Sunday, January 8, 2012

Critic's Notebook: Clyfford Still Gets 'Butt Slide'

According to a recent Denver Post, "A 36-year-old Denver woman, apparently drunk, leaned against an iconic Clyfford Still painting worth more than $30 million last week, punched it, slid down it and urinated on herself . . . 'It doesn't appear she urinated on the painting or that the urine damaged it, so she's not being charged with that,' said a spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's Office, in a thanks-for-small-favors summation. The painting is Still's "1957-J-No. 2."

Other sources describe the woman as having not merely slid down it, but "rubbed her buttocks" down the painting while collapsing in a puddle. I think it a safe conjecture, based on the fact that she was un-pantsed and urinating on the floor, that she was both "apparently" and assuredly drunk. The question remains whether that fact alone disqualifies her as a critic or compromises the accuracy of her critical insights.

My own critical opinions, puzzled, disorderly, unschooled as they may appear to the learned, are on record - pale and feeble maunderings when compared with the fervent discommendations of the woman in custody. Take her how you will, she is willing to be incommoded for her aesthetic sensibilities.

I confess to a certain sensible agitation while viewing some of the artist's larger works - a nameless, floating disorientation in the face of a structure that seems now fixed, now mobile, protean, almost Heraclitean in its refusal to sustain a focal perspective. The painting into which one cannot step twice, a gambit the woman fortunately did not attempt. This is in no way to disparage the work - on the contrary, its dynamism is one of its strengths. Having said that, I understand the urge to grasp it in the fist, to stay its evident restlessness, to wish to stabilize its electrical gestalt. Was it a punch, as the police would have it, or an inchoate, perhaps frustrated act of appreciation?

Her peculiar critical perspective or artistic prepossessions are unknown, having been largely overlooked by the press. In the face of deficient information, suppose for the sake of argument that she is of the Formalist or Structuralist persuasion in which spatial relationship, juxtapostion of shape and color fields are paramount. In that case, intoxication may arguably disqualify her from pronouncing on the aesthetic value of the work in question. The same considerations of spatial literacy and the finer appreciation of the relational attributes of geometric solids would also argue against her being permitted to drive herself home following her appraisal of Still's work.

On the other hand, the engagement of the buttocks as an organ of aesthetic appraisal suggests an attachment either to the Expressionist movement, tactilism, sentimentalism, impressionism, surrealism or any of the Nonformalist artistic claques. If this should prove the case, then her sensibilities and critical responses may well have been heightened, attuned even to the point of preternatural irritability. Thus, while we may not in the end fully agree with her critical judgments, we cannot disqualify her out of hand nor disregard her artistic deliverances without further hearing.

The artistic world deserves a verdict.

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