(A talk given by Peter Illig at the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Colorado)
The material leads to the spiritual. Or another way of saying it, the spiritual is in the material. How is this possible? Why would troweling paint pigment onto a thick cotton canvas lead to a spiritual revelation? It depends on the approach, and the attitude the artist (such as Clyfford Still) has when he is working. He may start with a mental state, a predilection for a certain mood or an idea; some big question that has been on his mind that he feels compelled to say something about. That will inform his choices as he paints. But also, he will likely abandon reason and conscious decisions and let “other forces” come into play: intangible and hard-to-explain unconscious forces that will determine the painting’s form. The psychologist Carl Jung believed these forces were at work in all humans, but only the focused energy of the experienced artist, could put them into some sort of visual form. Still’s paintings aren’t “illustrations of ideas” but transcendent images that expressed universal ideas as they were created.
Still stated specifically that the color black was, for him, not a color of fear and terror, but one of warmth and energy. So the black ground is not a frightening void or abyss but a mysterious generative space. The red arc would seem obvious as a bolt of lightening but that’s perhaps too easy an interpretation. More a filament of energy, a pathway through the dark ground. It does not separate two sides, as an edge would, but travels in a jagged linear fashion. As it travels, left to right (our Western view) it passes 3 other phenomenon: a white drip which advances outward, a jagged yellow shape, and an emerald green splash below. It can also be seen as a crevice – a glimpse into a gap, pulsating with warm energy deep within.
One of Still’s predecessors, the German expressionist painter Max Beckmann, is known for this statement: “If you wish to grasp the invisible, penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible”. He was speaking as a figurative artist, but this can apply to abstract artists as well. The material, the paint, the support, etc, will, in the hands of the spiritually-minded and experienced artist, take on a sense of the transcendent.