Clyfford Still and the value of technique

I don’t play accurately—any one can play accurately—but I play with wonderful expression.

Algernon Moncrieff in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Portrait of a Man (self portrait?)  by Jan van Eyck

Portrait of a Man (self portrait?)

by Jan van Eyck

Nobody looks at a Jan van Eyck painting and says, “I could totally paint that. I can’t believe this is in a museum.” There are obviously lots of things about van Eycks that make them worthy of study and preservation, but the most obvious—to anyone who’s tried to paint anything from life—is just how technically accomplished they are. You don’t just pick up a brush and start painting like that.

Things are a bit different in the modern wing, especially among the abstract paintings. Blank canvases, huge blocks of color (often applied quickly or mechanically), splatters, no discernable subject. The cliché grumpy response to these paintings is, “my kid could paint that.”

Making something that looks like a Rothko or a Pollock is a lot harder than it looks (try it sometime), but that’s not really the point. We can grudgingly admit that it might take practice to splatter the paint just so, but that still doesn’t seem nearly as difficult as learning to paint like van Eyck.

But why do we care about technique at all? Why does it matter if a painting is technically sophisticated?

One theory holds that work of art derives value from the effort that went in to producing it. The final painting serves as a record of the artist’s intent, attention, and effort. If that’s true, then sophisticated technique acts as a multiplier on that effort. A large, detailed oil painting might take more than a hundred hours to paint, but it takes thousands and thousands of hours of practice to be able to paint that way.

But technique isn’t really about providing evidence of practice. When we say that someone has good technique, what we really mean is that they can reliably use their tools to achieve their intent. And that’s another source of discomfort with abstract painting. It leaves open the nagging question: Is this what the artist really wanted to paint, or is it just that this limited technique is all they’re capable of?

A last-minute trip to Denver left me with some time to spend at the Clyfford Still Museum, which opened this past November. Clyfford Still is one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism (along with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and others), and I hadn’t been especially familiar with his work. Both the museum itself and the exhibit are fantastic, and I’d recommend them to anyone.

The museum’s inaugural exhibit is a chronological overview of Still’s painting career, and it opens with a few things he painted in his twenties. The exhibit traces certain motifs—especially the figure—through 50 years of his work, but I found that his early work served another important function for me.

PH-77 (1936) by Clyfford Still  © Clyfford Still Estate  Photo: Peter Harholdt

PH-77 (1936) by Clyfford Still

© Clyfford Still Estate

Photo: Peter Harholdt

From a purely technical perspective, his early paintings are very solid. Without realizing it, seeing his technically accomplished representational work gave me the freedom to experience his later abstract work with an open mind. I also delighted in finding evidence of his painterly skill, especially in his work from the 70s, which uses subtle gradations of color to create the impression of movement in a very sophisticated way (which completely fails to come through in an image on a website; you’ll have to take my word for it and see for yourself).

Clyfford Still Museum  Photograph by Raul J. Garcia

Clyfford Still Museum

Photograph by Raul J. Garcia

Seeing it yourself is good advice in general. Most of the canvases are huge—Still intended them to be immersive, almost environments in themselves—and no reproduction is going to convey that feeling. If you go, I’d love to hear what you think.