The Language of Abstraction: Still's Path of Discovery / by Jennifer Davey

Clyfford Still, PH 398 1939

Clyfford Still, PH 398 1939

The War Begins: Clyfford Still's Paths to Abstraction at The Clyfford Still Museum from Oct 10th - January 18th, 2015 is an illuminating and exciting exhibit that pulls the curtain back to reveal Still's fervor and struggle to discover a new language in paint.  I was fortunate enough to gain a behind the scenes tour with David Anfam, the curator of this show and Dean Sobel, director of the Still museum.  

The show highlights Still's paintings, drawings, and sketchbooks from 1939-1944, revealing a complex constellation of events that swirled into Still's incredibly focused mind, leading him to discover an abstract, all-over, simplified visual language that would mark the shift of the art world from Paris to New York and a beginning to the lineage of a Western fully abstracted visual language.

There were many personal and public events that made for a tumultuous and changing landscape for Still.  World War II was raging in Europe and when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered the war, Still knew very clearly that he wanted to assist with this war effort.  He moved to Oakland, California and worked at the shipyards, building ships for the war.  Moving to California also put his work in a broader circle.  From Oakland he moved to San Francisco where he met Rothko and Gottlieb and had an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art. These relationships would eventually connect him with New York City.  In 1943 he moved east to teach at Virginia Commowealth University (then Richmond Professional Institute) from 1943-1945.  He then moved to New York City, finding himself at the epicenter of the Abstract Expressionist movement. While in California he also opened a mostly unsuccessful portrait studio to make ends meet.  He only made about 20 paintings during 1939-43, but it was a very critical part of laying the foundation for his fully realized abstract works.  He also experienced the birth of his first child, Diana, as well as beginning a relationship with his future wife Patricia Garsky. Events in the world were tumultuous as well as events within his personal life.  All of this fueled his discoveries within the field of paint.  

   Clyfford Still, PH-277, 1940

In the first gallery, the left side of the show is filled with paintings with modulating lines, totemic shapes, and simplified forms.  The right side has very realistic, detailed paintings and drawings of the shipyard Still worked at during the war. 

In the center are drawings, notes, and a shipyard manuel, which Still studied extensively during this time.  Its a phenomenal reveal into the workings of Still's mind and shows direct evidence of how deeply he was looking to understand visual form in order to create a new language.  Anfam discussed Still's drive to merge the mechanical and the figurative in space in total unity.  This integration of the mechanical is unique among the Abstract Expressionists and strikes me as almost prophetic, thinking today of how integrated machines and man have become.  I think of the ever present cell phone gaze and am amazed at Still's insight into a future humanity he could have hardly imagined, with this one desire to merge the mechanical and the figurative.   

              Clyfford Still PH-620, 1942

    Clyfford Still's World War II shipyard manual.

Clyfford Still, PH-299, 1943

The second gallery reveals a series of paintings that feel awkward, tense, struggling.  I love seeing these paintings and the supporting evidence showing the uncomfortable nature of creating something new and as yet unknown. There is evidence of the emergence of his life line, which won't appear fully realized until the third gallery.  He focuses on wheat, still with him as a symbol and form from his agricultural roots.  There are more enlarged images of rotated ship parts, turning them into totemic figures, examining their essence.  And there are pictures of 2 or three simplified lines, which I can't help but see figures in tension, especially knowing of his relationship with Patricia.  There are also images Still collected from current magazines of the time.  War images that Still examined, revealing drama, beauty within horror, all informing his quest to boil down his experiences to the most essential forms.   The paintings are becoming larger and more simplified.  It is in the final gallery that Still's full abstraction is realized, with PH-235 created in 1944.  It is Still's signature piece that moves him to the fore-front of abstraction, and placed him ahead of his peers, being the first to realize a fully abstract visual language.  

     Life magazine images of WWI and WWII collected        by CLyfford Still

     Life magazine images of WWI and WWII collected        by CLyfford Still

                                          Clyfford Still PH-235, 1944

                                          Clyfford Still PH-235, 1944

The show is brilliantly curated, letting the viewer inside the mind of one of the greats of Abstract Expressionism.   This show reveals not only the very personal struggle of an artist singly focused on creating a new visual language, but the work, dedication, and often awkward "middle" it takes to do so.