For any artist that lives a long time there are inevitable expressions of concern that the best years have passed, or a sense of satisfaction that an idea was realized after decades of dedication. Clyfford Still was one of the longest living artists of the Abstract Expressionism movement, but remains best known for his work made between 1942 and 1960.The exhibition The Late Works: Clyfford Still in Maryland, now on view at the Denver museum devoted to the artist, offers a historical pivot by focusing on the last 20 years of his life, revealing his most productive period and foregrounding work that is rarely discussed.
“I had taken [the densely worked paintings] as far as I could go and felt I was coming up against a dead wall of abstraction, manipulation and device,” Still told biographer Betty Freeman in 1962, a year after leaving New York City to live in rural Maryland. That year he started simplifying his compositions, working more economically like other mature artists such as DeKooning in his late “ribbon” paintings or Motherwell in his Open series.
Named “The Splotch Paintings” by Dean Sobel, the exhibition’s curator (and the museum’s former director), these quiet creations are incredible manifestations of starting over. Still’s signature interlocking forms of plentiful paint are replaced by floating color. They feel like cool air in the lungs. “Initially, I didn’t give them much consideration,” Sobel told Hyperallergic. “We didn’t have any 1960s work in our inaugural show at the [Clyfford Still] museum. Their sophistication took some getting used to. There is nothing else like them.”
Other late works introduce compositions that topple (“PH-931,” 1974) or flutter (“PH-1039,” 1977), and a broadening color palette, with bright yellows (“PH-1069,” 1978) and purples such as “PH-260” (1962) which is one of 8 paintings in the show that never exhibited. The plum pigment bookends two shades of black, one so abundant with oil paint it bubbles and glistens. Orange figures stacked like piano keys interrupt the tempo.
Household latex paint, a roller brush instead of his palette knife, dime-store construction paper, and paint pressed directly from the tube onto the surface joined Still’s toolbox. The unpainted canvas became a prevalent lightening agent and added texture that paint could not. Still was testing, exploring, perhaps even playing.
Many argue it was Still’s exit from New York — or his refusal to sell his work — that deterred critical responses to the 372 paintings and 1,132 drawings made in Maryland. However, reception was more likely darkened by the declining popularity of Abstract Expressionism. “Those understood to be making ‘the next inevitable step’ now work with any material but paint” wrote Artforum editors in September 1975. After all, the artist had an aggressive exhibition calendar that proves he never stepped away, including shows at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art (1963), at Albright-Knox (1966), at New York’s Marlborough-Gerson Gallery (1969), at SFMOMA (1976), and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979).
Less visible in the galleries are the sentiments of a professional artist with doubts. Distressed remarks about whether paintings would be misconstrued as pretty or that he was already part of history, “a dead man now,” were recorded by Freeman in her notes. The paintings are distinct, complicated, and sometimes vulnerable, a description rarely associated with Clyfford Still.
The Late Works: Clyfford Still in Maryland continues through February 21, 2021 at the Clyfford Still Museum (1250 Bannock Street, Denver, CO 80204). The exhibition is curated by Dean Sobel.
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