Owen Hill's Blog

On Clyfford Still

By Owen Hill
A Flaw in the Motor
June 10th, 2011

This first appeared in Try magazine. Thank you, David and Sara.

I was between apartments and Simmons, a painter friend, knew another painter friend who had once dropped out of SFAI and had moved into a house in Santa Cruz, or actually out on the road to Felton. Simmons did what he jokingly called tchotchke art—gathering up trash and gluing it together. He’d gone to Davis and had lived in Humboldt—the kind of artist that drives a truck and listens to Merle Haggard.

The SFAI dropout was a different sort, I’d been told. He was following his wife to Japan, some sort of residency. Had dropped out of art school after a row with a painting teacher. This was years ago, when people were more apt to let big ideas interrupt careers. We could live cheaply, then, and MFA’s didn’t mean as much. He did big paintings that I probably wouldn’t get. Or so my De Forest/Wiley trained friend said, with a smirk. I didn’t take that well. I knew a little about art. I read High Performance, I went to openings, saw student films…

Do you get them, Simmons ?

I get them. I just don’t like them. I’m not saying you’re stupid—but he came up through minimalism and most of the canvases are like that, although now he’s taken things in a different direction. More content. But probably just colors to you . Anyway they need a cat sitter and they’re partial to poets. If you don’t get the work just pretend it’s the wallpaper—that’s not much of a stretch.
I thought about arguing, but at that point I was playing Boswell to Simmons’ Dr. Johnson. I let it go. He’d hooked me into a free place and all I had to do was feed a couple of cats. I was grateful.

The house was pretty ramshackle. Getting the toilet to flush was a real project, and the water was hot and then cold at minute intervals. The cats ran with raccoons and other small mammals—everybody used the cat door and shared the food bowl. The painter’s wife did something with performance—pieces of costume were everywhere, things that were probably used as props, in that performance-artist/theater way. A kind of friendly squalor covered the floors and hid in the corners.

But the walls!

You entered through a side door, the kitchen. No art there—then, around through the living area, the minimalist stuff. Gray-blue, big—the thing (I learned, looking for hours) about minimalist canvases is that they are always changing, not just with the light but with changes in mood, or whatever feeds perception. That speck becomes a bird, becomes a big idea, becomes…until there’s this constant state of becoming, and then not, and back again. I’d play at naming the things that I “saw”, as a writer that came natural. And then, a state beyond naming. The paintings allowed me to go there—they had this openness.

There were a couple of bedrooms. No Studio. I don’t know where he painted.

The bedrooms had what I assumed was the newer stuff. He’d changed, completely. He was taking control. Through jagged lines and dramatic changes in color he pushed my brain where he wanted it to go. I never got to know him, have run into him a few times through the years, but amateur psychology is impossible to avoid here. He was in his thirties, pushing forty, and he wanted control—wanted to lay down the law. The bedroom paintings possibly weren’t as good, but I found, to my surprise at the time, that I was more drawn to them. Surprised, because at the time I thought of myself as leaning in some vaguely Zen direction—and here I was drawn to the more “western”—in that awful west coast pop usage of the word—type of art. Not so much balance—a knife fight! And I wanted to see more art like that, but even more dramatic—and the best of it. If you’re going to free the doors from their jambs, I thought (had been reading Whitman), you have to push, pull, and kick…hard.


The old SFMOMA on Van Ness was a strange-ass building for an art museum—galleries that looked like hallways, weird little side rooms, and that huge light filled center that was too big for just about everything. I loved it—so obviously inappropriate, but dramatic, and the shows were great. This particular visit we were going to look at the Manuel Neri that they had in the stairwell—no, really. It was just there on a landing, where nobody looked. A painted torso, pretty indicative of his work, which is to say, exquisite.

I told Simmons that I wanted to look at something big, dramatic and abstract.

Well you know the players. But the best stuff’s in New York, except for the Stills.

They gave Still a room, off to the side, kind of on the way to the cafeteria. Bench in the middle, not too many paintings. And it was like a Sistine Chapel—that same catch in the breath and a dizziness. When I walk into places like that I’m so grateful to be an atheist. Because, once free of theological baggage you clearly see the coupling of imagination and action that makes the work bigger than the one. From the artist, out…


Frank O’Hara called him a force of nature. There’s that ambivalence that comes out of the “artist as force of nature” idea. Oh, come off it…but then, how do you work big? You kind of have to think of yourself as big, too—involved in that struggle for immortality. Especially embarrassing, in these self-consciously unpretentious times.

I admit that I hate that the paintings aren’t really titled. I’m a writer, I want a clue in words. I understand—the Grand Canyon didn’t name itself. But I’m bothered by it, and begin each looking “session” trying to name and describe before succumbing to awe.
I guess I’m in love with them (“I think I am in love with painting”) and the struggle is part of that.

I look at those paintings and they beat me up—or I fight them, fight even appreciating them, fucking jags of color. There’s a real abyss there, Grand Canyon sized drop—but also the possibility of flight. Reading interviews with Still—kind of opaque. Not much patience with other artists—their lack of integrity. But knew he was one of the great ones, so, here it is, take it or not. Makes me think that great art is always somewhere out beyond caring. The ocean does not mean to be listened to, as the poet said.

Difficult paintings , overwhelming, and cruel sometimes, but not stingy. Singular and great—is anybody doing that, now?

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