“When I die, people will say – they are saying it already – that I acted ruthlessly and amorally, with ingratitude to those toward whom I should be grateful. And they will be correct. At the same time, I can think of no other way for a serious artist to achieve his ends than by doing what I did.”1
In the last post, Levinas showed us how to regard the face of another person and that within that face lay sufficient power to interrupt our “ideal priority,”2 our fundamental selfishness. For Levinas, such selfishness “wipes out all otherness by murder or by all-encompassing and totalizing thought.”3 However, when an ‘interruption’, such as produced by the presence of a face, takes place there is a “laying down by the ego of its sovereignty”4 which enables the space for ethics. The face causes us, if we agree with Levinas, to see differently. Instead of being in an aesthetic, phenomenological or ontological viewing position we find ourselves in an ethical one. The challenge, of course, being can we allow this to happen? Can we allow ourselves to see differently? Can we allow ourselves to regard the face without noticing the colour of the eyes and movement of the mouth? Can we see the person and not the physical object?
An artist pre-occupied with the task of getting us to see differently was Clyfford Still. Born in 1904 in North Dakota, Still grew up in Washington state and Albert, Canada. By his mid-thirties he had worked his way past the symbolism of surrealism and had started to paint works that demonstrated a clear line of artistic progression to his mature, classically abstract, works that contain no recognisable sign or symbol and are even devoid of a title beyond the year they were painted combined with a basic alphabetic system to distinguish them from other paintings produced in the same year. Arguably, Still led the way for the abstract expressionism of his colleagues Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and others just before removing himself from the popular gaze when such painters started to achieve their fame and notoriety. Still, consequently, is not as well known as his contemporaries. However, at Sothebys, New York, in 2011 the sale of four of his works raised $114 million for a Denver museum in his name to have a hefty endowment. One of the works, 1949-A No.1 made $61.7 million by itself. Still, though, was some thirty years deceased by this point.
Whilst he was alive, fame and money were not driving forces for Still, his fire burned bright from within and needed not the attention of a fickle art market. Although, he put it a lot more eloquently and forcibly:
“That pigment on canvas has a way of initiating conventional reactions for most people needs no reminder. Behind these reactions is a body of history matured into dogma, authority, and tradition. The totalitarian hegemony of this tradition I despise, its presumptions I reject. Its security is an illusion, banal, and without courage. Its substance is but dust and filing cabinets. The homage paid to it is a celebration of death. We all bear the burden of this tradition on our backs but I cannot hold it a privilege to be a pallbearer of my spirit in its name.”5
Inside the exterior arrogance of this man who led life in a very confrontational manner and actively bit the hand that attempted to nourish him, there was a disciplined artist who maintained a rock solid seriousness in regard to his life’s work. So much so, that twenty-four years after he announced his revulsion with traditional art history and criticism he stood proud and firm again without wavering a jot:
“When I die, people will say – they are saying it already – that I acted ruthlessly and amorally, with ingratitude to those toward whom I should be grateful. And they will be correct. At the same time, I can think of no other way for a serious artist to achieve his ends than by doing what I did.”6
The seriousness which Still applied to his life’s work means that it coheres and does not fragment under pressure when tested from certain directions. His earnestness saw to it that his work was consistent, with purpose, and never accidental. It also meant that he had to think through all relevant aspects to it. One such aspect was that he decided to remove titles, descriptions and, with his mature work, all forms of meaning. Consequently, on 3rd March 1947, Still wrote to his then dealer, Betty Parsons, declaring “his crucial decision to eliminate titles and extraneous statements from any exhibitions of his work.”7 Interestingly, eighteen months before, near Thanksgiving in 1945, Still met André Breton in Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery who, as well as refusing to speak English, expressed an interest in one of Still’s black canvases (quite possibly 1944-N No.2) and that he wanted to see more of Still’s works.
What happens next is an extraordinary moment in art’s history, if one bears in mind that, alongside Marcel Duchamp, Breton was one of the most famous and important figures in the art-world at the time. A bridge to the ‘old’ bastion of art in Europe, as personified by Duchamp and Breton, came in the guise of Peggy Guggenheim who straddled both European and American avant gardes. For her, surrealism and American abstractionism were of a piece as modern art movements and exemplars. The interesting fragment of this potted art history is that she brought together the undisputed king of Surrealism and the untameable, yet not wild, enfant terrible of American art, Clyfford Still. The meeting being recorded in Still’s diary as follows:
“A date was set and he [Breton] came one evening about nine-thirty with Peggy. He indicted that he felt at a loss when he discovered that I had no titles on my pictures to give him a key to their meanings… I was not of the surrealist persuasion in either theory or practice, especially in its dialectical apologia and its political correlatives.”8
By not having titles and hence no easily accessible meaning Still rather foxed Breton. This, of course, really confirmed Still’s artistic leanings because it placed his work completely outside the governance of surrealist ideals. In his notes relating to this meeting, given by his wife Patricia in Clyfford Still 1904-1980: The Buffalo and San Francisco Collections, we get a further nuanced account of Still’s thoughts regarding Breton:
“Peggy Guggenheim apologized for not being a good interpreter for Breton… ‘He is an intellectual and I am not,’ she said. Her apology and his confusion seemed to express the point so well. The intellectual was confused; the one who could see the pictures was not. Without a dialectic and a set of verbs Breton was lost.”9
Two years later, for his next solo exhibition with Parsons, Still re-iterated his sentiment regarding the omission of titles in order that there should exist “no allusions to interfere with or assist the spectator.”10 In 1963, too, the same sentiment continues to be present within Still’s thinking but with a wider field of influence, as Ti-Grace Sharpless records in regard to Still’s one man exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia: “I have no brief for signs or symbols or literary allusions in painting. They are just crutches for illustrators and politicians desperate for an audience.”11 The explicit reference to titles has now transformed into a broader conception of Still’s artistic project as a whole, as Donald Kuspit demonstrates in Clyfford Still: The Ethics of Art by showing how the desire for freedom could be the impetus for Still’s decisions:
“Any focusing device for form, any cue to content, are anathema for Still, for they close one into a finite world of limited implications which altogether precludes even the possibility of the idea of freedom. There must be a lurking infinity about the image, an indefiniteness – incompleteness – which lures us to the idea of freedom.”12
Kuspit continues his explication by stating how Still might have conceived the position he hoped to have created for his spectator: “His Consciousness will not search for crutches to make sense of the works, which will stand forth as a pure revelation of paint.”13 Following Kuspit’s thoughts on freedom, one can say that by removing all textual elements to his work Still pushed the boundary of his pursuit of freedom, even further, to go beyond himself and envelop the viewer.
Now, this is all of note for us as we try to understand Levinas’ thoughts on the face, because in a very similar manner Still wanted to remove the barriers and obstacles between the spectator and his work just as much a Levinas wanted to remove the same from the interaction between two people regarding each other. For both Levinas and Still, the inconsequential elements needed to be surpassed in order that a direct relationship with the other can take place and not be contaminated by falsities, diversions and trappings of conventional thinking and approaches. The ‘freedom’ that Kuspit overlays onto Still’s work and his hope that the spectator also adopts such a stance is parallel by Levinas’ thoughts of the existence of a ‘mode of responsibility’ that occurs with the presence of a face. These are parallel entities because in all likelihood they shall never meet and coalesce however they most certainly travel across the same terrain and can admire each other’s progress. But, lets us get back to Still as he, ironically, has more to say:
“I deplore most the overemphasis on words. Not the poet’s words, but words that explain, reason, debate, deduce, make ‘fact’. Words have become omnipotent because so facile a tool have they become for the utilitarian and the practical… Utility is confounded with value. Verbiage becomes a substitute for comprehension. And everything leads to words and words become a substitute for everything. From the state of the weather to an interpretation of the picture… a substitute for thinking, a substitute for seeing, a substitute even for listening and smelling and copulating, words do a remarkable job of miscreating and aborting experience and understanding… They lend themselves so readily to the fool and his plausibility. They reinforce his acceptance of the obvious, the superficial and what he calls the real. And the world is engulfed in the reasonable and the logical, and the sane and pseudo-scientific.”14
Within this tirade against the sign, Still formulated not only a clearly defined position as to why he omitted titles from his works, but also “a philosophical justification for [his] hostility towards art historical criticism”15 as David Anfam states in his thesis on Still. In a later essay, Clyfford Still’s Art: Between the Quick and the Dead, Anfam verifies this claim of hostility by reminding us that “Still strove to prohibit any commentary on [his] art, repudiating such critics as Alfred Barr, Clement Greenberg, and James Thrall Soby.”16 These art historians might even be those to which Thomas Albright directs when he suggested, seemingly on Still’s behalf, that “they rather surround art with interpretation, analysis and a host of other elaborations which have become part of a gigantic verbal superstructure designed to make art more comfortable – and profitable.”17 Still’s diatribe against the “overemphasis on words” and the implication concerning art historians appears, then, within the framework of a negative dialectic just as his distaste for titles before it. However, it is possible to focus on the broader conception Still had for his art, as Albright knew:
“Still’s notorious ‘demands,’ his legendary aloofness and attacks on critical exegises of his work – even the most favourable – are really nothing more nor less than an attempt to assert that the ‘art world’ must revolve around art and artist, rather than the other way around, and to reaffirm the primacy of the visual experience over the verbal.”18
If one finds Albright’s rather neat encapsulation of Still’s artistic endeavours a little lacking in depth, despite its pleasant ring and positive intention, we can turn once more to Kuspit.
In terms of unearthing of Still’s constructive purpose, Kuspit gives an incisive estimation of what lay beneath Still’s seemingly aggressive personae:
“Art no longer confirms and helps convince us of what is already given, whether it be nature or a religion – it is no longer an act of imitation – but suspends our relations with it so that we can determine its meaning and freely decide our commitment to it… Still means his paintings to be invitations to, and emblems of, an open horizon rather than signs of a closed consciousness, possessed by clichés of communication and affirming dogma, authority, tradition. Art is to rescue our freedom, not police our limits… Still means to make this freedom an active value rather than a theoretical goal.”19
According to Kuspit, then, the suspension of our relations with art, by the removal of text and context, enables the viewer to be in a position of freedom within which to explore and experience, in an unrestricted manner, the outcomes of Still’s “invitations to, and emblems of, an open horizon” as presented before them without being constrained by the four walls of dogma, authority, tradition, and words. Still, therefore, paints an inviting contemplative space where a viewer can release themselves from the burden of their history, culture, and even language, to sneak a glimpse perhaps, of something deeper, something fleeting and untouchable, but yet very much needed if we are to live beyond the level of mere conformity and the mundane.
One cannot but help think that Levinas would have approved if he ever considered Still’s works or thoughts.
- Albright, T., ‘A Conversation with Clyfford Still’, Art News, March 1976, 34.
- Levinas, E., ‘Ethics as First Philosophy’ included in The Continental Philosophy Reader, 133.
- Still, C. ‘Statement’, from a letter dated February 5, 1952 included in 15 Americans, an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, 1952, 21.
- Albright, T., ‘A Conversation with Clyfford Still’, Art News, March 1976, 34.
- Anfam, D. Clyfford Still, PhD diss. Courtauld Institute of art, University of London, 1984, 118.
- O’Neill, J. P. (ed.) Clyfford Still, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979, 22.
- Still, P., ‘Clyfford Still: Biography’ included in Clyfford Still 1904-1980: The Buffalo and San Francisco Collections, p. 151.
- Anfam, D., Clyfford Still, containing an excerpt from a letter to Parsons from Still dated December 29, 1949, 184-185.
- Sharpless, T-G., Clyfford Still October 18 – November 29, 1963, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2.
- Kuspit, D. B., ‘Clyfford Still: The Ethics of Art’, included in Artforum, May 1977, 32.
- Still, P., ‘Clyfford Still: Biography’ included in Clyfford Still 1904-1980: The Buffalo and San Francisco Collections, p. 150-151.
- Anfam, D. Clyfford Still, PhD diss. Courtauld Institute of art, University of London, 1984, 231.
- Anfam, D., ‘Clyfford Still’s Art: Between the Quick and the Dead‘ included in Clyfford Still: Paintings 1944-1960, 18.
- Albright, T., ‘A Conversation with Clyfford Still’, Art News, March 1976, 30.
- Kuspit, D. B., ‘Clyfford Still: The Ethics of Art’, included in Artforum, May 1977, 35.