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A teaching from the work of Clyfford Still

It is 1977, summer, we are all standing in front of Clyfford Still’s, 1951-52, (sometimes referred to as “his black painting”) at the Art Institute of Chicago. One of the students in the group, looking at this magnificent work says in response to it “I think the artist was saying that even in darkness there is light”. I thought in that moment, “Well, that’s crap, and unnecessarily poetic, it denies the technical qualities of the application of the paint; the surface that is created by the mat and glossy material, how the light moves over the surface.- how it reacts to the material. The texture itself brings the viewer (me) to that beautiful quietly loud red orange corner and then back to that thin white chalk-like line down the center”.

I was 16 years old. Thinking about and loving the structure of that painting. The muscle, bone, sinew – not so much the “party clothes” that went with the discussion. Line, shape, color, form, texture and the innumerable combinations thereof. A formalist at 16 participating in an exciting journey that would lead to the art of the 80’s and 90’s. And then to return to a formal abstraction. A painting of structure, of “fifth line’, “split plane”, “clam shells” “push pull” and the ecstasy of flatness.


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