Of two artists on display at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, one is very popular and well known; the other is hardly known at all. When you hear the name Georgia O'Keeffe, you tend to immediately think of the wrinkle-faced old painter who lived in the desert and painted flowers. But when you hear the name Clyfford Still, the head cocks a little to one side, your brow gets a little scrunched, and you ask, "Who?"
When asked to name a 20th-century abstract expressionist, typically we think of Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko, maybe even Barnett Newman or Robert Motherwell. But Still? Right now, 33 paintings, the world's largest public collection of Still's work, are on view at Albright-Knox. And, although they're in close proximity to the O'Keeffe installation, they're in a series of galleries more spacious than those allotted to O'Keeffe.
But they have to be. The paintings are huge, and with their dynamic, flame-like imagery, they were crucial to the development of abstract painting. So why are the galleries where Still's work hangs practically empty? The O'Keeffe galleries, for which you need to buy a special admission ticket, are full. Most of the people in those galleries don't even venture across the way to see Still's. They've come to see the visually pleasing landscapes of O'Keeffe's beloved New Mexico. Why is that? Is O'Keeffe a better artist? Are her paintings more beautiful?
O'Keeffe was one of the American pioneers of modernism whose paintings, for all of their naturalistic precision (and economy of detail), are regarded as formal abstractions. She once remarked, "Nothing is less real than realism... Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination... that we get at the real meaning of things."
Well, that explains it: The work of O'Keeffe is actually representational. She painted from nature. She looked at something and made an interpretation of it. It was her own vision of something that was real. There are even photographs in the exhibition that show us the actual places she painted.
As do many artists, O'Keeffe often made several versions of the same subject (Cezanne especially comes to mind). In Purple Hills (1935), a monumental mountainous form, like a draped, slumbering body on its side, seems to melt into the earth. Hanging immediately to its right is Red Hill Series II (1935/38), where again we see these sinuous, intersecting lumps. All that is solid melts into air... only to be precisely captured by Herbert Lotz's photograph, Red Hills Series II (2003), where all sorts of rivulets have repeatedly slithered downward and carved into the sloping sides of the adobe-pink hills, gradually wearing down and smoothing away the rough edges.
Still's paintings, on the other hand, are pure abstractions. Just paint on the surface of canvas, nothing more. When a viewer does come in to take a look, you can hear comments like, "Geez, my five-year-old can do that," or "It looks like the work of a bad house painter," or "I don't get it, what's he trying to say?"
The strange thing is that Still and O'Keeffe have more in common than most people think. Without the sky, or some other fairly specific reference, O'Keeffe's paintings are indeed abstractions, just paint on a surface --- which is really what painting is anyway. O'Keeffe's work is about the arrangement of surfaces, shapes, colors, and textures on canvas. So is Still's.
It may be that in the world of television we have forgotten how to look at things. If we stop and actually look at the Still paintings then ask ourselves some questions, we just might get somewhere with his work. We need to ask better questions than "what's the artist trying to say?" Instead, we should consider how the artist went about making such paintings.
For example, 1949-H measures approximately 7 by 6 feet. It consists mostly of red paint. From within the surface, almost as if some of the red has been peeled away, we can see some brown. Near the top right corner, some white emerges. Amidst all that red, an incredibly vibrant blue splotch with just a dab of yellow peeks out from a spot near the lower right edge. Over on the left is more bright yellow, but this yellow isn't a dab but an ever-so-subtle gestural line along the edge of the canvas. There is a dab of white at the bottom edge and another one just a few feet away. The more one looks, the more one sees.
All around you is order and balance. As you go from canvas to canvas, you begin to realize that no mark, no splotch is entirely accidental. Are they just incredibly great accidents? The question definitely crosses your mind. But who cares if they're accidents? They're beautiful.
The more you think about how to make these marks, the more you realize that you can't really figure it out. These are complex compositions: think music without sound. We usually have no problem with the concept of abstraction in music. This, of course, was not lost on Still, who said his "work in its entirety is like a symphony in which each painting had its part."
And if you're motivated to investigate further, you'll find out that Still sometimes painted some paintings more than once. 1957-D No. 1, an oil painting 9 feet high and 13 feet wide, consists of large areas of jagged blacks and yellows with a little red here and there. 1957-D No.2 (not a part of the Albright-Knox collection) is almost identical --- the difference being that white has replaced the yellow. Everything else is almost exactly the same.
If we could see these two side by side, it would not be much different than seeing one of O'Keeffe's paintings next to its site-specific photograph. Still painted the landscape that was in his mind, and then he turned around and did it again. It's uncanny how spontaneity can be reproduced and controlled.
In the end, it's nice enough to enjoy a good picture, but once in a while it's even better to see a great painting.
Clyfford Still: Paintings from the Collection, through April 10 and, Georgia O'Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place,through May 8, at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo. 716-882-8700 or www.albrightknox.org. Hours: Wednesday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, free admission every Friday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.