By Susan Froyd
By Byron Graham
By Robin Edwards
By Bree Davies
By Josiah M. Hesse
By Bree Davies
By Susan Froyd
By Kate Gibbons
Begin your tour in the gallery at the top of the stairs. It starts with the artist's realist self-portrait, which, though out of date order, couldn't be anywhere else. Among the paintings in this initial space are two remarkable long-distance views of trains and grain elevators, done when Still lived in Canada in the 1920s. They are post-impressionist and prove that this style is the starting point for abstract expressionism.
Turn to the gallery on the left to follow Still's career in order. These paintings from the 1930s include some odd takes on regionalism in which the figures — farm hands and rural couples — are rendered as grotesque creatures rather than noble workers, which was the typical approach of the other regionalists. These are some of the most difficult paintings in Still's oeuvre, as are the figurative surrealist paintings displayed in the same space. As hideous and disturbing as these works are, Sobel saw another seed for Still's abstract expressionism in the line that follows the shoulders of the figures in them. This line would appear again and again almost throughout Still's entire career.
Next comes Still's first great leap forward, as the representational surrealist works give way to abstract surrealist creations; some have a Picassoid quality and a sense for monumentality. These initial spaces have low ceilings, but when we reach the point where Still makes his big break in the early 1940s — Sobel says Still was the first artist to arrive at abstract expressionism — the room height soars. This is not just symbolic; it's necessary to accommodate the large works. Notable are the pierced cheese-grater grills in concrete floating just below the sky-lit ceiling in this and other double-height galleries.
Seeing so many classic Stills at once is an indescribable experience. Looking at this work dating from the '40s and '50s, it's very easy to see why Still is regarded as one of the great masters of American art. His surfaces are lively, with lots of evidence of his brushwork preserved in the paint. At the same time, they're unexpectedly thin — or flat — in appearance. The work done after Still withdrew from the art world and retreated to a farm in Maryland is stylistically an extension of the classic work, but it's increasingly lighter and more thinly painted, with lots of raw canvas left over.
Sobel has also done a survey of Still's career in miniature using the artist's works on paper, including drawings, watercolors and prints. Having just seen the rest of the show, taking in the paper pieces last is almost like doing a Still refresher course.
The CSM, which opens on November 17 for members and on November 18 to the general public, marks the realization of a dream for Sobel, who has worked tirelessly over the past six years to bring it to fruition. But it's also the culmination of a process that Clyfford Still began nearly a century ago, when he first put paint to canvas.
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