It’s been over a month since I stood before two paintings that were hung on the same wall at Acquavella Gallery in Upper Manhattan. The two works that captivated my attention for more than an hour were part of a retrospective of the Scull Collection. The exhibition included important works by Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and a host of others. However, the pieces that spoke to me weren’t the iconic, grandiose pieces as I had anticipated. While the Rosenquists and Warhols offered one-two punches that were truly amazing, and the Johns, Oldenburgs, and Wesselman were undoubtedly impressive, it was the Clyfford Still and Philip Guston combination that captured both my imagination and my heart that day.
The personal and deliberate nature of the painterly brushwork and heavy knifing, the juxtaposition of large scale and small scale, bold black with lightning strikes of color and the opposing muddy earth tones stopped me in my tracks. The paintings quietly pulsed with life. Not bursting forth with energy. Not exuding any particular “wow-factor.” Rather, they felt as though they were breathing with a measured deliberateness. They were the guests who sat quietly (mysteriously) as the others boldly pontificated an endless droning of “look at me.”
Don’t misunderstand me, the other works in the show by Warhol, Rosenquist, Johns, DeKooning, etc. are very strong (obviously that’s a given). They were bold, robust and outgoing. They demanded attention, but because of that they simply felt less personal to me, while the two paintings that captured my imagination felt as though they intentionally wanted to engage me in a quiet conversation.
The Guston and the Still stood quietly as I took them in, following the sometimes subtle and sometimes energetic movements made by the hands of their individual creators. They remained un-phased, but not disinterested, as I carefully explored their subtle shifts in color and texture that adorned their fragile surfaces. As the time passed, I felt a true connection with these paintings, and knew that their demure nature was simply a facade. They held deep mysteries, and rich stories, which I could only briefly explore during that short viewing. Simply standing before them was a celebration, and collectively we quietly acknowledged the unknowable mysteries of life and death.
Now, weeks later they are still scratching at my skin and turning my thoughts, which leads me to believe that they are more powerful than I first imagined. I’m thankful that I encountered those works of art that day, and am indebted to the creative visionaries who diligently pursued their passions that my life could be forever enriched by them.