“The perceptual enquiring gaze of the disinterested observer remarking upon their object of study in order to ‘establish’ and pursue ‘new knowledge,’ becomes questionable as the sole method for encountering the world.”
In this post we are going to look at some early Clyfford Still paintings and take an anthropological journey that looks at the problem with ‘our’ way of perceiving the world. The problem is that we notice and look for differences. For example, ‘we’ love it when we see a gorgeous painting of some flowers on a plinth with some dark foliage representing trees in the background. Everything is so clear. We can separate out from the background each the figures. The differences we perceive between the space and the figures allow us to comprehend the work and not feel anxious. Well, let’s challenge that complacency with a few leather glove slaps to the face.
The conversion from conventional representational art to ‘totally abstract’ work, as with all Clyfford Still’s developments, was one that evolved slowly through time with changes and risks being taking at a thoughtful and considered pace. Arguably, though, such a survey of Still’s work is at odds with his own, retrospectively added, sense of progression into abstraction, as can be seen by his declaration to Ti-Grace Sharpless in 1963:
“By 1941, space and the figure in my canvases had been resolved into a total physic entity, freeing me from the limitations of each, yet fusing into an instrument bounded only by the limits of my energy and intuition. My feeling of freedom was now absolute and infinitely exhilarating.”1
Certainly work from the late 1940s could be said to accord to Still’s determination of a resolution occurring between “space and figure,” where figuration, motif, or symbol, had been absorbed in an all-over unity. However, to claim that this development had been achieved by 1941, is a touch dubious. As well as noting the biographical information that Still “did not paint a great deal from the fall of 1941 to the summer of 1943” because he was involved in the war industry on the West Coast, Irving Sandler wrote that it was only by 1947 that Still “had eliminated all the literal associations retained in his previous canvases.”2 The stability of 1941, as Still’s date for his resolution, if he is to be believed therefore seems a trifle rocky. Scepticism aside, let’s look at one of the works that Still made such claims about:1941-2-C (PH-154).
This work, David Anfam believes can be related to Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead.
For Anfam, the work has “precedents in Romanticism where the details of landscape convey human meanings”3 and is technically closer to works from 1946 than 1941-2. Perhaps the real candidate for Still’s resolution of “space and figure”, though, comes with 1942 (PH-613), a work until recently only really known in black and white reproduction from the Metropolitan catalogue of 1979.
With a dark appearance and a vertical ‘zip,’ anticipating Barnett Newman’s obsession, in tonal opposition to the rest of the canvas, this work appears as a real option to assist Still’s claim. Anfam, though, questions the authenticity of Still’s chronology stating that it “appears unusually advanced for its date.”4
The argument of when Still resolved “space and figure,” however, is minor in comparison to the fact that he did appear to find such a resolution, with Anfam, virtually in accord with Sandler, stating that around the close of the 1940s such a development took place. Indeed, later in his thesis, Anfam describes the work of this period in the following terms:
“Although there are ostensibly distinct areas which puncture his overall fields they tend to register as pure colour (or occasionally luminosity) rather than as 3-D motifs. Indeed, there is no normal illusion of any space of which they could be a part. Instead a colour field prevails and it is felt as a total entity in itself.”5
Still’s achievement of a two-dimensional surface, by his resolution of “space and figure”, demanded a different way of viewing a painting, as he himself remarked: “I am interested in creating or postulating new hypotheses in experience or sensibility.”6 Still also realized that he was generating an aesthetic challenge that disrupted both the conventional forms of representational art and the recent contemporaneous innovations of the twentieth century:
“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 the dialectical perversions. The dominant ones, cubism and expressionism, only reflected the attitudes or spiritual debasement of the individual.”7
Anfam, by way of explanation, describes this “instrument” as something with which Still hoped to “prize open the inwardness of understanding.”8 Still himself elaborated on its meaning in both his 1959 and 1966 statements for the Albright Art Gallery and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery catalogues. In 1959, the “instrument” was described as an “aid” that could cut “through all cultural opiates, past and present” by transcending “the powers of conventional technics and symbols” to avoid being “trapped in the banal concepts of space and time.”9 In 1966 the “instrument” was contrasted to the “manifestos and gestures of the Cubists, the Fauves, the Dadaists, Surrealists, Futurists… [and] Expressionists,” who were all consigned to a state of ignominy due to their absorption into the very culture that they “often presumed to mock.”10 For Still, they were all but devices that had “failed to emancipate,” and for his own art “neither verbalizings nor aesthetic accretions would suffice.”11 In order to grasp the radical innovation that Still believed his “instrument” promised in relation to art of the past, Donald Kuspit offers an alternative analysis of Still’s resolution of “space and figure.”
According to Kuspit, Still undermined “the way figure and field traditionally relate, where figure dominates – stands out from and is set off by – field. In Still field dominates and absorbs figuration… It unsettles the spectator’s expectations, ‘refuting’ his familiar way of knowing the picture – of making the painting a picture, a world.”12 The refutation of the “spectator’s expectations” by not providing a mimetic, or perhaps symbolic, world not only ruptured previous notions of what a painting should be, but it also attacked fundamental epistemology. Kuspit continued:
“The monism of Still’s field is not only provocative in itself, but because it sabotages our innate tendency, as Jaspers puts it, to know by duality, by contrast… The field’s monistic unity, its demand that it be perceived as a whole which is more than the sum of its parts (for these cannot be clearly differentiated), undermines the ‘dialectical perversion’ of our usual way of knowing (in the image, the tendency to divide it into figure and ground or space). Unity – the unity of the field – is all for Still, and it is experienced as liberating.”13
Still’s work then, as Kuspit relates to it, forces us to reconsider how we engage with art, and by epistemic extension the world, because it refutes the “dialectical perversion” inherent in our attempts to see what is before us. Distinguishing figure from ground became near impossible in Still’s more abstract work after the late 1940s, and previous artistic ways of seeing and enquiring were rendered insufficient because acceptance of their value as tools for understanding could be placed in question.
The conceit of prioritising difference as a method for gaining knowledge was illuminated as incomplete and selective. Instead, in Still’s work, unity was granted a precedence that had the power to both unsettle and liberate the spectator. In a similar vein, E. C. Goosen described the effect of Still’s work as one that “intended to strip the spectator of his culture, leaving him naked as a coelacanthus, to experience for the first time in some time the pre-conceptual state of being confronted with the primordial image as it was first delivered from the pea-soup of chaos.”14 (Incidentally, in case you might be in doubt as to Still’s position in art circles, in 2013 the following work, from his last years, fetched over $20,000,000 at auction – money being an unfortunately all too ‘useful’ measure of value).
Returning to Kuspit, the “primordial” continues because “the spectator, by studying the formlessness of Still’s paintings, can rediscover his own singularity, and with it the original and primitive coordination of his consciousness with its object.”15 Hence, according to Kuspit, the rediscovery of one’s “primitive coordination” of consciousness is on offer, as it were, via Still’s work and it could assist the spectator in rediscovering their “own singularity, and with it the original and primitive coordination of [their] consciousness with its object.”
In How Natives Think, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl presented a similar line of thought, but from an anthropological perspective, which as it progressed, revealed problems with its own methods and also the consequences of epistemological revelations such as Kuspit’s. However, let us not be dissuaded from taking a peek at his thoughts.
In his 1910 text, Lévy-Bruhl set out a fundamental difference between what he referred to as ‘primitive thinking’ and ‘ours.’ (I shall be using a lot of inverted commas to show that Lévy-Bruhl’s terms are anachronistic). For him, the participation of the ‘primitive’ in their surroundings exemplified a mystical force that unites everything. And this is a force that ‘we’ no longer, or simply never did, acknowledge. Instead, when we regard the world, ‘we’, as ‘civilised’ people, do something different to that ascribed to the ‘primitive’. Starting with the ‘primitive’, Lévy-Bruhl wrote:
“Since everything that exists possesses mystic properties, and these properties, from their very nature, are much more important than the attributes of which our senses inform us, the difference between animate and inanimate things is not of the same interest to the primitive mentality as it is to our own.”16
Instead of regarding the world as governed by a mystical force, ‘we’ concern ourselves with differences, for example, between animate and inanimate, according to Lévy-Bruhl. Therefore, in comparison to ‘primitives,’ it appears that that which ‘we’ occupy ourselves with “either escapes their attention or is a matter of indifference to them.”17 ‘We’ are doing something different and that difference, which I am demonstrating right now by noting its presence, is that ‘we’ notice, and are fixated by, difference.
Lévy-Bruhl continued by attributing this distinction to the ‘primitive’ reliance upon ‘prelogical’ modes of thought as opposed to the logical ones that ‘we’ utilise: “By designating it ‘prelogical’ I merely wish to state that it does not bind itself down, as our thought does, to avoiding contradiction. It obeys the law of participation first and foremost.”18 The ‘law of participation’ fellow anthropologist, E. E. Evans-Pritchard clarified:
“That persons and things in primitive thought form part of one another to the point even of identity. A man participates in his social group, in his name, in his totem, in his shadow, to give a few examples, in such a way that his mentality may be said to be formed by these ‘mystical’ links.”19
The distinction between the ‘law of participation’ and what he later termed the ‘law of contradiction,’ provided the argumentative thrust of Lévy-Bruhl’s analysis in How Natives Think and The ‘Soul’ of the Primitive. However, as C. Scott Littleton wrote, Lévy-Bruhl later “capitulated to his critics and all but abandoned the theory of ‘prelogical mentality’,”20 as can be seen in his posthumously published papers The Notebooks on Primitive Mentality. The critical problem was the strength of the distinction that was thought apparent in Lévy-Bruhl’s ideas. Many anthropologists, such as Malinowski, Radin, Goldenweiser, and Lowie, believed Lévy-Bruhl had gone too far in separating what he called ‘primitive thought’ from ‘ours.’ Littleton sought to correct this belief by providing a more thorough re-reading of Lévy-Bruhl, even though Lucien himself acceded to the criticism. The significance of such a distinction, for our purposes however, lies not in its received strength but in the demonstration of an alternative mode of thinking.
If we allow Lévy-Bruhl his early voice and begin with How Natives Think, we discover just such a demonstration: “What strikes us first of all is that prelogical mentality is little given to analysis.”21 In The Notebooks on Primitive Mentality, the idea is elaborated, as always in comparison to the ‘primitive,’ to illuminate what it is that ‘we’ do when ‘we’ think:
“The difference between the role of concepts in the primitive mentality and their role in the structure of our world view (Weltanschauung) is striking. For us, these concepts express relations, combinations ruled by constant and necessary laws, and, if it is a matter of living things, animals or plants, forms no less regular and constant: concepts based on the comparison of things, the analysis and subordination of their characteristics, classifications equivalent to definitions… concepts have not become for them, as they have for us, the precision instruments of a discursive thought, a logical material invaluable for recording established knowledge and for use in acquiring new knowledge.”22
‘We’ analyse, compare, distinguish, and classify, our world in order to establish and acquire new knowledge and, as such, encounter our environment in a vastly different way to Lévy-Bruhl’s notion of the ‘primitive.’ Just as the anthropologist started his quest by wanting to know how the ‘native’ thought, so too do ‘we’ proceed by asking “How?” Therefore, as Lévy-Bruhl correctly assessed, at the end of How Natives Think, his investigation into ‘primitive mentality’ throws light upon our own mental activity. It leads us to recognise that the rational unity of the thinking being, which is taken for granted by most philosophers, is a desideratum, not a fact. As if to illustrate this point, when discussing his notion of ‘appurtenances’ in The Notebooks on Primitive Mentality,such as those found in the footprint of an enemy, or clothing that has soaked one’s sweat, or a friend’s house, Lévy-Bruhl mentioned a contrast between perception and feeling:
“Participations between objects or individuals and their appurtenances… are not based on perceived relationships… but rather on the feeling of the true presence of the individual or object, directly suggested by the presence of the appurtenance. And this feeling has no need of legitimation other than the very fact that it is felt.”23
The ‘primitive mentality,’ for Lévy-Bruhl, by emphasising the ‘feeling’ that one gets from an object, in this case an appurtenance, as opposed to the perceptions that ‘we’ register from the same object, makes clear that ‘our’ manner of relating to the world is not something that should remain unquestioned. The perceptual enquiring gaze of the disinterested observer remarking upon their object of study in order to ‘establish’ and pursue ‘new knowledge,’ becomes questionable as the sole method for encountering the world. The reliance upon ‘our’ ability to distinguish and differentiate, in contrast to the notionally ‘primitive’ approach that prioritises unification through mystical forces, finds itself under the microscope thanks to Lévy-Bruhl, and as such, open to debate.
Hence, when Still merged the figure with the ground not only could he be seen as depicting and creating power through unity, but also there is an argument to suggest that he was advocating a position that wanted to ask questions of ‘our’ civilised methods of encountering the world. By making it difficult or impossible to identify or differentiate distinct objects, symbols, motifs, or regions within his mature art Still, it could be suggested, abolished or nullified our ability as spectators to crystallise the image before us. As a result we, as spectators, are taken aback and find that our analytic knowledge-seeking approach that strives to ‘understand’ the work, is rendered futile by the apparent lack of perceptual or discernible content. Therefore, following the logic of the argument, the work is rejected or else it is held in our gaze, a gaze devoid of ‘understanding.’ By merging the figure with the ground, as suggested earlier by Kuspit, Still effectively eliminated difference and our ability to comprehend and address the work, as if forcing us to accept the futility of trying to ‘understand’ the work so that we may increase our worldly knowledge. An encounter with a work by Still, therefore, becomes something other.
Consequently, the disruption of epistemology, as first seen by Kupsit, and followed through in our particular reading of Lévy-Bruhl, which focused on the importance given to the concept of difference in ‘modern’ understanding, leads us to a problem: What are we as spectators to do with Still’s works if we are not meant to ‘understand’ them?
A similar question, of course, is what are we as spectators to do with other people if we are not meant to understand them? Well, for starters, we are not spectators, but you knew that, right? Secondly, of course, other people don’t exist purely for us to understand them, they are individuals in their own right!
We have travelled quite rapidly here. Let’s us next return to Levinas and maybe proceed at a more measured pace so that our heady thoughts of Still and Lévy-Bruhl might settle gently, once Emmanuel has had his say…
In this post, I am indebted to Dr. Stephen Polcari as well as Dr. David Anfam for stirring (in a productive way) my thoughts on the matters I have discussed.
- Sharpless, T-G., Clyfford Still October 18 – November 29, 1963, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2.
- Sandler, I., The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism, 163.
- Anfam, D. Clyfford Still, PhD diss. Courtauld Institute of art, University of London, 1984, 81.
- Ibid., 165.
- Still, C., letter to Betty Parsons, 9th July 1950, Betty Parsons Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
- Sharpless, T-G., Clyfford Still October 18 – November 29, 1963, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2.
- Anfam, D. Clyfford Still, PhD diss. Courtauld Institute of art, University of London, 1984, 231.
- Still, C., letter to Gordon Smith, 1st January 1959, included in Paintings by Clyfford Still, Albright Art Gallery, 1959, 2.
- Still, C., ‘A statement by the Artist,’ included in Clyfford Still: Thirty-Three Paintings in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 16.
- Kuspit, D., ‘Clyfford Still: The Ethics of Art,’ Artforum, May 1977, 37.
- Goosen, E. C., ‘Painting as Confrontation: Clyfford Still’ Art International, vol. 4, no. 1, 1960, reproduced by Patrick McCaughey in ‘Clyfford Still and the Gothic Imagination,’ Artforum, April 1970, 57.
- Kuspit, D. ‘Clyfford Still: The Ethics of Art,’ Artforum, May 1977, 34.
- Lévy-Bruhl, L., How Natives Think, 40.
- Ibid., 38.
- Ibid., 78.
- Evans-Pritchard, E. E., ‘Foreword’ to Lévy-Bruhl’s The ‘Soul’ of The Primitive, 5-6.
- Littleton, C. S., ‘Introduction’ to Lévy-Bruhl’s How Natives Think, xi.
- Lévy-Bruhl, L., How Natives Think, 107.
- Lévy-Bruhl, L., The Notebooks on Primitive Mentality, 129-130 and 171.
- Ibid., 157.