Clyfford Still Paper

Dasha Silva

Clyfford Still Paper

Visiting the Clyfford Still museum in downtown Denver was a particularly interesting experience for me. I had never heard of Still before taking this class, and it was nice to be able to learn so much about him while visiting his museum. Walking into the museum, there is a big digital area with a detailed timeline of Still’s life, as well as a timeline of important current events that took place while coinciding with his life. This interactive feature was helpful and engaging, and allows for the visitor to take a peek inside his life.

Clyfford Still was born on November 30th, 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota. His parents were Canadian immigrants, and he was the only child in this traditional farming family. One year after Still was born, he and his family moved to Washington State. When Still was 15, he received tubes of paint and canvases from his father as a gift, and he began to paint. Although he was just a beginner and still young at the time, works from this time can be found in the museum. This is interesting to me because it’s very rare to have one’s entire life of artwork placed in a museum. Most artists wouldn’t choose to display work from the beginning of their career, especially at such a young age. It’s definitely very self-appreciative to display works from the very beginning of a painting career, and I valued this about the museum.

Still’s earliest pieces show how he had studied art history, focusing on the Impressionists like Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Getting a little bit older, Still’s work of landscapes and scenes of everyday life define a more advanced stage in his art life. In 1939, Still has his first solo exhibition, and his work begins to look more abstract. He begins to showcase paintings of slightly distorted looking people with an array of bright colors and thick brush strokes.

One of the pieces that I enjoyed was “PH-80” from 1935. This work is a scene of four forlorn-looking people that look like they might be over-worked farmers taking  break from their long day. The way Still paints man’s bodies in these types of his paintings is so interesting to me because they look so tired. The eyes and mouth are one thick, dark brush stroke and the ribs stick out of a skinny body, giving the viewer an intense feeling of one’s weight in the world. Although there are many bright colors in this painting, like yellows, oranges, and blues, making it look vibrant, the people in it seem to all be sitting by themselves, as if in their own world. They don’t seem to be interacting, just looking tired. Still also chose to paint their faces very long, which goes along well with the sad feeling of this piece. Although I am not a huge fan of Still’s work, this piece was very attention-grabbing, and I enjoyed seeing it.

The year of 1943 was important for Clyfford Still. He has a triumphant exhibition in San Francisco, meets Mark Rothko, and accepts a teaching position in Richmond, Virginia. He stays in Virginia for the next two years, perfecting his painting skills and producing over 100 oil paintings, which became many of his abstract works. Then later in 1960, Still teaches a graduate painting class at our very own University of Colorado at Boulder, which was his only connection with Colorado before opening the museum.

Another piece that I enjoyed was an untitled picture of a skull. This piece looked like it could be a drawing, and it was very simple, but still very detailed at the same time. The skull is sitting on a black background, but the way the background is drawn makes it also look like a black fabric that the head is resting on. I really liked the value scale in this piece, with the skull looking so white and boney, and the black fabric looking very rich and thick. Every feature of the skull looks real, from the dark eye sockets to the smooth forehead to the decaying teeth. What is also very interesting about this piece is that while it looks very real, it doesn’t look particularly scary. This picture is also quite small, which makes it even more compelling that a small framed work like this can have such power. This piece was framed in a room that had a whole series of untitled drawings, which was a little mysterious. There were no dates or titles, just framed drawings.

The last piece that I found interesting was titled “PH-247,” from 1951. This was one of his biggest works in the museum, which I was instantly drawn to because I love large scale pieces. It was pretty simple, like a lot of his works, and was also monochromatic, using a dark blue palate of colors. There is a thick black line and another thin orange line to the left side of the horizontal painting, which I don’t know if I like, but what I did really love was how he mixed the blues, black, and a little bit of white together. He used a kind of blending technique that I often use in my own paintings to get the colors nicely swirled together. The sheer size and color of this painting grabbed my attention, and I really enjoyed it.

In the 1950s, the rise of pop art begins, and younger artists start to replace abstract expressionists like Still. So, in 1969 Still came back to the art world with an exhibition in New York’s Marlborough gallery with 45 pieces, most of which were sold to private and public places. These works were the majority of what Still was known for, before the opening of the museum. The proceeds from these pieces allowed for Still to live the rest of his life making art work in his home in Maryland, before he dies in 1980 from cancer.

Although I didn’t love all of Clyfford Still’s pieces, I enjoyed visiting the museum and learning about him. After talking about him in class and reading about his life from the museum, I have grown to respect him as an artist more because he had such an interesting life. His work isn’t necessarily my exact style, but I have grown to understand it more, and still find it interesting.

6 Responses

  1. Dasha- I love how you connected the happenings in Still’s life with his works of the connecting time, which is something I did not think to do. It provides helpful insight to the reader as to show influences on his work at the time. My only critique is that I would not use “I” in a paper, though it may be acceptable in this instance. I do not remember being told in class if we were not supposed to use “I” or if it was alright. Overall, great paper!

  2. I agree with Annie Davis, I enjoyed how you connected Still’s works with a little information on his personal life during the time period. I also agree with your statement on “PH-247” about how Still mixed the colors to create such in interesting look but those random lines in the painting threw you off. I felt the same way when I looked at that piece, that I loved the different textures in it but that thick black line and little orange line sort of ruined it for me. I personally think it would have looked better without the lines so you can just focus on the blue texture. Your paper was great, insightful yet you threw in your opinions which made it more personal.

  3. I like how you split the images you found interesting with parts of his life. With the use of first person it had a back and forth feeling from opinion paper of his art and a background research of Clyfford Still. Over all I enjoyed reading your paper.

  4. I like your interpretation of Ph 80. The idea of life weighing heavily on these overworked people was clear. However, I would like to hear what you think the purpose of using bright colors in this piece that is obviously about struggle and hardship.

  5. I like that you give a description of the museum, and that you give a background about him since the cultural and economic events he experienced were such an important part of his art. overall i thought it was a good paper!

  6. Dasha,

    Your paper has a really nice layout and how it’s composed makes it a really easy and enjoyable read. It’s a well-versed paper. The transition from one paragraph to another was well done and i didn’t stutter or trip over my words when reading your piece. The pieces that you chose to write about were really well done and I could get a good sense of what you were describing. Good job, nicely done.

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