Clyfford Still by Christopher Le Brun PRA
This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
A Clear Midnight, Walt Whitman (1881)
Clyfford Still had the essential tendency of the great American artists towards the wordless, to what the literary critic Harold Bloom calls ‘un-naming’. Still was aware of the false light that words can cast and the responsibility on the artist not to undermine art’s natural subjectivity with the assimilation society seeks.
His paintings are huge in scale, their colour sombre and ecstatic. They are radiant with their core principles. They tend to singularities – described by Still as the ‘vertical necessity of life’ – that stand up in a confronting tall or wide surface plane spread with colour, co-existent with thresholds and borders.
“Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us,” wrote the physician and essayist Sir Thomas Browne in 1658; these lapidary, timeless words are entirely appropriate for Still’s heroic ambition. His work constitutes an extreme of romanticism, possessing a nobility of purpose, dismissive of irony, quotation and the whole apparatus of art appreciation. It is today an attitude as rare and as mistrusted, yet as vital, as it was in the middle years of the 20th century.
Still cherished the central truth of painting as a bodily act and experience rather than an idea. Between the viewer and the embodied enigma that is painting stands no interpretation, nothing to diminish or ingratiate. His paintings’ very silence lets their flame-like colour appear in and for itself, and as the product of the human imagination can no more be explained away than we can ourselves (PH–4, 1952, pictured). Difficulty alone does not deserve our interest, but difficulty achieved through conviction may satisfy the deepest and most inward categories of our questioning.
There is a reason these paintings are big, occasionally overpowering. They are to be felt, walked in front of, glimpsed, stared at, dwelt with. See how much the light and colour changes as we move, near, far; the rectangle of the painting is rarely orthogonal. Which is the true light in which the painting is to be seen? Which is the true colour? There is no such thing. A painting is not a screen upon which phantom presence is portrayed. It is an object steeped in thought made by a solitary hand. What inner light it has is mind made.