Clyfford Still Paper

Clyfford Still was an American artist born in 1904, in South Dakota. In Still’s seventy-five years, he accomplished much in the name of painting, including stylizing an era, instruction, and personal satisfaction. Still began painting at an early age and exhibited a portrait savvy style that would help support him financially upon his move to the San Fransisco area preceding World War 2. Growing up between South Dakota, Southern Alberta, and Eastern Washington, Clyfford was exposed to dramatic landscapes , lifestyle, and labor that I believe would continually influence his work.

Born just after the turn of the twentieth century,  Still was exposed to a childhood resembling the harsh prairie life romanticized by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  His childhood was characterized as one where he was favored by his mother and worked to the bone as “free labor” by his father. His sympathetic mother catered to his culturing, making sure he had reading material and eventually paint. Still was self taught in the subjects of philosophy, art and classical music. Under the direction of his father, he worked the fields . His labors taxing in both energy and blood, can be seen in his early works. In his productions from approximately 1935-1940 one can see the totality of physical, mental, and spiritual exhaustion from day after day of taxing field labor through the bloody, bent over, weakened forms. It might argue however, that the field work forged Still, into the passionate hard working man he was described to be. Also, it might be believe that the process of growth, and cultivation witnessed by him year to year was a source of temperament and inspiration. The identity of life with strong vertical line was learned from the cyclic processing of wheat and exhaustive work exhibited in the wheat fields of Still’s youth. Furthermore, the appreciation of color and landscape could have no other root.

At the age of fifteen, Still began painting and  showcased immense talent in portraiture and landscape. Still admired works by impressionists painters, specifically Picasso, and Van Gogh; One might identify Picasso (Guernica) with Still’s figures as they relate to a process of abstraction, and his early landscapes with that of Van Gogh. In “Between the Quick and the Dead” Anfam compares Still’s self portrait with that of Eugene Delacroix, an French artist who shattered the Romantic age, and introduced impressionistic color tendencies, and style.

Still exhibited a rich history of formal instruction, having taught at Washington State University, The California School of Fine Arts (San Francisco Art Institute), and the Virginia Commonwealth University. During his summer leave from San Francisco, Still journeyed to New York to maintain a role as a prominent figure in the Abstract Impressionist movement.  As time passed, his paintings developed into more abstracted pieces, and Still began to embrace process more. After the 1950’s following his departure from  the commercial art world proper, He and his second wife Patricia, moved to a farm in Maryland. It could be offered that in Maryland,  Still quit pursuing painting as a familiar activity, and began devotion to a spiritual practice.

At the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, I observed a spectrum of the artists paintings spanning the course of his artistic career. These works exhibited the development and interest of the artist. The museum staff has ordered the works by location produced, and time frame as a secondary classification. One can see that Still began his career interested in the life processes of the field and its cohorts, that Still was employed as a ship maker during the industrial revolution of World War 2, and finally was engaged in a ground breaking art movement followed by a quest for enlightenment near the end of his life, when his mature style was realized.

The first piece that drew me in was PH-45 created in 1925, when Still was 21 years old. This painting is reminiscent of a still life of a fruit bowl when examined from far away. One cannot quite tell how large the actual model or idea was. The flora, an assortment of shrubs or pulp trees, surrounding the rock pile could be taken for woody plants mere inches tall in the real world, or monumental trees just breaching the hundred foot mark. The rocks bear no testament to their actual size. Are they a pile of stones, or a massif suited for climbing and adventure?  Upon close examination, one sees that the contours of the stones are a conglomerate assemblage of colorful streaks: a chaotic river of color up close but from a distance a compilation of depth and beauty. One can clearly see the influence of Van Gogh’s landscapes in the construction of the composition.  I found myself wondering if the scene was from Mars, or a foreign sea floor from past epochs. Perhaps the ocean is right around the corner of the hinted black and mysterious cliffs. The earthy blues and greens grounded the image firmly, making it less whimsical and firmly set for a subject so heavy and ominous like a rock formation.

The second work that I spoke to me was PH-76 from 1935. In this painting six figures are depicted sitting down. I saw beat individuals, worked to exhaustion. It seems to be a family, or a group forged by times of intense labor and doubt in the fields. Every single member is beyond tired from the drawn out days of hard work. All of the figures exhibit bloodied hands, and abstracted elongated body parts perhaps emphasized to testify to their merit and necessity. The figures exhibit wet hair, and slumped posture, with no structural integrity. This painting reminds me of the empathy Still must have felt with the figures and feelings he created and exchanged with the work. The individuals all hold on to something; fruit, possessions, each other, or even themselves. Perhaps this is a speaks to remind them and the viewers of sanity, and stability. A reason for work. Love, comradely, or  that there is fruit to labor. The basic dark earth tones taken from the field and used to create the figures are interrupted by dried blood, and a golden explosion from the head of the front most figure, a female. One can see a tool in the foreground, and this helps testify to the depth of the painting. It has not yet been completely flattened, and the figure maintains a large presence in the work. I wonder if the scene is constructed beside the fields of wheat, or in a barn, creating separation and temporary relief for the characters. This and other  paintings from this time period by Clyfford remind me of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. It reminisces of the passion and frustration paintings from the Mid-West of the time period strove to capture. The utter exhaustion from combating nature’s resistance to being groomed and conquered. It reminds me that what we have and work for is each other.

The final work I would like to discuss is PH-1049 from 1977. The work is a large yet not overwhelming canvas that embodies Still’s Color-field Painting. In the work one can observe Still’s departure from and abandonment of subject matter, and the embracement of painting itself. In this painting, Still has abandoned his hand and embraced the freedom that an empty canvas has come to represent for him. He is open to gestural surrender and no action is withheld, however there is no need for him overwork the canvas. Simplicity is all encompassing. The yellow and red coloring are auspicious, perhaps indicating transcendence. The free gesture hints at upward movement, perhaps relating to the spiritual energy common throughout Still’s works. Does the paint represents figures,  primal life force, or anything at all? The composition is very flat, yet maintains great depth via the texture and method of application. It is filled with life and the bright colors are bursting with it. There is no direct motion, rather the motion exists in its lack thereof. Freedom is maintained, but not captured. Perhaps Still has found his enlightenment.

Clyfford Still forged a legacy, and helped develop  a distinct American style known as Abstract Expressionism. Although initially revolutionary, Still’s works have become common place, and incredibly influential in contemporary painting. Many look to Still as a leader and guide to charge a mundane practice in to the embodiment of freedom. Still never directly perused the fame he is awarded today. Through the realized  journey from  rolling, deep landscapes to flat, charged, energetic representations, he pursued passionate painting; and what I admire most about Still is his transcendent desire to express emotion through process.



One Response

  1. Nate, I think you did a wonderful job gathering background information on Still. This really helps the introduction of your paper to be much stronger. However, I would suggest that you link pictures to your paper to give the reader a more direct way of viewing the pieces you are discussing.

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