Clyfford Still’s PH-148 (1960-F) creates a total environment of raw, sensuous color, wrapping the viewer in an all-pervading sensation that seems to extend infinitely into space. The emotive force of the artist’s brushwork heightens this chromatic impact and the pictorial surface seems consumed by a percussive rhythmic crescendo. In a palette of earth tones, primaries, and absolute colors, the contrast between voided spaces and abundant, roiling chromatics creates visual intoxication, a sensation that expresses Still’s towering creative genius. In a dramatic statement of physicality, Still wields his brush and palette knife with the surety and skill of a master, producing artwork filled with maximum vitality, tension, and grandeur. Dazzled by the enormity of scale found in open expanses of the North American landscape, the artist created canvases that evoke those vast stretches, wondrous painterly fields that almost subsume those who stand before it. The sheer materiality of Still’s PH-148 (1960-F) overwhelms: not only its monumental size when compared to the more human-scaled easel picture, but also its thickened surface bring to mind the strength and harshness of the natural landscape. Ochre and raw sienna, punctuated by cadmium yellow, black, and cobalt blue against a white ground resonate with vast Western prairies. Far from being just a window into the world, PH-148 (1960-F)’s allover color areas and textures contain a world unto itself.
Considered among the most powerful and influential of the American artists belonging to the post-World War II Generation, Still was the first artist to expand the traditional easel picture to proportions that would lead the way to the mural-sized canvases of his contemporaries. He was also the first to express what came to be understood as a signature style, executing vast, irregular field of color using the brush and palette knife to cut and smear pigment in vertical striations that mimic natural forces cutting through landscape. As the art historian Barbara Rose wrote, “[Still creates] forms [that] seem gouged out of the palpable pigment with the elemental force of ice-age glaciers tearing out lakes and uprooting forests” (B. Rose, American Art Since 1900, New York, 1975, p. 166). Using fully saturated close-valued hues, Still is able to both emphasize the flat surface of the picture plane and at the same time create an extraordinary light-infused field. The drama of light, texture, and color vie with Still’s muscular tactility, creating overwhelming optical and tactile sensations that literally draw the viewer in while dazzling and bewitching the senses.
Still’s pictorial strategy takes its cue from the expanses of the vast Northwest terrain—Washington State and Alberta, Canada—where he spent much of his early life. Born in 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota, Still moved to New York in his early forties and mixed with the painters of the New York School, among them Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. Unlike these artists, however, Still did not remain in New York, but left for the West Coast where many of his most important paintings were created. There he met Mark Rothko, and through him, Peggy Guggenheim, who in 1946 exhibited Still’s work at her Art of This Century Gallery. Betty Parson’s gallery then filled the void when Guggenheim’s gallery closed, and eventually Still returned to New York in the 1950s where he rejoined many of the abstract expressionists. Yet continuing disaffection with the art world caused him to leave New York once again and retreat to rural Maryland where he lived until his death in 1980.
The influence of Still on artists such as Pollock, Rothko, and Newman is incalculable: their images, whether the lateral spread of Newman or the floating rectangles of Rothko, share with Still’s art the foregrounding of color as the single most expressive element in their work. Rothko’s own paintings during this period entered a phase not unlike Still’s, as both painters freed their work from figurative associations. Rothko’s “multiform” works of the late 1940s dispense with linearity and contour, relying on color and floating shapes to transcend familiar objects and forms and call on varying emotional states in the viewer. Rothko’s idea was to render “anecdotes of the spirit,” whereas Still, on the other hand, built on his own early explorations in representation toward what curator David Anfam describes as “abstraction erased, shattered, or propelled… to limits beyond recognition” (D. Anfam, “Still’s Journey,” in D. Sobel and D. Anfam, Clyfford Still: The Artist’s Museum, New York, 2012, p. 91). Barnett Newman’s vast color forms in the 1950s, such as Achilles, expand the single form to virtually encompass the entire picture plane. Serrated edges remind one of Still’s claw-like forms. Yet for all three artists—Still, Rothko, and Newman—color dictates pictorial structure. The manner in which one hue or tone informs the next, one color shape or area generates a contiguous area, can be seen in these three artists’ works. Although the technique is entirely different—Rothko, by the 1960s created smooth, almost velvety textures, Newman’s seemed to strive for an overall matte finish, while Still’s continue to be heavily impastoed—scale is used by each to encompass the viewer, to overwhelm in some sense that the force of the artists emotions are palpably felt.
Still’s notorious disaffection from the art world in the 1960s took material form when he authored an “Open Letter to an Art Critic,” which appeared—alongside a reproduction of PH-148 (1960-F)—in Artforum magazine in 1963. In words both vicious and lofty, he excoriated the art world while staking a claim to the higher plane on which his art functioned—to its authenticity and its validity. “Now there is a body of interesting fact indirectly related to those gas-chamber white walls you extol so generously,” he wrote. “It is one of the great stories of all time, far more meaningful and infinitely more intense and enduring than the wars of the bullring or the battlefield—or of diplomats, laboratories, or commerce. For it was in one of those arenas some thirteen years ago that was shown in one of the few truly liberating concepts man has every known. There I 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. It was instantly hailed, and recognized by two or three men that it threatened the power ethic of this culture, and challenged its validity” (C. Still, reprinted in D. Kuspit, Clyfford Still: Paintings, 1944-1960, New Haven and London, 2001, p. 149). Evangelical and yet reprimanding, Still was nevertheless speaking to an audience of believers—artists, curators, and collectors who in the 1960s could regard PH-148 (1960-F) and its accompanying letter of outrage as definitive for the state of serious ambitious art of the period. As such, Still’s seismic rifts were inspirational for a new generation of artists taking up the mantle of abstract painting, artists such as the post-painterly abstractionists Morris Louis and minimalist Sol Lewitt.
The belief in Still’s art had taken time to evolve. A voice as strong as Still’s, one with such extraordinary individuality and whose visual vocabulary was utterly unique, would take time to accept. As the artist wrote in 1963, just three years after he created the present work, “I felt it necessary to evolve entirely new concepts (of form and space and painting) and postulate them in an instrument that could continue to shake itself free from dialectical perversions. The dominant ones, cubism and expressionism, only reflected the attitudes of power or spiritual debasement of the individual” (C. Still, quoted by T. A. Sharpless, Clyfford Still, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 1963, p. 5). The critical reception up to that time had been generally positive, yet one of Still’s earliest champions, the critic Clement Greenberg, describes his own struggle with Still’s extraordinarily daring and ambitious work. When in 1944, Greenberg first encountered the artist he was unsure. But by the middle 1950s, he came to feel Still was “one of the most important and original painters of our time—perhaps the most original of all painters under fifty-five [this was in 1955], if not the best.” As is apparent in a work such as PH-148 (1960-F), Greenberg came to understand “how estranging and upsetting genuine originality in art can be” (C. Greenberg, “‘American-Type’ Painting,” Partisan Review (Spring 1955), rept. in Reading Abstract Expressionism, ed. Ellen G. Landau, pp. 208-209). Such “originality” as Greenberg identified is sure at stake in a work such as PH-148 (1960-F), a canvas on which the artistic hand is as precise and sure as the palette knife with which the artist scraped and formed its surface. The artist’s physical presence is perceived in every stroke, while his magisterial forms render the picture plane a site of almost palpable sublimity, wherein “space… is conceived to be infinite in its dimensions… and the sense of a vast, untethered, somewhat unearthly space without fixed boundaries [stands as] one of the truly original inventions of modern painting” (H. Kramer, “Art: Clyfford Still Show at the Met,’ New York Times, November 16, 1979).