Clyfford Still Paper

Elissa Buchalter

Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still was an incredibly crucial part of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the United States.  He was a key leader within this movement of action painting and color field painting.  His works consists of everything from landscape and figurative work to complete abstractions of form and color.   

Clyfford Still was very particular about his art and how he wanted it to be displayed and viewed. He was very adamant about having his work only displayed next to his own work; never alongside other artists.  After his death in 1980 Still’s paintings were locked up and put away in storage.  However, In his will he specified that he wanted his paintings to be given—not sold—to an American City that would agree to build a museum whose purpose was to exhibit Still’s artwork without any other artists or unnecessary distractions present.  The Clyfford Still Museum opened its doors in Denver, Colorado in November of 2011.  The museum was specifically built to house over 2,000 artworks from Still’s estate and to educate the public about his art making practices and work.  The museum itself is a beautifully designed concrete structure with perforated concrete ceilings, which allow for natural light to be filtered into every level and gallery.

Clyfford Still had a very long career as an artist and as a result his style developed and evolved over the span of his lifetime.  His earlier works consist mostly of depictions of farm life due to the fact that he grew up on a farm in Washington.  At the museum, some of the earliest sketches from Still were displayed.  For example, there was one particular figure study from 1935 that was beautifully rendered of a woman seated.  This study was highly realistic and anatomically correct.  The sketches that preceded this realistic rendition however began to become more and more abstract.  I particularly enjoyed Still’s contour drawings of the figures with elongated faces standing next to a pack of horses.  These drawings all still had an element of realism to them and the viewer can still obviously make out that these forms are meant to be depictions of humans.  I also found it interesting that his earlier sketches and studies were done mostly in pastel on paper and on a small scale.  This shows that he started out small and with simpler mediums and evolved to working on a larger than life scale with oil paints.

I found it particularly interesting that Still has such obvious skill in realism.  I think his figurative abstractions are so convincing and successful due to his knowledge of the human form.  I feel that in order to have an intriguing a convincing abstraction, the artist must know a lot about the source they are abstracting from.  The works in pastel that stuck out to me were PP-4 and PP-7.  Both of these were relatively small works, around 12X14 inches.  I found the long faced human forms to have a haunting air about them.  The way the pastel is applied to the paper suggests an intent and feeling.  Every mark on the paper seems quite deliberate and confident to me.  I find that these figurative forms from his earlier work to be extremely eerie and somewhat provoking.  The gaunt faces with the dark holes for eyes stare straight out at the viewer, almost inviting the viewer in.  There was a short description of Still’s work on the wall of the museum that described his figurative pieces as “ominous, nightmarish quality”.  I think this is the best way to describe these forms because they have such a dark feel about them.  The neutral earth toned color palette evokes a sense of humble sadness.

When I entered the second room of the gallery in the upstairs of the museum that painting that immediately struck a chord was PH-1079 from the year 1951.  This extremely large canvas appears at first glance to be just a large black square hung upon the wall.   The large black canvas stood out too me, because all the other large scale paintings within the room were flooded with color.  Once I examined this work up close, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the overwhelming void of darkness is actually a richly layered canvas full of hidden color and texture.  The paint has been layered and layered, and scraped away in expressive strokes.  This is not simply just a black large canvas, this work has so much depth to it and the black has been layered upon other colors, giving this work tonality and a sense of space within the frame of the canvas.

This painting is not quite as foreboding as some of Still’s earlier works, because there are playful swatches of color peeking out from underneath the dark paint.  There seems to be a somewhat playful dance happening with the paint due to the flecks of yellow paint peeking out here and there.  The bright orange stripe at the lower left edge of the canvas evokes a sense of playfulness as well.  It is almost as if the color is hiding from the viewer, like a shy child who peeks out secretly wanting to play.  To me, it feels like the dark is trying to sweep and consume all the color, but the orange is putting up a valiant fight.  The yellow seam down the center of the canvas appears to me as if the color is trying to split apart the canvas and burst out into the room.  This piece feels like there is so much potential and that is what the intriguing and exciting element about this work is.

A painting that was done later in Clyfford Still’s career as an artist was PH-929, which was done in 1974.  This is a huge canvas of swirling black and whit forms.  These abstract forms seem to appear as if dancing with one another across the picture plane and playing off of each other’s movements.  Still has included several thin lines of primary colors, which seem to be darting across the canvas, trying to dodge the swirling shapes of black and white.  I am intrigued by Still’s unexpected use of violet and yellow ochre paint peeking out at the bottom middle and left of the canvas.  This inclusion adds a subtle twist to the piece, which are overwhelmingly shades of black and white.  The way the paint has been applied to the canvas implies a sweeping, very confident and bold movement.  This piece is not hesitant whatsoever and has an air of confidence about it.

Personally, what I found intriguing about viewing the evolution of Still’s work was that I found that I had no desire to figure out what he was painting or what the abstractions meant.  I found that his work is a true form of art, in which the main focus is color interaction and the interaction of paint on canvas.  I found his work overall to be strikingly bold and graphic due to his strong color choices and combinations.  But to me, the most intriguing aspect of the growth and evolution of Clyfford Still’s artwork would have to be his move from depicting the tangible to the depiction of the intangible; his work seems to have captured an air or emotion that I cannot quite place my finger on.  He seems to have transcended into another realm and captured something that cannot quite be place.  To me, Clyfford Still’s work is so fascinating due to the enormous potential he has captured.  I feel as if Still has somehow painted the moment right before an outburst.  His work seems to be dancing and reading to leap off the wall at any moment.  I feel as if the colors on his canvas are just about to spring out into the open and interact within the environment of the real world.

Clyfford Still’s artwork has shifted dramatically over the span of his lifetime.  His early work consisted mainly of landscape and figurative work depicting the hardships of rural and farm life.  His work throughout the years slowly shifted into more and more abstract forms, eventually evolving and leading to complete and total abstraction.  His work evolved into the simple, yet complex, interactions of form and color within space.  His work to me creates everything from a sense of awe, to despair, to witty playfulness.  Clyfford Still was truly a visionary and changed the face of the art world greatly through his leading the way through the Abstract Expressionist movement.












One Response

  1. Elissa,
    I really enjoyed the level of detail that you use while describing your experiences with each painting of Still’s. I like also that you describe more than the required three pieces, but I would suggest that perhaps you can link more photographs to your page as a visual reference to get the reader’s mind on the same page as yours.

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