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George Stillman

American
(1921–1997)

Untitled
1950

Oil, graphite, paper, and newsprint on canvas
65.5 x 46.625 x 2.5 in.
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation in honor of Twain Tippets
2000.65

Writing about the bicoastal phenomenon of abstract expressionism, critic Dore Ashton summed up the era as “a dramatic caesura in the story of modern art,” when America, having escaped the furious destruction of the Second World War, experienced a “high-voltage charge of creative energy.” This was particularly true for the many veterans who came to study at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. George Stillman spoke for many ex-GIs when he declared, “We had all been fed up with regimentation, with being put in uniform and told what to do. We were looking for a way out of that discipline—a way to be individual, a way to be human.” Stillman was among the youngest of the West Coast abstract expressionists, and also one of the most independent. “You could never pin him down,” his fellow student Edward Dugmore recalled. “He had this wild imagination. He was able to put blinders on . . . and just paint what he wanted to paint, no influence at all from anybody.”

In truth, the San Francisco painters had more in common stylistically than they would have admitted. This work exemplifies a consensus of negation, as they avoided any hint of classicism, specifically the machine aesthetic associated with a sympathetic view of technology and science, which was no longer tenable after the war. Stillman’s art thus rejects smooth surfaces and clear hues in favor of rugged textures and an earthen, even muddy, palette. Clarity, order, and stasis have given way to contrary romantic qualities of ambiguity, imprecision, and dynamism. Instead of enclosing contours—a symbol of classicist rationality—we find meandering rivulets and canyons of crumpled paper. The delicacy of graphite sgraffito lends elegance to this piece despite its raw, indecorous appearance, resulting in a work of rich textural variation and subtlety.

Susan Landauer


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