With the 2011 opening of the Clyfford Still Museum (CSM) in Denver, in which most of the oeuvre of his lifetime will be housed, new evidence has appeared that furthers the idea of Clyfford Still as an artist of power and the forms that power takes –- the primitivizing, shamanic artist. As this article will discuss, with thanks to the new Still collection and ongoing analyses of his work, there is increasing evidence of his specific use of Native American forms to substantiate his “primitivism” -- inspired thematically and formally by local peoples -- and shamanism. Likewise, Still’s persistent use of Western landscape forms, including mesas and buttes represent the embodiment of ritualistic images.[i]
In Pullman in the early and mid-1930s, while attending Washington State College (later to become Washington State University), Still lived, worked and taught on the Colville Native American Reservation in eastern Washington. The reservation was the Columbia Basin home of a number of small Native American groups, among them Nespelem, Colvilles, and Sanpoils, most of whom were hunters and gatherers who had a strong commitment to the spirit quest.[ii] As such, their artifacts, theology and mythology likely became the first modern inspiration of Still’s work, first even when he went on to become a Regionalist “realist” or figurative painter (fig. 1) in the early 1930s and then later when he became fully shamanic and “Native Americanist.”
Still was also responsible for the establishment of an art colony in the area at the time. As noted by J.J. Creighton[iii], with others, he was a founder of an art school the students of which mostly painted and drew important local Native Americans in a representational style. Like many at the time, the colony students believed that Native American culture was vanishing and needed to be preserved through art. Still himself drew portraits of Native Americans some of which the museum has put on exhibit. He also painted at least one scene of the building of the nearby Grand Coulee Dam, a nearby construction project where the colonists gathered for recreation.[iv] Most of the art colony students, however, did not go beyond portraiture and descriptive scenes. Still, very significantly, did. For example, his well-known statement that his work is of “the earth, the damned and the recreated”[v] was his version of the sophisticated “primitivizing” memes of the “living and the dead” and “death and rebirth” that were common coin in his time: for example, Mark Rothko’s famous remarks about a “Persephone” moment (winter followed by spring) in American art, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” Diego Rivera, the surrealists, Carl Jung, James Joyce (Finnegan’s Wake’s= “to end again and awake”) and others.
Still’s direct adoption of Native American ideas can be seen in his early figurative work which was non-modernist and, on the surface, Regionalist. For example, PH- 275 of 1935 is a simple nude, but a deeper analysis reveals it already has Native American forms. One shoulder is higher than the other and the head is a bone-like shape that is fundamental to Still’s primitivizing work. Although it is a rough depiction, it reflects the forms that Still would later go on to use. In the Native American collection at the Denver Museum, located just across from the CSM, is a description of a group of works of the Columbian Basin, that is, roughly the Colville Reservation. It notes that the objects consist of distinctive “triangular heads, hunched shoulders and rib cages that appear nowhere else in Native America” (fig. 2).
Heads are only slightly triangularized in Still’s work, as seen in portrait PH-257 which is either a depiction of him or his father. The head’s bony, vertical shape is unexplained (it may be shamanic), but x-ray ribs and hunched shoulders appear first in his Regionalist art with works such as PH-76 (fig. 3)
and PH-80, both of 1935, as well as in PH-209 which he painted in 1936, and many more.
The years of 1934-35 represent the unofficial beginning of Still’s original modernism of a Regional and Native American variety before becoming completely ritualistic. (Jackson Pollock also combined shamanic ideas with his Regionalist figurative work in the late 1930s. But Still’s work is the more advanced at an earlier date – if the dates are reliable.) The reason for this shift seems to be the year that Still spent at the artist colony of the Trask Foundation (later Yaddo) in 1935. It seems that he was introduced to contemporary concerns at the colony as well as the ideas of Nietzsche who would become his muse. He also was possibly introduced to the new fashion for Native American art because soon afterwards he started the Colville art colony and traces of shamanism began to appear in his work. The years he spent living, teaching, and painting on the reservation most likely brought about his supposed primitivism because he had first-hand access to the rituals carried out there.[vi]
Shamanism, which was a key part of the theologies of Native Americans and was adopted by Still as a persona. There is no single shaman representational strategy but most works in North America that take it up do have similar characteristics: x-ray forms, “boneseed” rising bones, and magic flight among various symbolic forms. Shamanism was a popular between the wars in modernists’ circles, as seen in the work of Still, Pollock, the surrealists Max Ernst and Wolfgang Paalen and others. It offered an engagement with spirits, and for Still, shamanism represented a unique ritualistic power.
In light of these contentions, the CSM provides an opportunity to test hypotheses, to revisit and reevaluate the conclusions and arguments made by Still and others, and to tighten our conceptions of his work. (Still might well have been averse to such an undertaking, as he bore a Nietzschean contempt for scholars.) Given the wealth of newly available material, however, Still’s shamanism has not only been confirmed but amplified by such newly exhibited works as PH-344 of 1937 (fig. 4).
The painting represents a virtual catalogue of Still’s Native American and shamanic forms and symbols; for example, prominent x-ray skeletal, seemingly emaciated, ribs indicate symbolic, shamanic “death” before resurrection. The x-ray figure is a means to express the interiority of people by stripping off their flesh and revealing the underlying bone structure (rib cages) that will soon be regenerated with new flesh. Still’s Regionalist pictures, too, are replete with ribbed figures, even a pieta.
Another symbol is “boneseed” -- rising shoulders with an extended, vertical, joint-like form indicating rebirth from bones. In much Native American myth, bones contain the spirits of slain animals as a people’s ancestors. They rise from the earth and will eventually regenerate themselves, like the pit of a fruit, hence the term “boneseed.” The bones grow to signal rebirth, referring to the shamanic ceremony of transformation – rebirth from the older, ancestral forms and powers. In stripping down to a skeleton of “death,” the shaman is purified and new, forceful life can then go forth. We can see the rise of bones in many of Still’s Regionalist works and beyond.
Further, in the near center of PH-344, there is a loose shape in white and burnt sienna depicting linear flowing emanating from the figures. This series of vertical, cascading lines make up the third shamanic symbol. Here Still places between the two figures magic “radiation,” that is, a phalanx of radiating lines as a mnemonics of shamanic practice.[vii] In the painting, too, there is an emphasis on interiority; totemic frontal feet; feathered prayer staff and generative, creative hands becoming “life lines.” The latter are a regional concept for the rising, primal, x-ray skeletal life force and form. The frontal feet of Northwest Coast totem poles that can be seen in PH-344 are a reflection of the fact that the Columbia Basin was a crossroads of many Indian groups. Additionally, the new works on display in the inaugural exhibit add much to our recognition of Still’s method of using Native American objects, often ceremonial clubs, to suggest shapes that echo Native American characteristics, as in 1942-# 2 (PH-85) (fig. 5),
suggested by Nootka clubs (fig. 6) reproduced as figure 298 in Franz Boas well known Primitive Art, and even his so-called abstractions such as PH-968 of 1951-52 (fig.7) in which they form the edge of the color planes.[viii]
In the museum we see other qualities that are typical of Still’s work -- for instance, in PH-76 the array of multiple horizontal figures that are developed in his large, well-known horizontal expanses of shamanic flaming shapes are somewhat reflective of Picasso’s multiple figure compositions from the late 1920s. The museum also provides new evidence of Still’s approach to his “abstractions” -- the flattening, perhaps cubist, treatment of the figure, its totemic incorporation of symbols as body parts, the shamanic reduction to pictographic bone or skeleton, and then its fusion and opening up to the ground of earth colors, until it lifts, separates, spreads and floats off implicitly to the sky, where, significantly, shamans journey. The Director of the museum, Dean Sobel, described the late work PH-1049 of 1977 as “ethereal.”
Throughout his Regionalism to his Native American work, Still’s oeuvre is ritualistic, even those that contain fewer symbols. By the late 1930s when Still had established his totemic shapes and shaman devices, he then moved on to what would become his overarching symbol for the remainder of his career -- the totemic nature form that, in three ways, evolves into his famous planar “abstractions.”[ix] These forms of nature gradually shed the shamanic symbols described above but they kept the general shape and isolate and emphasize totemic forms that drew upon a Native American symbol – the mesa or butte. In Native American theology, these are mythic personages -- holy beings -- and Still seems to have increasingly concentrated on them until they become his “landscapes.”[x]
Such an approach appears early -- at least by 1937, for example, 1937-8-A (fig. 6) which represents the beginning of one of Still’s pathways to the abstract.
It consists of multiple, vertical shafts made into a rough figure. One of the shafts has a horizontal, yellow line at its top across signifying an eye or mouth slit. 1937-8-A seems to be drawn from Western rock forms as seen in figure nine where real physical features constitute multiple, vertical shafts of stone.
The West including Washington State is dotted with these rocky outcroppings including the well-known mesas of Monument Valley (fig. 8).
The mesas in Still’s paintings also consist of large verticalized, rough rock or earthen rectangles which often have a semi-separate narrow vertical shaft, almost like a raised hand (fig. 9).
This is, of course, the fundamental Still shape in both his semi-figurative works from the late 1930s and the so-called abstractions. They soon spread out horizontally and vertically, forming the characteristic mature Still composition in roughhewn, palette-knife, often earth colored, textures. Through them, “color field” painting emerged as a second branch of Abstract Expressionism. (He was joined by Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, in contrast to the linear field painters such as Pollock and Willem de Kooning.) The fact that Still’s abstractions were based on Western landscapes has always been recognized but what has not been emphasized enough is that they bring totemic rituals and symbols into the landscape realm. Still never abandoned his ritual forms and intentions and the early self-empowering shamanic images became, when made more pictorial and less full of symbols, the unique world of totemic, mythical power.
Mesas and buttes are not just natural formations but exist as special beings in western Native American lore. In these cultures, mountain mesas are part of the mythology. For example, in Navaho mythology, the mountain “Changing Woman” bore the Hero Twins in the east of their reservation. In Mount Taylor in New Mexico, the mountain “Reaches for the Sky” was one of the four sacred mountains that marked the extent of the Navaho lands. Furthermore, the massive Ship Rock was known as the “Rock with Wings” as it was said that it brought the first Navaho down from the North. In Utah, Monument Valley includes the “Rain God” and “Thunderbird” mesas. Those mesas were thus considered to be sacred beings and gods. They were not simply geological objects as they are in Western thought. Still’s ritualized Regionalism, evolved but the change in his art was pictorial, not conceptual.
From his Regionalism to his “abstractions,” Still thus sought to create a new force and personality he felt Western society needed. In light of this, we can see that the shamanic figures in his work are connected to the past and draw upon the imagination, not reason. Those images were empowered not by elements of mass society and the machine age -- represented by Western science and reason popular in the thirties America -- but their very opposite, nature and the spirits. His critique of Western society, then, and his notion of inwardness were culturally based. Still truly wanted his new “personality writ large” -- a classic formulation of the 1930s. In other words, his new healing and transformative “self,” if multiplied, would make the world anew. Still declared that “he the artist is the image and sole source of imagery.”[xi] He even stated that “all of his work was one subject.”[xii] “Painting must be an extension of the man, of his blood, a confrontation with himself. Only thus can art be a valid instrument of individual freedom.”[xiii] Still’s work thus represents the artist as a personage of nature and mythic power, a creative new ritual selfin the world of the troubled 1930s and 1940s.
Illustrations (All by Clyfford Still in the Clyfford Still Museum unless otherwise noted)
Fig. 1. PH- 275, 1935, oil on canvas, 36 x 22 ½ in.
Fig. 2. Unknown Wasco artist, bag, late 1800s. Denver Art Museum Collection, Native Arts acquisition fund, 1938.
Fig. 3. PH-76, 1935, oil on canvas, 45 x 53 in.
Fig. 4. PH-344, 1937, oil on canvas, 50 x 38 in.
Fig. 5. 1942-#2 (PH-85), oil on canvas, 70 x 80 in.
Fig. 6. Nootka clubs, figure 298 in Franz Boas Primitive Art, (1927) Dover Publications, 1955.
Fig. 7. PH-968, 1951-52, oil on canvas. 113 x 155 in., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of the Artist.
Fig. 8. 1937-8-A, oil on canvas, 47 x 33 ½ in., Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. Gift of Clyfford Still, 1964.
Fig. 9. Monument Valley.
Fig. 10. Monument Valley, Wildcat Trail.
Fig. 11. 1951-- #3, 7’ 10” x 6’ 10,” The Museum of Modern Art, Blanchette Rockefeller Fund.
[i] See Stephen Polcari, “Clyfford Still’s Regionalist Shamanism” in Paul Crowther and Isabel Wunsche, Meanings of Abstract Art: Between Nature and Theory (London: Routledge Advances in Art and Visual Studies, 2012), pp. 135-140. The view of Still as a primitivizing, shamanic artist was first presented in Stephen Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
[ii] See Verne F. Ray, The Sanpoil and Nespelem/ Salish People of Northeastern Washington, originally published as volume # 5 by the University of Washington Press, 1933, reprinted by Human Area Files, New Haven, 1954. The spirit quest and shamanism is discussed on pages 180—211.
[iii] See J.J. Creighton, Indian Summers/ Washington State College and the Nespelem Art Colony, 1937-41 (Pullman, Washington: Washington State University Press, 2000).
[iv] For a reproduction of Still’s Grand Coulee image, see Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, op. cit. (note i), figure 27, p. 92.
[v] See the writings of David Anfam who attributes this meme to the influence of Professor Murray Bundy with whom Still studied at Washington State College.
[vi] For an interpretation that has Still mostly depending on the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century books on totemism and animism of the British anthropological school of Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough) and his follower Jane Harrison (Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion), see Anfam’s writing on Still’s biography. In the 2013 exhibit Anfam used the theses of British classical anthropology to create an alternative axis to specific Native American ritual and forms. For example, the CSM wall text of a photo of a row of Colville teepees notes that the teepees indicated Still’s interest only in the “ancient and non-Western world.” Despite the generic totemism and animism, for Anfam, Still remains a landscape artist.
[vii]. See Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, 95, fig. 30.
[viii] Justus Jonas-Edel concurs and reproduces PH-85 with illustrations with its clubs from Franz Boas’s Primitive Art. See Jonas-Edel, Clyfford Still Bild vom Selbst und vom Absoluten Ph.D Diss., (University of Cologne, Cologne, 1995), illus. 69-70.
[ix] For the three methods, see Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, op cit, (note iv), pp. 104-110.
[x] See Polcari, “Clyfford Still’s Regionalist Shamanism.”
[xi] B.J. Townsend, “An Interview with Clyfford Still” Gallery Notes (Buffalo, Albright Knox Gallery of Art) 24 (Summer 1961): p. 9.
[xii] Still, quoted by E.A. Carmean, Jr. in the introduction to American Art at MidCentury: The Subjects of the Artist (Washington, D, C.: National Gallery of Art, 1978), p. 41, n. 56.
[xiii] Still, quoted in Ti-Grace Sharpless, Clyfford Still (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1963), unpaginated.