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European & American Art
Abstract Expressionism gallery

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Clyfford STILL

United States of America 1904 – 1980

[Gray painting] 1952 Title Notes: "1952-no.2, PH-733" as per advice of artist's estate, correspondance received 12 October 2007
paintings, oil on canvas
Technique: oil on canvas
Primary Insc: no inscriptions
299.0 h x 268.5 w cm
Purchased 1978
Accession No: NGA 78.30
© The Clyfford Still Estate

  • the artist;
  • from whom bought by Alfonso Ossorio, East Hampton, New York, in 1953;
  • from whom bought through Thomas Gibson Fine Art Inc., London, by the Australian National Gallery, February 1978
  • Clyfford Still believed in the autonomy and self-sufficiency of works of art. His paintings, he said, did not need to be put into words or even to have titles, because they speak for themselves. Many are tempted to interpret this work as the map of a coastline or the profile of a mountain escarpment, but he vehemently denied any connection with the kind of craggy landscapes he grew up with in the American west. The work is an uncompromising abstraction that foregrounds the handling of paint and the big gesture, and yet there is also something interesting that becomes a parallel world, with the oil paint and the colours the heroes that create the drama.

    At first glance the black, yellow, red and white are most easily read as figure, and the huge mass of semi-gloss blue-grey slabbed on with a palette knife as ground. But on closer viewing the order of paint is seen to be first the yellow, then the white, then the black and the red, and finally the dark bluey-grey. These perceptions put the ‘ground’ over the top of the ‘figure’ and play havoc with any attempt to see a three-dimensional space, thereby achieving Still’s ambition to kill all allusion and illusion.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

  • Still, more than other members of the New York School, attempted to purge his work of literary allusions and overt graphic symbols, preferring to stress the elements of painting—colour, shape, size—and their formal relationships as his subject-matter. He frequently denied any connection between the craggy forms in his paintings and the rugged western landscapes of his childhood: 'I only paint myself, not nature'.1 Stripped of conventional associations, he hoped the elements in his paintings could be as pure and abstract as musical notes, and indeed he compared his paintings to orchestral compositions.2

    1952–no.2 was purchased from the artist in early 1953 by Alfonso Ossorio, in whose possession it remained until 1978 when it was acquired by the Australian National Gallery. During this time it was known variously as Grey picture or Grey painting.

    Even such a mildly descriptive title would not have suited Still's austerity. 'My paintings', he wrote, 'have no titles because I do not wish them to be considered illustrations or pictorial puzzles. If made properly visible they speak for themselves'.3

    Mrs Clyfford Still has confirmed through her husband's records that the work is correctly titled 1952–no.2 and was painted in 1952.4 The painting is further identified in Still's records by the photographic number PH773. The painting 1952–no.2 is the second variant of a work painted in New York in 1951. This painting, which forms part of the artist's estate, was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1980.

    Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.225.

    1. 'The fact that I grew up on the prairies has nothing to do with my paintings, what people think they find in them. I paint only myself, not nature' (from 'An interview with Clyfford Still' by Benjamin Townsend in Gallery Notes, Albright-Knox Gallery, vol. 24, no. 2, Summer 1961, pp.10-16. Reprinted in Maurice Tuchman, New York School: The First Generation, Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, 1965., p.148.
    2. ibid.
    3. Clyfford Still, quoted from a letter written to the Tate Gallery in 1972, in Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art Other than Works by British Artists, London: Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981, p.710.
    4. Mrs Clyfford Still, correspondence with the Gallery, 11 August 1983.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010