Dear Clyfford Still
Dear Clyfford Still,
In 1966, I thought, as a girl of thirteen, when I saw the book of thirty-three of your paintings, as well as a gallery of your works at the Albright Knox Art Gallery, and still think now, that your important works completely supplanted organized religion. As I have mentioned to other ghosts here, I was raised Congregational in the United Church of Christ and as a high school student was active in the church but never believed in the virgin birth or that Jesus Christ was the only son of God. I did not believe in a personal Christian God and did not often pray. I turned to the world of art instead. I wouldn't be writing and giving sermons in the ministry as I had dreamed, despite my disbelief, but I would be pursuing visual consciousness and would be creating meaning. Even at age thirteen I was serious about my response to the world, whether my response to your abstractions, Mr. Still, or my early attempts to draw and paint.
I was a cultural Christian being third generation Scottish and Scottish-Canadian American on my maternal side and thirteenth generation Anglo-American on my paternal side. But I could not believe in Christianity though I tried again and again. For me, looking at significant art and beginning to create my own was a much more powerful spiritual experience than attending the church. Going to Buffalo's museum in 1966 and spending contemplative time with your paintings was formative. At the time, I had never been out west but had been raised spending one month each summer in the Adirondacks. I was familiar with awe-inspiring expanses, transcendental skies and 4,000' peaks. So I immediately identified with your expanses that weren't decorative whatsoever. In 1979 when I began to paint on my own after finishing graduate school I used chop sticks instead of brushes and eventually palette knives in my rather feeble attempt to be both primal and avant-garde though I don't remember thinking of your jagged passages of ugly color then. They were just an unconscious part of me.
The forces of the natural world were my muse. Looking at an abstract expressionist work still gives me the same emotional response as being surrounded by nature as it did forty odd years ago. I understand Pollock's comment to Hans Hofmann that "I am Nature" completely. In the galleries of Manhattan, its museums, or my studio, I feel awe and am prompted to believe in an impersonal God, a belief formed by years of viewing paintings with a toughness as well as a reverence or respect and years of joyous bird watching. I don't see just blue birds or robins when birding. I watch hawks and northern shrikes aggress upon the smaller songbirds or field mice, reminding me of my own experiences at work, whether painting furiously and aggressively out of a visual muddle or being the victim of judgement and interpersonal politics. I see ephemeral beauty. Swooping flight inspires my gestures. Even though I do not depict external reality, I surround myself with old and weathered bones and taxidermy. I respond to the broad natural forces I find so inspiring. I am interested in psychic and spiritual identity. I find profundity to be essential to art. I believe. When painting I am both unaware and ultra-sensitive to the visual. I yearn to transcend the world's hostility, both personal and global, when painting or when looking at painting. I want the painting to transport me to a state of inner consciousness-to help me understand my place and my response to the world in a myriad of ways. I'm interested in significance, in big ideas and the small detail as well. Each day in the studio I am in touch with meditation and struggle. My philosophy about culture and history is I strongly believe pertinent to today. I make each mark with faith in the unconscious, intuitive response. I believe that I transmit consciousness. I only have a vague preconception for the work aside from the struggle and searching for significance during the process of aesthetic and emotional self-discovery. I romantically think that I continue a long American tradition. I imagine Emerson's Over Soul to be imbued into significant art, whether your monumental painting, your peers' works or I believe my own. I call the over soul the life force. As I said, I, like Hofmann, also see importance and aesthetic food in nature. I see it in emotive and visceral abstraction and not as often in today's figuration. In de Kooning's women. I believe that both you, Still, and de Kooning are relevant to 2018, not relegated to the de-sanctified, the historic or the passė. I see it in Miriam Beerman's harshness wedded to emotive beauty that gives hope in horrific moments. I see the over soul in Stella Waitzkin's environments, rich with passion and poignancy glancing backward.
Mr. Still, did you read Emerson? Or did you just understand him? When I was younger I didn't read much. But today I paint, read and write. I'd like to tell you more about my life a little bit in my next letter.