Sunday, October 21, 2018

Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Colorado

Clyfford Still, PH-623, 1929-30
Visiting the Clyfford Still Museum in downtown Denver, I felt like a pilgrim. It was the highlight of my trip to Colorado, and one of the most memorable experience of my American travels. 95% of Still’s paintings are owned and held at the museum, meaning that the only way to see and understand the work is to journey to Denver. The artist stipulated in his will that the works must stay together, and that they must be located in the American city with the courage (my word) to house the entire collection of something like 800 works. After years of back and forth, Denver became that lucky American city. They contracted a Portland architect firm, built a concrete building to house the paintings, with a light-flooded exhibition space to show them. I recognize that this is abstract painting and is not immediately accessible to a wide ranging public, but the experience of being in the space itself, surrounded by Still’s enormous paintings is ethereal and exhilarating. I suspect that even skeptics of abstract art are transported within these walls.
Clyfford Still,  TO1498, 1953
Even though there is limited exhibition space—with only nine galleries—and we therefore see only a fraction of the holdings, the museum affords a compelling experience of Still’s oeuvre. Like a chronological display of any artist’s work, we get a sense of where he began, what his concerns were, and how the execution of those concerns changed over the course of a lifetime. At the top of the stairs as we enter the first gallery we are met with paintings of the harsh landscape that surrounded him in his younger years. In a painting such as PH-623 from 1929-30 we see the tension between the vertical and the horizontal, the agitation of paint, the struggle ignited between different versions of the same color, the introduction of a color that upsets the otherwise serenity of the space around it. The resulting sense of rupture, an unsettled and sometimes tumultuous emotional state and the feeling of a harsh exterior reality are already dominant on the canvas of his early work.

Clyfford Still, PH-77, 1936
As the display continues throughout the next five decades of Clyfford Still’s production in paint, these characteristics both become more prominent on the canvas and more subtly expressed. Thus, colors erupt out of a completely different color, disturbing them, changing them, transforming them into something they could never imagine being before the process was set in motion. And so we see in a work such as PH-1034 (1973), all the turmoil and agony of red with black at its centre, bleeding into the red around it, making it dark and dirty. But before he reaches these imagescapes of total abstraction, we have to wander through the early work of the 1930s. Grotesque figures with oversized breasts and emaciated bodies, hands and feet like those of monsters, suffering their fate as workers. The vision is depressing and verges on the apocalyptic. Of course, the obvious reference is to photographs of Walker Evans, but Still’s figures show little compassion for these exaggerated human figures.
Clyfford Still, PH-1034, 1973
Then in the 1940s the figures merge with the landscape until bodies and lands become abstract forms in a hostile universe. But we never forget the agony of the 1930s paintings. Throughout the galleries, the deep inner turmoil and painful conflicts remain on the surface of the canvas. Initially, the darkness comes literally, as great swathes of thick, lush black paint with little or no other colors let alone glimpses of canvas dominate the image. At best, lightning bolts of color—white, yellow, red, green—cutting through the surface of paint rather than offering hope on a horizon. When colors other than black fill the space of the image, they are often brooding, reflective, before their form is violently shattered by a line in another color. Critics discuss Still’s paintings as landscapes, but this seems to me to be only useful as something to hold onto, something to stop ourselves falling into the brutality and aggression of these early works. If they are about landscape, the paintings are not literal representations, but more like the feeling aroused by standing in the middle of a vast and brutal expanse of snow, desert, or on an unending plain.
Clyfford Still Museum, Allied Works, Denver
It’s not only the colors that are in struggle on Still’s most incredible canvases, but the multiple techniques for applying paint create tension, to the point of anger, on the surface of the image. Black can be thick and velvety, or it can be thin, like tears and rain, expressing some kind of disturbance or upset that has nothing to do with itself. No color is a single color, and no color is a single texture, a single material. The pigments are delicately applied with a thin brush, dripped, smudged with his hands, built up with a spatula, then diluted. This is an artist who searches throughout his oeuvre for ways to apply paint, to use it, manipulate it to express the most masculine of energies, and emotions. Paint becomes anger articulated out loud, danger, fire, storms and flight from the scene of chaos and confusion.
Clyfford Still, PH-960, 1960
As Still grows older, more mature as a painter, probably more tortured and more driven as a man, the amount of paint on the canvas diminishes. It remains very carefully and deliberately applied, but with its growing sparsity, the overall composition becomes increasingly complicated. Each painting is like a world unto itself in which the gamut of emotions is run, from peace and serenity to a raging anger in the agitation of what may be a few strokes of paint to the side or falling off the bottom of the canvas. At a distance, the works can appear pretty and aesthetically pleasing and then when we move up close, they are disturbing and disturbed by the penetration and infiltration of other colors, by the dense texture of a frenzy of reds, for example. Even in the final paintings which his daughter who is the curator for this installation of the work claims he was at peace, we are struck by a collision of color when the whites meet on the canvas, when the ochre form is sliced open by the blue line in a work such as PH-960, 1960.
Clyfford Still, PH-665, 1968
In contradistinction to the man’s name, this is painting that is constantly in motion across fifty years. It is forever going somewhere, but the destination never arrives. As visitors to the museum, we are drawn into the almost frenetic, and at times, pensive search for this something. Each painting is a world unto itself, and as we stand before it, we cannot help but get caught up in its powerful energy, its ups and downs, and the surprising turn of events that unfolds before us, over time. And yet, they are a family of paintings who belong together, make sense together in their own narrative across Still’s lifetime. Like any family, we see them argue with each other, contradict each other, and yet, lay the grounds for the next painting to be born. The museum likes to say in the wall plaques and literature that Still was unique in these heroic abstract narratives of colour. I am not so sure: he may have been isolated from the art world, but there’s a reason Clyfford Still’s painting  sits at the center of what is known as Abstract Expressionism. His paintings depict the emotion of abstraction at its most exquisite, in a body of work that nevertheless speaks at every turn with the masterpieces of Motherwell, Newman, Frankenthaler, Mitchell, and de Kooning.

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