Clyfford Still was fond of creating rivalries with fellow artists where none need have existed. Until recently, one of the best examples was the most mysterious: In my 2011 profile of Still I noted that he believed Barnett Newman stole his dominant vertical. Still believed that Newman’s zips were indebted to what Still called his “line of force.”
At the time, it seemed far-fetched. Still said he pioneered his ‘line of force’ in the 1930s. There certainly weren’t any of those that anyone had ever seen. And besides, does it really matter who was first? There is no finish line in art and bragging rights are thin pleasure. But who wouldn’t like a fuller understanding of art history, a fuller knowledge of how key developments happened, how art became what it was and is?
And after all, the compositionally dominant, abstract vertical is one of 20thC art’s more interesting niche histories. As best I can tell, it started with Henri Matisse right around 1900, when he repeatedly placed a dissonant vertical at the far left or far right of compositions in an effort to push his compositions closer toward the picture plane. (Virtually all of these paintings were made of views from Matisse’s studio at 19 quai Saint-Michel; the vertical is derived from the edge of the window out of which Matisse looked.) It worked, the divisionist paintings he made during that period were indeed flattened. (Degas used a similar vertical as early as 1877, but it’s representational, obviously a door frame, whereas Matisse’s verticals are always abstract.) [Image: Matisse, Pont Saint-Michel, ca. 1900-01. Collection of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Museum of Art.]
Then as Matisse veered toward pointilism he forgot about it for a while, remembering the trick as he explored cubist-inspired abstraction after his encounter with Juan Gris. It was then that Matisse re-visited that vertical, and it enabled Matisse’s greatest abstraction: French Window at Collioure (1914). Other artists noticed Matisse’s perspective-shortening trick too: Witness Max Beckmann’s great The Bath (1930) or dozens of Pierre Bonnards.
So when Clyfford Still began experimenting with dominant verticals in the late 1920s — and thanks to the Clyfford Still Museum and its first efforts to share the nearly 1,000 paintings in the Still estate, we now we know Still started painting verticals early on — he wasn’t exactly all alone. They seem to have started thus: Around 1927 or 1928 Still began painting trains moving through the flat, open West, possibly the high plains around Spokane, Wash., where he was living. (The CSM has published two of these early works in its new book, “Clyfford Still: The Artist’s Museum.”) Extending upward from these trains is a thin sliver of smoke. That wisp doesn’t go from the top of the painting to the bottom of the painting, but you can see Still playing with the idea, putting it away, and then coming back to it. By 1946 Still is including single, thin, top-to-bottom verticals in his paintings, such as PH-945. [Image at left: Still, PH-782, 1927. Collection of the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver.]
Did Still come upon that form himself? We don’t know. Possibly, even probably not: Still made his first trip to New York City in 1925. He visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, enrolled at the Art Students League and, according to a chronology penned by his widow-cum-hagiographer Patricia and published in 1992, he “left [the ASL] after forty-five minutes.” Patricia Still quoted her (late) husband as saying “The exercises and results I observed [at the ASL] I had already explored for myself some years before and had rejected most of them as a waste of time.” And what did Still think of the Met? Patricia reported that Still “found the reality disappointing and decided to return to his own aloof position where he could continue to look on with an independent eye.” He returned to Spokane, about which Patricia reported that her husband “arrived at a complete mastery of the recording of visual phenomena.”
So what about Newman and Still’s claim that Newman took the vertical from him? We’ll probably never really know of course, but as more information and artwork comes to light it seems increasingly likely that Newman did in fact see Stills and that he learned from them.
Still made his first real pushes into abstraction in 1943 and 1944, while living in San Francisco and then in Richmond, Va., where he taught at what is now Virginia Commonwealth University. At the end of the 1945 spring semester, Still moved to New York where Mark Rothko introduced him around to painters and dealers. By 1946 Still earned a solo show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, an exhibition for which Rothko wrote a short essay. Still would bounce between New York and San Francisco for a few years before moving back to NYC for about a decade starting in 1950.
It’s not clear when Still met Newman, but it was likely in 1945 or 1946, by which point Still was including thin bursts of colorful verticals in paintings such as 1946’s PH-945 (below, the red squirt of color doesn’t translate into JPEG real well, but hopefully you get the idea). In his 1984 PhD dissertation, David Anfam reports that Newman and Still seem to have remained friendly until about 1952 or so.
So when did the vertical form enter Newman’s work? Just as with Still, there was no single thunderbolt. Top-to-bottom verticals enter Newman’s small ink-on-paper drawings in 1945 and 1946. (Only one of those works is in a museum collection and I couldn’t find an image of it. The dates of these Newmans have long been in question, but the most widely accepted guess was provided by Brenda Richardson in her 1979 Baltimore Museum of Art survey of Newman’s drawings. More recently, Ann Temkin accepted them for her 2002 Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition and catalogue.)
The first Newman painting to feature what we might now call a ‘zip’ is 1946’s The Word I (above, left). As Temkin noted, the painting is indebted to Newman’s drawings of the period, right down to the way Newman thinned his paint to achieve ink-and-brush-like effects. Throughout 1946 Newman would develop that vertical, presenting it as non-tapering in 1946’s Moment, before making two Still-like paintings at the end of 1946 and early 1947: A terrific untitled 1946 painting on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum, and Euclidian Abyss (1946-47), each of which could be distillations of Still, or, conversely, paintings from which it was Still who took something. We don’t know yet. And of course Newman kept playing with the vertical form until he isolated it in 1948’s Onement I.
As abstract expressionism historian David Anfam says on this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast, given what we now know, it’s hard to argue that Still was working with the form decades before Newman. “Even now the rivalries between the abstract expressionists are, I think, still a delicate, inflamed topic,” Anfam said on the show, available for download here. “I do want to stress that it’s become crystal clear that Clyfford Still was working with the vertical with virtually the first paintings [the Clyfford Still Museum has] been given from the 1920s… Still was using the vertical in an abstract context by the late 1930s, [when] it was highly developed as a motif. And then with the works on paper he did in Richmond [in 1943]…. the line is there and it does pre-date Barnett Newman. But I want to say is how each artist uses the vertical is completely different.”
It isn’t until 1951 that we get the two paintings at the top of this post, Still’s PH-247 and Newman’s Cathedra (at the Stedelijk) are paintings that indicate that Still and Newman were paying close attention to each other — and judging by the intense similarity in the paintings, had spent years assimilating each others’ ideas.
And to be sure, there are likely examples of Still seeing something in Newman and riffing on it as well. Take Newman’s 1951 painting The Way I at the National Gallery of Canada (right), his first use of a central band of color. (I believe it was exhibited at Betty Parsons in 1951, but I’m not sure.) Still’s 1952 pastel PP-104 seems likely to be a riff on it.
To extend the line of influence a bit, The Way I is descended from Newman’s End of Silence (1949), a painting built mostly (and maybe entirely) with a palette knife, something Newman likely learned from Still. And the matte/non-matte blacks in the The Way I owe plenty to Still’s own technique.
Did the dominant vertical in American abstraction start with Still? Sure seems like it. Did Still overstate how much Newman ‘took’ from him? Probably, but that’s just Clyfford being Clyfford. It’s also increasingly clear that there’s an, important, fascinating, mostly untold history here too: The story of the the give-and-take, the take-and-give, between Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman. Someday it’ll make for a great and revelatory exhibition.
A ‘table of contents’ of sorts to MAN’s posts on Clyfford Still.