Clifford Still Paper Madison Dye

Although Clyfford Still is categorized as one of the most important, influential, and prolific artists of the Abstract Expressionist Movement of the 1950’s, he is regrettably often overlooked and vastly underrated. His contemporaries and peers including Pollock, Kline, De Kooning and Motherwell have secured a place for themselves in history, and although Still is sometimes forgotten, it in no way diminishes his characteristic style, nor the amazing evolution of his work. With a relatively seamless transition, Still glides from landscapes, to figural compositions and eventually settles into his signature style of Abstract Expressionism.

Clyfford Still was born in 1904 and spent the majority of his childhood in barren Alberta, Canada. He grew up diligently working on his families’ farm in relative solitude, isolated from society. This seclusion had a big impact on his early works, as well as his developing passion for art. In the 1920’s, a teenage Still dabbled with still-life and landscape paintings, utilizing the few subjects available to him on his families’ farm. By the late 1920’s, Still had moved onto painting figures,  figures hard at work in the fields, making a meager agricultural. In these works, Still portrays the great emotional and physical fatigue that comes from making a living this way by showing the strain of their bodies and the pain and sadness in their faces. When the Great Depression hits in 1929, the figures through out Still’s paintings become even more exaggerated and deformed. Their limbs and bodies droop and contort, while their bones protrude out at odd angles. The drooping breasts of the female figures, and the visible ribs and distended bellies of the male figures add to the melancholy and desperation found throughout many of these works. As the 1930’s progress, Still’s works gravitate increasingly towards abstraction, and he begins to focus on the internal inner workings of his distorting figures. Harsh lines and coloring characterize his works of this period. Eventually the figures become virtually undetectable but still not quite abstract. Still’s use of color and shadow inform the viewer that a subject and form is still present, however hard it may be to decipher. When Pearl Harbor ushers in the 1940’s, Still and his family are living in San Francisco, the place where his signature style really begins to develop. By now Still fully moved into the Abstract Expressionist Movement that he is famous for, and his paintings begin to evolve in a new way. The technique he employs when applying the paint to the canvas, the thickness of the paint itself, and the colors he selects are all aspects of his paintings that continue to evolve and change throughout his lifetime.

Clyfford Still’s paintings take on a completely different meaning when viewed in up close in real life, versus through a photograph. The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver does a wonderful job of providing the viewer with an opportunity to get close enough to see a whole new side of these pieces. On the bottom floor of the museum there is a timeline of Still’s life, and some background history on his childhood, his family and his career as an artist. This timeline is very helpful in putting his life into perspective, and seeing how specific events like the Great Depression and Pearl Harbor shape his life and his artistic work. Also on the first floor is the storage facility for the Still’s pieces that aren’t displayed, and it is very interesting to see them carefully packaged and arranged in constrast to the pieces being exhibited upstairs. On the second floor of the museum, the visitor is presented with many of his earliest works including still-lifes, and even some mixed media sculptures from his younger years.  His landscapes are further along in a smaller room midway through displayed hanging against deep red walls. One of the most eye-catching landscapes is Still’s work “PH 782” dating from 1927, which depicts a hazy power plant or a factory of some kind. Upon moving closer, it becomes evident that there is a small stream of smoke rising up and separating the picture plane in two, which is mirrored by the vertical smoke stack next to it. It also clear how thickly the paint is applied to the canvas, which becomes evident is a characteristic of almost all of Still’s paintings. In “PH 782” Still uses a very diluted color palette, and especially when viewing the work up close, the colors seem to expand and blend together.

Another attention demanding piece by Still is the work numbered “PH 343” from 1937, the period right before his work fully crosses the boundary into abstraction. Although it is somewhat hard to make out, this piece shows the relationship between man and machine. It is mostly done in black and white, with subtle color nuances throughout. Growing up on a working farm, Still was always interested in machinery and had a good knowledge of it. In this work, the man is created with darker, friendlier earth tones, while the machine is composed of stark white. A snaking black line runs throughout the composition and forms the figures of both man and machine. This work is especially interesting because it was painted during a time when Still was encroaching on abstraction, but the forms are still clearly present.

Abstraction was Still’s characteristic style for which he became famous, and when visiting the museum it is easy to see why. Upon entering the main room which houses some of Still’s later abstract works, the viewer is immediately struck by not only the color and composition, but also the sheer size of these huge mural-like paintings. Still’s “PH 929,” dating from 1974 was one of his later and most striking works. It seems to change completely as one approaches, and by the time the viewer is standing within touching distance, it seems to take on an entirely new and different meaning. This work is largely black and white with interspersed swatches of tan and beige. When up close, a variety of bright, saturated colors of magenta, blue, and yellow slowly become apparent. A thin, bright red line of color snakes vertically down the right side of the composition, just one more small aspect of the work that keeps the eye constantly jumping moving around the piece. The artists’ hand is clearly evident through his characteristically think applicant of paint, and especially when viewed up close, his use of tools and even color mixing technique seems apparent.

Still’s individual works alone are breathtaking and inspiring, but when combined with the progress and evolution of work that is evident at the museum, the collection as a whole takes on an entirely new meaning. Still was inventive, and incredibly inspirational to artists of his time, and even equally so for many practicing artists of today. Still was one of the great Abstract Expressionist Painters of his time, and should be remembered as nothing less then a revolutionary force in the history of American painting.

8 Responses

  1. It seems like you really liked the museum and the layout of the work. Your descriptions of the artwork is nice and Stills history is well established through your essay. It has left me a little wanting though, and that has mostly to do with the fact that the work has a lot of feeling to it and it doesn’t show through in your words. How did standing in front of PH 929 make you feel? Did it take you to any place inside of yourself, or bring a memory of any kind from past or present?

  2. I really enjoyed reading you paper. You seemed to really effortlessly transition between connecting the work and museum to Clyfford Still’s life. I also think you describe the works nicely. I think the only thing to maybe add would be more personalization, (which I had trouble with too) but overall great paper.

  3. I really enjoyed your references to the museum and describing how much you liked it. It makes the paper seem more personal and that you actually enjoy the artwork that you had to go see. I also really liked the chronology as well of Clyfford Still. It helped the paper really flow and having the back round information helped you back up certain references to the paintings. I enjoyed reading your paper I think you did an awesome job!

  4. Your paper felt like I was revisiting the museum. It well described the walk through while also giving information on the artist and his works. I really enjoyed that. It was written much like a walk through almost, though only referencing a few photos that stood out to you. Good job on the paper.

  5. You definitely wrote an effective paper about Still. I feel that there was coherency and a good sense of fluidity throughout the whole paper. Your descriptions of the three works were nicely done. You definitely get a good sense of what really drew you in and intrigued you. Good job!

  6. I really enjoyed reading your paper. Your wording and syntax is impeccable. The paper is very reader-friendly and coherent. I really got a good sense about Clyfford Still’s life as painter. I don’t think you needed to go so in-depth about the museum, but it did describe the layout of the exhibition well.

  7. I like your paper, I think a big part of it that could of have been different is talking a bit more in-depth about the painting themselves rather then Still and his past/childhood/life etc… I think the paper overall is good though.

  8. I thought your paper was very well written. It was really helpful for me to get a sense of what someone else thought of the museum even before i had the chance to visit. It seemed like you had a strong grasp on what you saw and which pieces you enjoyed the most!

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