Clyfford Still, by Sandy Donabed

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When I was a teenager in Buffalo NY in the late 50’s, we would go into the city to the Albright Knox Museum where I would stand transfixed by huge splashy colorful canvasses. These were from the ‘new’ movement in art, Abstract Expressionism. I knew nothing of art history or art movements, or indeed even painting back then, but I did know I loved art class. There had to be ‘something’ to these paintings that had such an emotional effect on me.

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This was my first introduction to Clyfford Still. I had almost forgotten about until I saw the article in the New York Times, ‘Unfurling the Hidden Work of a Lifetime’ by Steven Henry Madoff (Art Section, March 18, 2007). I went on a hunt for more information and found many websites mentioning him, but few giving any in depth information. In fact most of the websites seem to be copied from clyffordstill.net or the essay on the Albright Knox site. I have compiled the following information, primarily from these sources.

Clyfford Still, an American painter, was a leading figures in Abstract Expressionist movement, one of the foremost “color field” painters. His paintings are non-objective and largely concerned with arranging a variety of colors in different formations. He was among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists who developed a new and powerful approach to painting in the years immediately following World War II. Still’s contemporaries include Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, though his arrangements are less regular than his contemporaries. While the styles and approaches of these artists varied considerably, Abstract Expressionism is marked by abstract forms, expressive brushwork, and monumental scale, all of which were used to convey universal themes about creation, life, struggle, and death (“the human condition”), themes that took on a considerable relevance during and after World War II.

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Described by many as the most anti-traditional of the Abstract Expressionists, Still is credited with laying the groundwork for the movement. Still’s shift from representational painting to abstraction occurred between 1938 and 1942, earlier than his colleagues, who continued to paint in figurative-surrealist styles well into the 1940s. His jagged flashes of color give the impression that one layer of color has been “torn” off the painting, revealing the colors underneath. Still describes his own work:

“A great free joy surges through me when I work . . . with tense slashes and a few thrusts the beautiful white fields receive their color and the work is finished in a few minutes. (Like Belmonte weaving the pattern of his being by twisting the powerful bulls around him, I seem to achieve a comparable ecstasy in bringing forth the flaming life through these large areas of canvas. And as the blues or reds or blacks leap and quiver in their tenuous ambience or rise in austere thrusts to carry their power infinitely beyond the bounds of the limiting field, I move with them and find a resurrection from the moribund oppressions that held me only hours ago.) Only they are complete too soon, and I must quickly move on to another to keep the spirit alive and unburdened by the labor my Puritan reflexes tell me must be the cost of my joy.”

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Still was something of a maverick in the art world. In many cases, he disdained or was infuriated by anyone who tried to interpret his work, including art critics, art historians, patrons, and museum curators. His attitude about art and artmaking was romantic and passionate, and he did not believe that most people understood or properly appreciated his work.

Still was born November 30, 1904, in Grandin, North Dakota. He attended Spokane University in Washington for a year in 1926 and again from 1931 to 1933. After graduation, he taught at Washington State College in Pullman until 1941. Still spent the summers of 1934 and 1935 at the Trask Foundation (now Yaddo) in Saratoga Springs, New York. From 1941 to 1943, he worked in defense factories in California. In 1943, his first solo show took place at the San Francisco Museum of Art, and he met Mark Rothko in Berkeley at this time. The same year, Still moved to Richmond, where he taught at the Richmond Professional Institute.

Still painted large abstract canvases with much impasto (thick, textural paint) and vertical, jagged bolts of colors. The flame-like patches of color are often cut off at the canvas edges, making viewers think that the forms continue beyond what they can see.

“To be stopped by a frame’s edge is intolerable.”

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Although his early work includes figurative paintings and landscapes, Still has denied that these have any connection or relevance to his mature, signature images. Instead, he has said, “Each painting is an episode in a personal history, an entry in a journal,” and “My work in its entirety is like a symphony in which each painting has its part.” The titles of his paintings, which contain dates, letters, and numbers that signify the order in which they were created, support this explanation.

When Still was in New York in 1945, Rothko introduced him to Peggy Guggenheim, who gave him a solo exhibition at her Art of This Century gallery in early 1946. Robert Motherwell described Still’s solo New York show as a ‘bolt out of the blue” Later that year, the artist returned to San Francisco, where he taught for the next four years at the California School of Fine Arts. Solo exhibitions of his work were held at the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, in 1947, 1950, and 1951 and at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, in 1947. In New York in 1948, Still worked with Rothko and others on developing the concept of the school that became known as the Subjects of the Artist. He resettled in San Francisco for two years before returning again to New York. A Still retrospective took place at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, in 1959. In 1961, he settled on his farm near Westminster, Maryland to live and work.

Still wanted his paintings to be under his own personal control, and did not like them separated from one another or exhibited with other artists’ work. He felt that his paintings could only be understood as part of a whole, with the whole being the evolution of his entire life’s work. This obsession with maintaining absolute control resulted in his rejection of offers to buy his paintings, refusing awards and honors, and declining invitations to exhibit both in individual and group shows. In so doing, with contempt, he rejected the politics of the New York art scene, which for the first time in history had become the international center of the art world.

In his words: “I hold it imperative to evolve an instrument of thought which will aid in cutting through all cultural opiates, past and present, so that a direct, immediate, and truly free vision can be achieved. . .and I affirm my profound concern to achieve a purpose beyond vanity, ambition, or remembrance.”

Solo exhibitions of Still’s paintings were presented by the Institute of Contemporary Art of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1963 and at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York, in 1969-70. He received the Award of Merit for Painting in 1972 from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he became a member in 1978, and the Skowhegan Medal for Painting in 1975. Also in 1975, a permanent installation of a group of his works opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gave him an exhibition in 1980 died June 23 of that same year in Baltimore. Since that time, there have been only had three large survey exhibitions in the past 30 years.

Further Information–

Painting images

Book accompanying the 2001 Hirshhorn exhibit, by David Anfam

Currently paintings on view at the Guggenheim Museum, New York City
Clyfford Still at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.1951-N, 1951
Peggy Guggenheim Collection, VeniceJamais, 1944 (http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_works_149_0.html)

The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
1950-B, 1950

Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts

Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
1957-D, No. 1 (http://www.albrightknox.org/ArtStart/Still.html)

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
1948-C, 1948
1950-M No. 1, 1950 (http://hirshhorn.si.edu/collection/search.asp?Artist=Clyfford+Still&hasImage=1)

Harry Cooper, writing in the Summer 2001 ArtForum, says “Which brings us to the present exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, the first museum show to focus on Still’s great period, 1944-60. The curator, James Demetrion, admits the show is “flawed” since the estate apparently refused to cooperate, and the gifts cannot be lent according to the terms of the donations, but he goes on to claim that the selection was for once “not made by the artist or influenced by him.” Fond hope! To choose the 39 works in the show, Demetrion had to select from the 150 or so that Still sold (which presumably means that, if they were not Still’s favorites, he liked them well enough), and this pool must have been further limited by the fact that some of the paintings were not available, while others fell outside the 1944-60 range.

Timeline
1926/27
Studied at Spokane University in Washington.
1931-33
Studied at Spokane University in Washington, where he later became an art teacher himself. His pupils at colleges and universities in California, Virginia and New York included Tobey and Rothko and many other Abstract Expressionist painters.
1930s
In the 30s, inspired by the works of Cezanne and van Gogh, he painted abstract figures and landscapes, while his works of the 40s are more Surrealist in character, being based on mythological themes and the workings of the subconscious.
1943
First solo-exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art.
1947
Around 1947 he developed his last painting style: large canvases, usually covered in a thick, monochrome-black layer of paint and framed by bright contrasting colours.

In the early 1950s, when Clyfford Still ended his relationship with the prestigious Betty Parsons and Sidney Janis galleries in New York, his relationship with commercial galleries was virtually finished. From that time forward, Still represented himself and, as a result, very few paintings entered the art market. Around 750 paintings and well over 10,000 works on paper have been held in storage in Maryland since his death owing to a stipulation in his will that they may only be shown in a gallery built to his own specifications and under his own terms.

The Clyfford Still Estate includes at least 80 paintings dating from 1920 – 1943: Still’s student years, Depression-era works, Surrealist-inspired works, and first forays into abstraction. Also, 300 paintings dating from 1944 – 1960: Still’s “breakthrough period” and the years of “high” Abstract Expressionism. Many canvases span over ten-by-fourteen feet. 370 paintings dating from 1961 – 1979: later works, most of which have never been exhibited. And 1400 works on paper spanning all aspects of Still’s career in such media as pastel, crayon, charcoal, gouache, tempera, graphite, and pen and ink. Few of these have ever been exhibited, rivaling only Picasso’s estate for sheer numbers of work.stilltimes2.jpg

1955: Clement Greenberg, who led the formalist charge, sealed Still’s reputation overnight in 1955 with his announcement that the artist was “one of the most important and original painters of our time.” Harry Cooper, in ArtForum, summer 2001. continues: “Greenberg’s remarks on Still are indispensable reading, both for the memorable epithets–‘slack, willful silhouettes’ for the pre-1945 work, ‘frayed dead-leaf edges’ for the next decade–and for the insight that Still’s ungainly palette knifing brought him to the verge, but only the verge, of semischooled or ‘buckeye’ painting, that is, kitsch. But Greenberg quickly pulled Still back onto the high-formalist plain: ‘Still’s service was to show us how the contours of a shape could be made less conspicuous, and therefore less dangerous to the ‘integrity’ of the flat surface, by narrowing the value contrast its color made with that of the shapes or areas adjacent to it.’

Still, in response to Greenberg, said: “I prefer the innocent reaction of those who might think they see cloud shapes in my paintings to what Clement Greenberg says that he sees in them”

This quote reflects more than just a stubborn lack of savvy. The critic had pushed two of the artist’s many buttons–his hatred of formalism (“I never wanted color to be color. I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit”) and his hatred of kitsch (once, when asked if he was concerned with communication, he sneered that that was “what the comic strip does”).

1959
Participated in documenta 2 in Kassel and in the exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo (NY). Still was very particular about the way his works should be shown. Following the positive reception of the Buffalo retrospective in 1959, he donated 31 paintings to the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy on the condition that they must be shown permanently in their own room, never to be loaned out. Gordon Smith, who was the director from 1955-1973 of the Albright Art Gallery (renamed the Albright-Knox Art Gallery when the 1962 addition was completed) along with the Gallery’s patron Seymour H. Knox, worked hard to win Still’s trust and finally convinced him of their sincere interest in his work. Still allowed them to purchase two paintings and agreed to a rare retrospective exhibition that opened at the Gallery in 1959. Pleased with Buffalo’s reception of his work, in 1964 Still donated thirty-one paintings to The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the parent organization, of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

According to the terms of the gift, the paintings must be shown in their own room, all of the time, and never loaned to other museums. (This latter condition was set aside on one occasion by Still’s widow.) The Clyfford Still Room at the Gallery is an awe-inspiring experience that foreshadows the art form known as installation, where the artist creates an environment for the viewer to enter.There are currently a number of his works on view at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York; and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

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1979
Retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the largest survey of Still’s art to date and the largest presentation afforded by this institution to the work of a living artist. Following his death, all works that had not entered the public domain were sealed off from both public and scholarly view, closing off access to one of the most significant American painters of the 20th century.

1992
Retrospective at the Kunsthalle Basel.

In ArtForum, summer 2001, Harry Cooper said: “Here’s a Thought Experiment. Imagine a bunch of painters roughly the same age and working in the same place. After considerable struggle, each develops a distinctive style. They are celebrated by a few influential critics and start to show their work regularly. Soon they rise to the top of the art world, gathering students and followers. Now let one of these artists begin to act oddly. He refuses invitations to exhibit; excoriates and threatens the press, museums, and universities; retreats to a remote hideout; and insists on writing his own catalogues and curating his own shows. In short, he tries to exert total control over the dissemination of his work and its meanings. His paintings are arguably as good as those of his peers, but they can only be seen in any numbers at a couple of institutions off the beaten track. He keeps the vast majority to himself, stipulating that on his death they be released only to that city willing to dedicate a museum to him alone and forever.

Now let twenty years pass. The estate remains virtually closed to scholars, curators, and conservators. No city steps forward. What happens to the reputation of this artist? Does it endure on the strength of the few works that are known? Is it fed by the mystique surrounding the unseen works? Or does it deteriorate because of their inaccessibility and the still-wounded feelings of important players snubbed along the way?

Perhaps it’s no great surprise that Still’s stock has dropped while that of his Abstract Expressionist peers has soared, but his history is elegant confirmation that the art world is indeed a world, a public space that thrives on publicity. Or to put it more simply and less cynically, paintings are made to be seen. Pollock understood this, allowing himself to be covered by mass-market glossies. Still said that Pollock had “sold out to the housewives.”

Harry Cooper continues: “Still was the Unabomber of Abstract Expressionism…. Let no man under-value.., this work or its power for life: or for death, if it is misused,” he wrote. And: “The figure stands behind all until … it explodes across the whole canvas.” Though Still made paintings, not bombs, one almost feels it could have gone the other way. The Unabomber’s thirst for publicity proved to be his undoing; Still’s hatred of publicity may turn out to be his.

2005
In August 2004, the City of Denver announced it had been chosen to receive the artworks contained within the Clyfford Still Estate, created in 1980 upon Still’s death. This highly sought-after body of work contains over 2,150 artworks representing all periods of the American artist’s distinguished career and nearly 90% of the artist’s total output. Estimates to the worth of the paintings that have been in his private collection are estimated bring upwards of 1 billion dollars.

November 2006- “1947-R-NO 1” sold through Christie’s for $21.29 million, seven times his previous high from 3 years earlier. Note- there are over 30 works from the same year that are still in private collection. Harry Cooper was apparently a bit off target.

2009 or early 2010
“Removed from public view for over twenty-five years, these works will finally be revealed at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado, planned to open to the public in 2009.”

Sandy Donabed is an occasional contributor to the Ragged Cloth Cafe. Her work and thoughts can be found at

http://www.donabed.net
http://www.sandeedee.blogspot.com

[Note: while editing Sandy’s work, I was also reading Art & Perception, where Steve Durbin posted photos and a comment that connected Still’s art and Steve’s photograph. Here’s one of Steve’s photos; you can read more of this discussion at Art & Perception.]

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11 Responses to “Clyfford Still, by Sandy Donabed”


  1. 1 marketing books February 6, 2013 at 7:46 am

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  2. 2 Sachin Tonape July 12, 2008 at 7:26 am

    hi, firstly congratulations for the work. its a seriously good work.
    too good.

    sachin tonape.

  3. 3 June March 30, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    Clairan,

    I suppose you are right — I’ve probably been reading the wrong marketing books and wrong email lists. And I guess I feel a kind of kinship with Mr. Still — admiration for his integrity and a pensive sorrow that I can’t emulate it. For one thing — Clement is no longer around to give me a lift <snort>

    Jer and I are escaping the city for a few days, so I won’t be huddling over the computer very much. I’ll try to check in, but we’re headed for the wilds where internet access is sometimes iffy. Eileen has an interesting blog ready for Sunday, so you won’t miss me.

  4. 4 clairan March 30, 2007 at 6:47 pm

    I guess I think it is possible to be an artist, possibly a great one, be recognized by the leading critics of the time, and to quietly go about one’s business of making art without even engaging the media frenzy. Many who have agents who represent them, and they may give an occasional interview, but basically see their jobs as the making of art, not the marketing or the critiquing or the selling of it or themselves. Many artists are careful about how their work is shown, and I’m sure they would not let an exhibit of their work go forward if there were something off about it in their eyes. But I am equally sure that they would calmly go about fixing it or cancelling it without name calling or hollering or feeling that they were superior beings. And that’s the feeling I get from Still. That he thought he was simply better, smarter, more visionary than the people around him. I’m not sure why there’s so much ill feeling about Still (and I wasn’t aware of it until you wrote about it). But I really suspect that it was equally caused by both sides of the main argument.

  5. 5 June March 30, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    Clairan,

    You are absolutely right about the artists lost to history; insofar as anyone can tell, there must be lots of them. And think of the abstract expressionists who came before 1945 and would have been scorned for their work — like short-novel hemingwayesque writers in the era of the 600 page Victorian novel. History is ripe with irony and anomalies and absences that we can only speculate about.

    And I’m sure that Greenberg’s approval may have been what made Still able to be so picky about his exhibition.

    But my point still holds — why are so many people _now_ so irritated with Still? And I think it may be part jealousy, part sadness, part frustration on the part of artists who will be left behind, whether or not they are geniuses.

    Marketing, of course, is one of those spiraling problems — when everyone shouts out their wares, only those who shout the loudest will be heard. And of course, once everyone catches on to that particular game, the noise increases exponentially. Bad money drives out good and loud noise causes hearing loss which means that to be heard you have to shout louder.

  6. 6 clairan March 30, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    Marketing may be the mental illness of our time. In fact, I believe consumerism is the illness and we’ve been “drugged” by ads to feel compelled to buy buy buy.

    I believe it was Still himself who talked about his “moribund oppressions.”

    I completely understand your position on the ‘exhib me right issue.’ But had the leading critic of the time (Greenberg) not said that Still was a genius, and given the artist’s attitude about exhibiting, why would anyone know anything about him now, or care? I’m not saying his work isn’t fantastic, I think it is (though not for me in either Diebenkorn or Rothko’s league). But how many other Stills or Rothkos or Twombly’s were actually painting at this time whose work was never exhibited and will never be known? I just don’t believe that “genius will out” and I’m a bit dubious about “genius” as a concept. It seems to me the arbiters of “genius” are few and suspect.

  7. 7 june March 30, 2007 at 10:56 am

    Clairan,

    I understood that you meant Still’s obsession with control made him sound mentally ill. Certainly the critics found him unpleasant and that brings them to use language like “moribund oppressions.” However, he apparently got along with his wife (at least she stayed his wife and protected his work after he died). I would like to have more information about Still, his relationships and working habits, than is possible at this time — we don’t know much about him except that he was a strong personality who fought with the critics and kept to himself. That’s really out of touch with today’s hyped art market, but not necessarily a sign of mental illness in 1955. At that time, it could have been a sign of mental health.

    No, I’m after something else, a curiosity and speculation about our own times and reactions. A lot of people seem to take offense, not because of what Still said to them (they weren’t born yet when he was talking) but simply because he was indifferent to being exhibited. They don’t like his insistence that if he was going to be exhibited, he was going to have it done right.

    One of the critics Sandy quotes asks if an artist who refuses the marketing process can have any immortality; the answer now seems, if s/he’s good enough –“yes!” So we have the sort of snide comment about losing your place in history because you don’t want to play with the selling/marketing crowd. And then there’s the opposite snideness — those that feel he is grandstanding, playing a a soap opera scene with this opening up of his work. There’s an irritation about the two ends of the spectrum that I find interesting (and am speculating on).

    No, I think our irritation with Still may be a reflection of our own strange culture, having less to do with his refusal to bow before the masses and allow them access to his work than with our own frenetic pandering to galleries and exhibiting possibilities and consumers. He apparently didn’t need the money (like Jane, I’m wondering how he managed financially, but obviously he did) and so he refused the Alyson-Stanfield-frantic-insistence that we push and shove our way into exhibits and galleries and museums. Marketing may be the mass mental illness of our time, an illness that finally is self-defeating, that eats its victims. And because we feel that, we have to put Still down for not being part of our own obsession.

    I sound strong there, perhaps because I too am too prone to the frantic Stanfield get-out-there-and-sell-yourself guilt. Unfortunately I am not as good as Still (and certainly not as stubborn) so I fuss my way into exhibits and circle ways to get gallery representation and hope that some reviewer will notice something I do some month or other. I exhibit in pipe and drape cattle calls when my anxieties rise above my standards.

    But in the back of my mind, I hear “fools’ names and fools’ faces are generally seen in public places.” I have a sneaking admiration for Still’s stubborn insistence on his own standards — he walked his talk.

  8. 8 clairan March 30, 2007 at 9:47 am

    June,

    I said Still sounded mentally ill, not because he was happy while working, but because his language sounded ego maniacal and violent, not to mention the “moribund oppressions” that seemed to hold him in thrall, and the fact that he couldn’t seem to get along with anyone.

  9. 9 june March 30, 2007 at 9:07 am

    Since I’m one of those who believes in art as communication, I found myself taken aback by Jane’s comment (she’s right, perhaps, but I still love Still’s work). On the face of it, Jane is right — Still refuses what most of us would think of as public communication. However, he did exhibit 100 or so of his paintings, early on. And from what he writes, he obtains what he needs personally from doing the work.

    “A great free joy surges through me when I work . . . with tense slashes and a few thrusts the beautiful white fields receive their color and the work is finished in a few minutes. …I seem to achieve a[n]… ecstasy in bringing forth the flaming life through these large areas of canvas. And as the blues or reds or blacks leap and quiver in their tenuous ambience or rise in austere thrusts to carry their power infinitely beyond the bounds of the limiting field, I move with them and find a resurrection from the moribund oppressions that held me only hours ago.) Only they are complete too soon, and I must quickly move on to another to keep the spirit alive and unburdened by the labor my Puritan reflexes tell me must be the cost of my joy.”

    I suppose the quality of the work allows for the intransigence of the artist. Still insists on the integrity of his own vision, which includes ways of viewing his work that we who prostitute ourselves with group exhibits and marketing can’t imagine. Other ab exs felt similarly — remember Rothko’s deep depression when his work was bought and used in a very high end Manhattan restaurant. It was after that that Rothko committed suicide, and while it’s unlikely that that was the single cause of his action, he certainly suffered agonies over the snotty disregard of the restaurant’s rich clients. So the 50’s were an age of(apparent) disregard for marketing oneself and for insisting on the integrity of the viewing process.

    “Communication” takes place in such a variety of ways that I feel that Still communicates his exhilaration through his paintings, even if he was reluctant to give in to the wide-spread dissemination and dummying down of what he felt his work had to give. I am delighted that more of his work will be available.

    Sandy told me when she was writing this that there is very little written material available on Still. I’m hoping the definitive biography will appear. It’s odd that we tend to think there’s something wrong with a person because he’s happy with doing his work and not seeking out publicity and sales. Maybe it’s not Still who has a “mental illness” but ourselves…….

  10. 10 clairan March 30, 2007 at 5:00 am

    Sandy,

    It took me 3 days to read through your meticulously researched post! Thanks so much. I knew very little about Stills prior to reading this, and have a far greater appreciation for his work (if not his person; he sounds like sosmeone with a mental illness to me) now. I agree with the responder on the Art and Perception blog that the full effect of the paintings is missing if you can’t appreciate the size of them. The small images look violent, full of rage and off putting to me. But seeing the MOMA photo where the person is seated with several of the giant canvases reminded me of the one Stills work I’ve seen in person. They have a beauty and a dignity that just doesn’t come across in small. I can’t perceive their balance unless I see them from a distance.

  11. 11 Jane Davila March 29, 2007 at 9:53 am

    Still is such a puzzle. I’ve always thought that art was, of necessity, a “conversation” or “dialog”, — that the viewer was the other part of the equation. Definitely not the case for this artist.

    I do have a rather mundane question, how did he support himself after his withdrawal to Maryland? He seems to have taught prior to this and the biography states he sold almost no work after 1961, in many cases refusing to exhibit and declining purchase offers.

    Going back to previous RCC discussions, his definition of “successful artist” would appear to be very different from what is typical. And most assuredly he would not be an easy person to live with.


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