Among the small and elite group of American artists referred to by Time magazine as The Irascibles, and who made up the groundbreaking movement known as Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and 1950s, Clyfford Still was arguably the most irascible and vociferous. Among a generation of American artists who were attuned and sensitive to the potential commercial and political exploitation of their art, Still was undoubtedly the most suspicious of institutional culture. He had little need for “middle men” to present his art and ideas. As a result, critics, curators, and private collectors were often the object of his scorn. Moreover, Still sought to maintain complete control over the exhibition and distribution of his paintings. In this regard, he was unwilling in most circumstances to allow his paintings to be represented in group shows, or to be sold to private collectors who did not exhibit a commitment to the work.
Many of Still’s most complex paintings were made during the 1950s, a period when darkness and light found a tempered balance in his imagery. It is during this decade that the artist achieves his goal of having “space and the figure . . . resolved into a total psychic entity.”(1) In the Modern Art Museum’s 1956–J No. 1, Untitled, 1956, a black, craggy gesture is combined with attenuated areas of yellow, ochre, red, orange, and white, creating a Gothic spaciousness unique in twentieth-century abstraction.
Cutting through the right center of 1956–J No. 1, Untitled is a “black wing” that would seem to act as a coda to Hubert Crehan’s designation “Black Angel in Buffalo.” The dark feathery form tears open its surrounding field to reveal a rich, dark core. Commenting on the work, Still noted, “Maybe he [Crehan] was right. There is his ‘black angel.’”(2) In 1956–J No. 1, Untitled, Still isolates the two sides of his aesthetic—his sense of the power of extreme light and extreme dark—as well as the radical psychological extremes they evoke. Perhaps more than any other Abstract Expressionist, including Mark Rothko, who is often discussed in these terms, Still throughout his career seemed preoccupied with using darkness. As Still put it, these are “not paintings in the usual sense; they are life and death merging in fearful union.”(3)
— Michael Auping
(1) Quoted in Clyfford Still (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1963): 5.
(2) Seymour H. Knox, in Michael Auping, Interviews with Seymour H. Knox, 27 September 1987, 12 October 1987, and 6 November 1987 (unpublished).
(3) Letter to Betty Parsons, 26 September 1949. Betty Parsons Papers, Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Art, Midwest Regional Center, Detroit, Michigan, microfilm no. N68/72.