PH-235 (1944-N-No. 1) by Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still

PH-235 (1944-N-No. 1), 1944, Oil on canvas, 268 x 234.9 cm, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, 1.2011.570, © 2019 City & County of Denver, Courtesy Clyfford Still Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Lifelines

Commentary by

Clyfford Still (1904–80) belonged to a circle of pioneering American Abstract Expressionists in New York City, which he abandoned to pursue an often- isolating practice of visual creation on a farm in Maryland. In Still’s work each line, colour, shape, and position takes on a Zen-like quality that is more than the sum of its elements.

PH-235 (1944-N-No.1)—one of a series executed over several years that Still intended to be viewed together—shows a broken rust line running up across and then down the canvas. White and yellow pull downward intersecting the red, and, like the vermillion at bottom right, end in a knifepoint, as though slashing through the black and often cracked impasto that dominates the canvas. Still called these ‘lifelines’ after farm-boy experiences from his childhood. His father would lower him, suspended by rope, into wells—usually to survey them but sometimes also as punishment.

‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?’ Mark has the women continually ask one another on their early morning journey to Jesus’s grave to anoint his body (16:3). Mark says the sun had risen, but it is a dark and well-trodden path to the tomb. We all know what it is to come to the graveside in grief and broken hope, suffocated by the requirement to keep breathing. This is indeed a ‘very large stone’ (16:4).

Their question is, however, not the right one. The attentive reader of Mark’s Gospel will remember that Jesus has predicted three times, once plainly, that he will die and rise again (Mark 8:31–32; 9:31; 10:33–34). These predictions are lifelines. The better question is, ‘How are we going to live with resurrection?’ The women’s response is to flee in terror. Easter is like a gash that bleeds colour through the darkness in which they (as often we) are suspended. The initial path toward the finality of death is torn open like knife-edged rust, white, yellow, and vermillion to become a road whose end and whose beginning is resurrection.