Clyfford Still Paper- Rocio Ramirez

Rocio Ramirez
ARTH 3539
22 Jan 2012
Clyfford Still Paper


The Clyfford Still museum located in the core of Denver’s art district is home, to obviously, some of the many Clyfford Still masterpieces. The work spans from pieces such as his imposing self portrait painted in 1940, to his more representational paintings like PH-77 done in 1936, all the way to his more abstract expressionist pieces like PH-129 done in 1949. This spectacular museum is structured in a opposing dualistic way, in that it encapsulates both timelessness and a sense of avant-garde, which perfectly sums up Clyfford Still as an artist.
The museum is set up in a very deliberate manner, no doubt designed in accordance with the artist it was named after and whose work it houses. The museum is neither extravagant nor unemotional, but rather serves to invite in exploration. Art is something that is seen cynically, and even more so with abstract art, perhaps mostly due to the indirectness of it. But this building serves to message that one must enter open-mindedly, and patiently give time to each and every piece. The interior is open and brightly lit, again echoing the welcoming atmosphere introduced by the exterior architecture. The white-gray walls and circular patterned ceiling create a pragmatic layout, both appealing to a regular museum patron and the occasional attendant. Then it begins, one slowly meanders through the Clyfford Still museum, quickly loosing track of time.

Clyfford Still was an American artist born in North Dakota on the 20th of November in the year of 1904. Early on Still’s ambition for his work was to capture a feeling of time without historical context and connotations. He preferred his work to rather comment on humanity, and more so the human condition. Focusing in on experiences we will all inevitably go through: birth, life, the struggles and obstacles that speed-bump our lives, and the ineludible end. These abstract and universal themes juxtaposed with the desperation for artistic liberation post WWII was the perfect atmosphere to produce the abstract expressionist “movement,” with Clyfford Still and others at the forefront.
Abstract Expressionism peaked in the 1950’s in New York City, where Still was living at the time. Through this time period, more or less, Still refined his craft and clearly came into his own. He defined his style within a style, using non-narratives and implementing contrasting colors with an array of organic arrangements. As well as, using different techniques, such as, applying thickly textured paint also known as impasto. The summation of these different components created a nuance in his work and a iconic shimmer on the surfaces of his work. This signature mark developed into a more precise and recognizable palette throughout his compositions. His pieces are now easily recognized by their very evident presence of jagged motifs, chaotic layers, and the variations of black, yellow, white, and red. One can clearly see what an extraordinary experience it is to see these masterpieces from this momentous artist in person.
One of the pieces that seemed most fascinating was the 1936 work titled, PH-77. Clearly identifiable as an earlier work by Still by its expressionistic and representational appearance. Not yet abstract, but neither very direct. Painted during the Great Depression, it depicts farmers or some sort of handworkers, at of course, work. This subject matter perhaps chosen for both it’s familiarity with Still, in terms of blue collar work and farm life associated with the Midwest, and also for the poignancy of the image in correlation with the time.
The vibrancy of the red and yellow worn by the farmers instantly draws attention, while the more subtle, darker shades lead the viewer through the memorizing image. The captured emotion, particularly on the laborer in red, is almost palpable. This is acquired through the small tilt of the eyebrow noticeable in the laborer’s profile, the subtle messiness of the hair, and the grimaced mouth. Both workers seem emaciated, almost corpselike due to their pallid complexion and thin boney arms. They serve to personify the time and serve as the umbilical cord for the viewers of the piece to the Great Depression. One feels the turmoil and turbulence of this age, the uncertainty and fear that blanketed society from the daunting future. The laborers are bent with exhaustion leaning over with their too-large and distorted limbs gathering, working. The scene shows an overwhelming horizon full of work, expanding seemingly forever, while the foreboding overcast sky looms eerily over the two men. The image is bleak and apocalyptically beautiful. Still is often said to have wanted to escape the boundaries set by history and time, very much the message of the abstract expressionist movement. However, this piece is dripping with both the emotion and time of this historic period in the United States.
The other work that is easily one of the most imposing is the work created four years later in 1940; the Clyfford Still self-portrait. Cloaked in black, Still looks over what has now become a place of celebration for his work, something he didn’t seem too fond of. Still’s piercing gaze flanked with enormous hands, similar to the aforementioned PH-77 use of gnarled hands, at his side prove to be somewhat subtle details that create this masterful one of kind views into the creator of the pieces themselves. Also, notable is the subdued and simple color scheme. The contrast between the poles, white and black, creating a familiar, yet equally visually arresting experience. Giving again, more detail and insight into who Still really was as an artist and as a person. A man unconcerned with the celebrity and recognition, but rather valuing the freedom experienced with an unrestricted art form.
Following the chronological order set, the last piece that resonated from the Clyfford Still museum was, PH-129. Created just a year before the said peak of abstract expressionism was this ochre dominated piece. The vibrancy quickly appeals to the eye, but upon closer viewing, the at first seemingly joyful vibrancy becomes a nostalgic melancholia. This piece also very aptly demonstrates the torn and chaotic jaggedness that is associated with Clyfford Still. The piece is almost layered in colors and shapes giving peeks into other shades. The darker ochre fencing the lighter shade, the flash of lavender balancing the piece near the bottom, and the sneak of brick and red towards the top each provide elements that cohesively piece this image together. This 1949 piece impeccably communicates what this movement, period, whatever name is desired, was all about. The opportunity to experiment and more importantly to not conform to the “golden age” but rather to explore the human condition.
The leading artists of abstract expressionism searched for ways to question what people conformed to and to challenge why they chose to lead their lives that way. They saw art and these mediums to create art, as ways to escape, to not be concretely stationed at a specific point in time. This exploration of time and individualistic approach to art, no doubt, heavily influenced not just visual art, but all art in general. Audiences to any form of abstract expressionism can observe the way it can both overtly demonstrate and slowly secrete the fight against the emotions, the superficiality, the conformity of the time. This identifiable marking sets this style apart from the art of the past, and distinguishes it as a catalyst for the art of the future. One that strives to delve into the mindset of humanity and “challenge the status-quo.”
Clyfford Still remains one of the most respected artists of his time and one of the “pioneers” of the abstract expressionism period. His embrace of digression within his profession and the rippling of influence has led to Still being synonymous with progression and novelty. Most impressive of all perhaps is the way Clyfford Still was able to not only break from the chain, but also how he was able to then create and master a specialty within said divergence. This seen in the 1936 work PH-77, using his trademark elements of subtly exploring life and death. Or also demonstrated in the 1940 self-portrait through his use of simple colors and directness in tone. And of course, in the PH-129 created in 1949, displaying what someone who has refined his craft can produce, through a balanced and emotional, and yes abstract composition. Clyfford Still imagined and dared to go beyond the expectations in order to progress what he loved, and to perhaps branch that thinking into other things in order to affect humanity in someway. This determination and characteristic comes few and far between, which is why this divergent thinking in the abstract expressionist era was so important and why people like Clyfford Still remains important.

2 Responses

  1. Rocio- Your extreme detail is very helpful when picturing Still’s work! Your description of the farmers is immaculate and the way you describe colors and location is great (something I have a difficult time with!). My only critique is that there are a couple of grammatical errors, nothing extreme. Just comma placement, subject agreement, etc. Overall, great paper!

  2. Your description of Still’s artworks was very clear and helped me to envision which piece it was that I saw at the Clyfford Still museum. I like how you mentioned that Still broke from the common view of realism and moved to abstraction and became a master even though Still was the first to do abstraction. Well Written.

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