it.

Probably because I was the only person at the entire festival wearing a sport coat, they allowed me behind the stage to watch the dancers warm up.
On the left: Nimbus Dance Works. On the right: Zouk Nation - a company from Brazil.

And the finale, an absolute delight, was the The Isadore Duncan Dance Company. Note the little girls in front imitating the dancers. 

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In celebration of Isadore Duncan's 135th birthday, the company will be performing May 22 - 26 at the Judson Memorial Church in the Village. You can buy tickets here.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Wherefore the Figure, Wherefore the Self


By Carl Belz

Of all the subjects available to painting, subjects ranging from stripes and squares to fields of color, from landscape vistas and city streets to ordinary objects close at hand, none is brought to the task of expression with more baggage than the human figure. Understandably so, for even while modernism has stripped narrative from painting, the figure projects a story simply by being there before us, being our other, being our mirror. Understandably, too, despite what the figure’s been put through in order for painting to accommodate it, the fragmentations and distortions and attenuations, the flattening and reshaping of it into images we may not recognize in the mirror but in which we are nonetheless compelled to acknowledge our reflection. Whatever its story, then, and however it appears, the figure verifies our being in the world and substantiates our claim to possessing identity as an individualized self.

Yet there’s no easy-to-follow recipe for meeting the challenges to expression that attend figure painting. Some of those are internal, others come with the territory—like the challenge of competition. Half a century ago Pop and Minimalism gave us a new art that was fast and immediate, that delivered its message in a single and unequivocal flash, that could grab and momentarily hold attention in the media-saturated culture with which it suddenly found itself in competition. That competition continues with a vengeance today. Think of the visual culture we each day everywhere encounter, think of its irresistible formal allure, think of its insistent and instantly gratifying punch, and think, too, about the vehicle bearing all that meaning—think about the human figure, how over-the-top appealing it is, how shaped to perfection, how sexy and engaging, then think about competing with that! Just remember in the process never to underestimate your opponent.

Of course it’s the internal challenges that remain after the dust stirred by the battle for media attention has settled—the challenge to be good instead of merely interesting, for instance, or the challenge to be original, or the challenge to plumb the inarticulate speech of the heart. Risk attends those challenges, for the ever-elusive and evolving self that elects to confront them may in the process be laid bare, its vulnerabilities, along with its strengths, exposed. A will to meaning via the human figure—the figure first and foremost as a source of meaning—is in turn required: meaning as it is felt to be embodied in painting’s history, at once acknowledging its achievement and also seeking continuity with it; and meaning as it is shaped anew within the limits of modern secular experience by the expressive free-agent self. Freedom within limits, which is to say freedom bound to and by responsibility. More directly, perhaps, than modern paintings based on other subjects—it’s a matter of degree, not kind—modern paintings based on the figure nudge us in the direction of moral propositions.

Kyle Staver’s is an ample world, generous in accommodating couples and individuals who are self-contained without being self-absorbed, figures comfortable with themselves and equally comfortable with one another. As couples, they’re pleasurably involved in life’s daily routines—feeding the pet, tasting the morning tea, reading the paper—or sharing a leisurely outing—riding bicycles, ice skating. Along with them, though not in their immediate company, individual female figures occasionally appear: Danae, Europa, Lady Godiva, subjects drawn from myth and legend, subjects famously imaged by Old Masters, subjects identified with the sensuous delights of the human body—subjects here brought freshly forth and ingenuously re-presented as engaging whimsical fantasies. At ease in their surroundings, they signal the ease with which Staver navigates between art’s past and present. For past and present are in her world continuous, history representing not a burden but an inspiration, not a source of irony but of sustenance, as if in that world the making of new art constantly rewrites art’s past and revitalizes it in the present, as if that process not only shapes and defines that world but is entirely natural to it—as natural for those who inhabit it as breathing the salubrious air within it. A recent picture of Adam and Eve notwithstanding, Staver’s pictorial world is overall more Arcadian than Edenic.
Kyle Staver, Danae and the Parakeet, 2009, oil on linen, 63 x 53 inches.
Kyle Staver, Godiva, 2009, oil on linen, 58 x 68 inches.
Kyle Staver, Adam and Eve with Goats, 2011, oil on linen, 56 x 64 inches.
Staver herself seems to breathe art. She’s an art maven who regularly posts albums on Facebook, images clustered around a theme or subject plucked for sheer delectation from what appears to be a vast storehouse of pictorial memories. Not surprisingly, their inspiration echoes in her own images, though more faintly now than even a few years ago. Writing about the work in 2008, Karen Wilkin accurately associated Staver’s intimate domestic settings with Pierre Bonnard and her broadly brushed figures with David Park. In newer pictures, the intimacy continues, but with fewer incidental details, and the breadth, previously concentrated in the figures, increasingly spreads across the entire surface and more effectively integrates them with the natural or domestic spaces they occupy. The resulting pictures seem more whole, more clearly and fully meant, more her own. One of them audaciously shows two nude boys playing with turtles by a stream, an unmistakable iconographic homage to Matisse, but thereby also a statement about paintings intended not for momentary satisfaction but to stay the course.
Kyle Staver, Feeding the Cockatoo, 2009, oil on linen, 56 x 48 inches.
Kyle Staver, Releasing the Catfish, 2011, oil on canvas, 64 x 54 inches.
Kyle Staver, Skaters, 2009, oil on linen, 50 x 50 inches.
About a century ago, in Paris, Ranier Maria Rilke memorably became aware of how many faces there are and decided, “There are quantities of human beings, but there are many more faces, for each person has several.” Anne Harris knows what Rilke was talking about. She paints faces, bodies too, but even her bodies resemble faces in the way they tell stories, each one different, each compelling in its own way, each face and body reflecting a facet of the self within, the modern self ever questing on its own to know its ever-evolving identity. Some of her faces belong to adolescent girls, some to other women, but all of them, at the beginning and in the end, are essentially self-portraits—self-portraits not in any conventional sense, for they’re not likenesses, rather self-portraits ontologically, in the way they function within our experience of them, in the way that that experience can be said to yield knowledge of them, of ourselves, of our world.
Anne Harris, Angel,  2007, oil on linen, 44 x 30 inches.
Anne Harris, Portrait (Beaded Dress), 2000, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches.
Anne Harris, Portrait (Blonde), 2003, 12 x 12 inches.
Anne Harris, Portrait (Pearls), 2001, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches.
Anne Harris, Portrait (Pink Eyelid), 2010, oil on linen over panel, 11 x 8 inches.
Anne Harris, Portrait (Red Robe) - in progress, 2010, oil on linen, 52 x 33 inches. 
The identity quest we track in Anne Harris’s pictures is a challenge comprising conflicts and contradictions. Each figure is isolated, presented to us front and center, facing us but without seeing us, looking through us or past us, trance-like, as if in a world of her own, a world that is not a place but a vaporous and abstract pictorial substance, emptied of things, out of which she magically emerges, becomes momentarily focused, and into which she just as magically then dissolves. She may wear a brocade or satin dress, she may be draped in pearls or a velvet robe, her skin may glow through delicate layers of thinned oil pigment, and she may be rendered with the patiently exquisite touch of the Northern Old Masters the artist so deeply and abidingly admires, but she is otherwise a spectral nightmare, grotesque, misshapen, hideous to behold—her image sears our vision yet leaves us enthralled, unable to take our eyes from her.

Harris’s challenge to painting reminds me of Faulkner’s challenge to literature, which was, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” As to her pictures being self-portraits, I think of them sometimes when I look in the mirror and wonder if I’m seeing my better self or my own worst enemy—which is when I realize her pictures know me the way I know myself.



Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Clyfford Still - Part 2, The Art

By Charles Kessler

“Still makes the rest of us look academic.”
— Jackson Pollock, 1955 (quoted in Sam Hunter, Masters of the Fifties).

Clyfford Still, 1944-N No.1 (PH-235), 1944, oil on canvas, 105 x 92 ½ inches (Clyfford Still Museum, photo: Harholdt).
Let’s get this out of the way: Clyfford Still was first! Several months ago I compared what the other Abstract Expressionists were doing in 1944 with what Still was doing.
Left: Barnett Newman, The Blessing, 1944, oil crayon and wax crayon on paper, 25 ½  x 19 ⅜ inches (MoMA).
Right: Mark Rothko, Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, 1944, oil on canvas, 75 ⅜  x 84 ¾ inches (MoMA).
About the only artist in Still’s league was Jackson Pollock, and a case can be made that Pollock’s work, great as it was then, was not yet his mature work. The others didn't catch up until 1949-50.
Left: Jackson Pollock, Gothic, 1944, oil on canvas, 84 ⅝  x 56 inches (MoMA).
Right: Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1944, oil on canvas, 46 x 32 inches (Metropolitan Museum).
Still was the first of the Abstract Expressionists to go completely abstract. For that we not only have the evidence of his mid-1940's exhibitions, but also the testimony of Robert Motherwell, one of the first-generation Abstract Expressionists:  “His was the show, of all those early shows [referring to Still’s 1946 and 1947 New York exhibitions] that was the most original. A bolt out of the blue.” And: “Most of us were still working through images toward what ultimately became Abstract Expressionism. Baziotes, Pollock and I all had some degree of figuration in our work, abstract as our work was; whereas Still had none.” (Summer 1967 interview with Sidney Simon in Art International.)

Still was the first to make large-scale paintings. This is a somewhat complicated issue because many artists made an occasional large painting: Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, etc. But Art Historian Meyer Schapiro, a brilliant scholar and a friend of the Abstract Expressionists, identified the relevant issue when he told me in a 1972 interview that Still was the first because he was the first to have an exhibition composed solely of large paintings [at the Art of this Century Gallery in New York in February 12 - March 2, 1946] and thereby was the first to make large scale a characteristic of his art. [My emphasis.]

Actually, while researching my MA thesis on Clyfford Still, I came across evidence of an earlier exhibition of his, at the Richmond Professional Institute in 1944, in which all the work was large. (A letter to me from someone who witnessed this exhibition is re-printed in Still's Metropolitan Museum 1979-80 exhibition catalog, p.182.) Admittedly Richmond is out of the way, but by 1945 Still moved to New York and was friends with most of the first-generation Abstract Expressionists. It's certain they would have seen this work in his studio.

And finally, after a talk he gave at UCLA in the early seventies, I asked Motherwell who was the first to do large-scale paintings, he said it was definitely Still.

Perhaps more significant, Still was the first to do away with figure/ground distinctions. Even Monet kept the distinction between figure and ground in his water lilies, however subtle; and Picasso never went all the way with it. But by 1944, certainly 1945, shapes and forms in Still's paintings were simultaneously figure (object, shape, form, etc.) and ground (background) and neither.
I never wanted color to be color, I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit. (Clyfford Still in an interview with Katharine Kuh and reported in her book, My Love Affair With Modern Art.)
Still managed to have it all ways by maintaining an ambiguity as to whether or not something is a unique, self-contained irregular shape or a fissure in a field of color revealing part of another field of color underneath. As a result, there is even ambiguity as to how big a shape is or where its edge leaves off.
Clyfford Still, 1947-R-No.1, 1947, oil on canvas, 69 x 65  inches. (This painting recently sold at auction for more than $21 million.)
This is important because it allowed shapes and forms to float in space rather than pile up, flatten out and clog up the surface. In fact, space in a Still painting can be so palpable that many people report the vertiginous feeling of falling into a deep, breathtaking cavern, then being thrown back to the painting surface, only to see it dissipate again. (A lot of people hate Still’s art, and I suspect it's because they don’t see the spatial illusions; they only see the work as thick paint on canvas.)
Detail: Clyfford Still, untitled  (PH - 1049), 1977, oil on canvas.
Related to this merging of figure and ground, Still was the first to employ large fields of color — color unattached to shape or form. Weightless fields of airy color (or unpainted canvas functioning as another field of color) become transparent, expand and glow. And color itself becomes ambiguous — is it the local color (the color of the shape or form) or is it a color showing through from behind?

Another innovation is what I think of as the narrative quality of Still's work. Like Minimal Art (Stella's Black Paintings, for example), Still paintings can be taken in all at once; but, like calligraphy or Chinese landscape painting or scrolls, they can also be experienced over time, bit by bit. As you scan the surface of the painting, the strokes of paint float in space, move rhythmically, and coalesce into a flowing dance.  See video below for an example of what I mean.
video
VIDEO: Clyfford Still, untitled  (PH - 1049), 1977, oil on canvas, 114 x 172 inches (The Clyfford Still Museum).
Not only did Still innovate, but he could execute. Still studied art from an early age, and he was a skilled draftsman. (I haven't been able to find a good photo of his early work, but take my word for it, his Self Portrait, which he did at age 18, currently on display at the Clyfford Still Museum, is surprisingly masterful.) In his mature work, Still's drawing ability allowed him to keep the space in his paintings activated — it never feels empty, even the unpainted parts. In fact, I think drawing was his main gift, more even than color, as important as color was to him. (Still's early work, shown for the first time in Denver, should dispel the foolish notion that Still's inventions were due somehow to a lack of technical facility.)

Still's art also has a wide expressive range — it's not all dark and dour, the way many people think it is. He used different amounts of oil to vary the shininess of the paint surface and employed unexpected colors: pink, lavender, aqua. Some of his later work is even playful, loose and light. He might even have had a classic late style — I hope some day the museum will have a show of his late work, and we'll find out.
Clyfford Still, untitled, 1971, oil on canvas, 93 ¾ x 155 inches (SFMOMA).
Of course, Still's innovations and technical facility mean nothing if that’s all there is. But the innovations aren’t spurious, and, along with his skills as a painter, they serve an expressive end, allowing him to express profoundly deep meaning and feelings. I believe Still was a hero in the existentialist sense, and his work, in a direct, immediate, right-to-the-gut way, embodies the existential ideal.

This obviously needs some explaining and context:

A representational painting looks the way it does because that’s what the thing it represents looks like. But how does one make an abstract painting look right and not just arbitrary? The Abstract Expressionist offered two very different possibilities: one was to make it look as if it were done by chance, typified by Pollock; and the other was to make it look pre-determined, typified by Newman (i.e., to fit into a grid or because of the given shape and size of the canvas, etc.).

Of course, neither was made in a random or pre-determined manner. Newman freely chose the size and shape of his canvases, and chose to put his stripes where they are; and Pollock’s drips and de Kooning’s brushwork were in fact controlled (aside from their skill, they could always choose to keep an accident or change it) — it’s just that we don’t experience them that way, nor are we meant to. (In 1970, Clement Greenberg told a group of us from UCLA that when he visited Pollock’s studio one time, Pollock kicked a turkey baster under a chair to hide it from him.)

According to existentialist philosophy, all decisions are free — but Still's paintings embody this in a visceral way. They aren't experienced as restrained by a pre-conceived structural organization, be it the need to create a representational image or the necessity to fit into a cubist grid or some other pre-determined, a priori organization.
To be stopped by a frame's edge is intolerable, a Euclidian prison, it had to be annihilated, its authoritarian implications repudiated without dissolving one’s individual integrity and idea in material and mannerism. (Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, 1963.)
Still overcame the “Euclidean prison” — the power of the shape, size and limits of the painting surface to determine the structure of the painting — because his configurations appear to continue beyond the edge. And figure-ground distinctions are ambiguous so contours aren’t defined and therefore don't need to be aligned with the edge of the canvas or with each other. As a result, Still was free to place his shapes wherever he willed them.

Nor do we feel as if Still painted according to his whims or caprice. On the contrary, to the viewer a pallet knife is experienced as more controlled than poured paint or a loaded brush, and the work, as a result, is felt to be considered and deliberate.

Submitting to chance or a priori necessity means relinquishing responsibility for decisions. It is a denial of freedom because it implies the artist had no free will. (The existentialist term for this is  “inauthentic” or “in bad faith.”) This has nothing to do with how good or bad the art is — it has to do with the experience and meaning of the work. We may no longer believe in the subject matter of most religious or royal art from past centuries, but it can nevertheless be great art that we love.

I love Still's art for the power of the willfulness, the free willfulness, I experience in his work. The fact is, Still’s bombastic posturing isn’t empty boasting and hyperbole — what he said is precisely true:
By 1941, space and figure in my canvases had been resolved into a total psychic entity, freeing me from the limitations of each, yet fusing into an instrument bounded only by the limits of my energy and intuition. My feeling of freedom was now absolute and infinitely exhilarating. (Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 1963.)
 

This is part 2 of three posts on Clyfford Still. Part 1 was about the person, and the next will be about the Clyfford Still Museum.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Clyfford Still -- Part 1


By Charles Kessler

This is the first of a two-part three-part (I have more to say than I realized) post on Clyfford Still and the Clyfford Still Museum.
Clyfford Still, 1969.
I did my MA thesis on Clyfford Still at UCLA in 1973, and I have loved his art ever since, so I decided to go to Denver and see the new Clyfford Still Museum. I’ll be writing about the museum and Still’s art later, but here I want to focus on Clyfford Still the person — a pretty intense person indeed, infamous for statements that sound like an Old Testament prophet pouring out his wrath:

I hold it imperative to evolve an instrument of thought which will aid in cutting through all cultural opiates, past and present, so that a direct, immediate, and truly free vision can be revealed with clarity. ... Therefore, let no man undervalue the implications of this work or its power for life;—or for death, if it is misused. (both Albright Art Gallery, 1959)

To be stopped by a frame's edge is intolerable, a Euclidian prison, it had to be annihilated, its authoritarian implications repudiated without dissolving one’s individual integrity and idea in material and mannerism. (Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, 1963)
Clyfford Still, Untitled (PH-118), 1947, oil on canvas, 69 x 53 inches, (Clyfford Still Museum, © Estate of Clyfford Still).
I had made it clear that a single stroke of paint, backed by work and a mind that understood its potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for subjugation. (Letter to the Editor, Artforum, December, 1963.)

As you can imagine from this, Clyfford Still could be difficult to get along with. He was obstinate, and vindictive if you crossed him. He refused to sell work to just anyone (he allowed only about 150 paintings to be sold in his lifetime). He had to believe you understood and respected his work before he’d allow you to own one. In addition, since he owned most of his art, he was able to tightly controlled how and when his work was shown. It had to be exhibited in its own room with no other art; and he had to be in charge of selecting and installing the work himself. He even wrote the catalogs. And this wasn’t just for minor gallery exhibitions or even small museums. This was for major solo exhibitions at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo (1959), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1975) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1979) — where he exhibited an astonishing 79 paintings! It was that or nothing — and he was perfectly willing to wait until he got his terms.

These days I guess people would think he was kind of a pompous jerk and prima donna, but you have to remember it was a different time — just after the traumas of World War II — and Still and the other Abstract Expressionists all felt strongly about the importance and seriousness of the art-making enterprise — and they all were willing to suffer poverty and neglect for the sake of their art.

And keep in mind that these high standards weren’t just for themselves. Still, Newman, Rothko and many of the other Abstract Expressionists felt the work of ALL artists is best seen in the context of the individual artist's own work.  For example, Still’s daughter, Sandra Still Campbell, recently told a writer for Art News that on the night of the opening of the famous 15 Americans exhibition at MoMA in 1952, Still noticed one of his works could be seen from someone else’s room. He went up to Dorothy Miller, the curator, and told her “Don’t do that! Give the artists the chance to be seen for who they are.”

All of them were conflicted about the commercial aspects of the art world and were super-sensitive to any hint of “selling out.”  Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock had mixed feelings about their success, and that conflict may have ultimately contributed to their deaths. Few of them trusted art dealers to represent their work correctly. Still represented himself for most of his life, and so did Barnett Newman after 1950.

While they all believed these things, Still was far more uncompromising than the others, and as a result he has had far less visibility and hasn't received the attention or acclaim he deserves. In addition, he offended powerful people in the art world, most importantly the Museum of Modern Art (which, according to Betty Freeman, he called “the great gas chamber of culture on 53rd Street”).

One of his conflicts with MoMA involved them wanting to buy his painting 1944-N but Still believed his PH-246 (now in the Chicago Art Institute -- see photo below -- you need to look closely to see the different colors and configurations), a large black painting that was shown in their 15 Americans exhibition, was a more important painting, and he was angry they didn’t have the courage to buy it.
Clyfford Still, PH-246, 1951-52, oil on canvas, 118 ¾ x 156 inches (Art Institute of Chicago).
In a letter to Gordon Smith, former director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and a long-time friend, Still wrote that he secretly sold them a replica of 1944-N. “Since they were only after my name, I deliberately made the replica very slight and willfully of indifferent quality. In other words, I was willing to stab myself to defy and teach this monster my contempt of it.” (The original 1944-N is now on exhibit in Denver and is only a little bit larger, but it’s significantly more finished looking.
On the left - Clyfford Still, 1944-N No.1 (PH-235), 1944, oil on canvas, 105 x 92 ½ inches (Clyfford Still Museum, photo: Harholdt). On the right - Clyfford Still, 1944-N No. 2, 1944. Oil on canvas. 104 1/4 x 87 1/4 inches  (The Museum of Modern Art).
There are a lot of other stories about Still’s outrageous behavior. Here are two of the most famous ones:

Still sent this pair of rubber baby pants to art critic Emily Genauer after she reviewed his work unfavorably in the Sunday New York Herald Tribune.
Rubber baby pants, in the Archives of American Art.
The attached note says: “Hoping this will aid in concealing your Sunday afflictions. With the compliments of Clyfford Still.”

Another story is about Still and the artist and collector Alfonso Ossorio. They had been friends, and over the years Ossorio had bought some of his paintings. Still found out that Ossorio sold one or two of them and demanded he return one of his remaining paintings. Ossorio refused, so Still went to his house and, while Ossorio was occupied elsewhere, cut the center of the painting out and left with it. Later he told Betty Freeman that he “cut the heart out of the painting.”

While researching my MA thesis, I was told some more stories:

The collector Fred Weisman told me that he had been friends with Still for many years and had bought some of his paintings when suddenly Still broke off contact with him. Puzzled, Weisman looked at the last letter he sent Still and noticed his secretary misspelled Clyfford “Clifford” by mistake. He confronted Still with this, asking him how he could give up a long friendship for such a trivial reason. Weisman said Still was so contrite that he gave him a painting.

Betty Freeman told me how much Still loved baseball (I seem to remember he was a  semi-pro in his youth but I haven’t been able to confirm it) and she showed me photos of them at a game. She said Still once pointed to the foul pole and said “the foul line is my line of force.”  (A similar story was recently reported by Tyler Green in his post on Betty Freeman.) I don’t know what the hell it’s supposed to mean, but I thought I’d pass it on.

Richard Diebenkorn told me my favorite Clyfford Still story. Although he was a lot younger, Diebenkorn taught with Still at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in the mid-1940’s. He said everyone there was in awe of Still and intimidated by him. (I suspect Diebenkorn was still intimidated because he was concerned Still might be angry with him for telling this story. But Diebenkorn felt that since the story made him look bad and not Still, it would be okay.)
Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1947-48, watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, 23 ¼ x 29 ⅛ inches (SFMOMA).
He said he finally gathered up the courage to invite Still by to look at his art. Still showed up on the dot wearing a suit and tie and not wanting to bother with a drink first or any niceties. Diebenkorn said Still looked at his art for a long time without saying a word, making him feel more and more uncomfortable. Finally Still said “that’s a good painting,” and Diebenkorn said he was so relieved and flabbergasted he foolishly (as he put it) said to Still that he had trouble with the red. Well, Still stomped out yelling “Art isn’t about red! It’s about meaning and feeling!” (or some such rant). Diebenkorn said he was thoroughly humiliated. (Diebenkorn said he thought Still thrived on his anger, was motivated by it, and channeled it into his art.)

I can understand why Warhol and the next generation reacted against this kind of macho posturing and grandiose pretensions, but I admire their heroic ambition and their seriousness, and sometimes I wish we had more of that today.