Clyfford Still paper

Experiencing Clyfford Still’s Work in Person

The first thing that stood out to me was not actually one of his paintings. Before entering the main part of the museum, I noticed Still’s paints and palette knives set out in a display case. This was interesting to me because a lot of painters use a palette knife to compliment work done with a brush. I get the impression from Still’s use of thick paint and general shapes that he uses a brush very infrequently, if at all. It is a different process to begin with, and there is a lot of the painting left up to the way the paint spreads. This is interesting, because it is more a process of letting the color blend and letting the paint build up thick texture on its own, thus giving the painting the freedom to somewhat be the way it wants to be. Clyfford Still’s earliest work started out much like any painter’s: observed studies of figure, color and composition. The first pieces in the show are a few landscapes, an observational painting of rocks and plants, and a self portrait. Each of these looked observed and seemed to be an attempt at representing what was seen without any artistic changes. The only piece that seemed out of place was the self portrait. Although his skin, coat and hair seemed all completely observed, the his hands seemed several inches too big in each direction. It is unclear whether he perceived himself to have large hands, or if the large hands were meant to represent something that he was feeling. Later on, as his work approaches surrealism, the hands of the people in his paintings get larger and larger. It would be interesting to know if he painted his self portrait with enormous hands to elude to the fact that he would be adding that into his work later on. Or perhaps he truly did have abnormally large hands.

The next section contained works which were well within the realms of surrealism and abstraction. The human forms become more and more exaggerated, and their poses become less organic and seem to be mimicking the landscape behind them. A few rooms later, the human forms becomes a series of vertical lines and shapes, and lose all of their human-like qualities. Faces meld with backgrounds, and as the human form becomes more simplified and abstracted, the barrier between form and background all but vanishes. Just before the section containing his color field work, there is one painting which was especially captivating, where the human form has been turned into nothing but strange geometric shapes, yet still very much represents a human. The color palette of this work is an especially striking blend of earth tones and black, with a few careful streaks of each primary color. This piece seems to be where his work took a turn toward complete abstraction with no subject, yet the figure still exists somewhere in the painting.

The section which followed contained a series of color field works. The earlier works are closer to a more standard painting size, and the shapes are closer together with more jagged connective edges. Many colors are used and all of the colors have clear boundaries between them. As time went on, his works became bigger in size, and the number of colors, as well as the density of shapes began to decrease. Shapes became more loose, colors began to vanish from his work, and the pieces began to become extremely massive, and more beautiful because of their size. There are a few enormous works where a majority of paint is one color, and only a few other streaks of color peek out. One painting that I found especially interesting in this way was a wall-sized painting with a rich blue color covering most of the piece. A vertical streak of orange cuts the painting into two pieces, and it looks as if a light is almost trapped behind a break in the blue. Also, another thing about his color field paintings that was unexpected was the number of different shades within the solid colors. From several feet away, the blue in the painting I just described, for example, looked completely matte. However, upon closer inspection, it became apparent that the blue contained many different shades of blue and navy blue, as well as portions of violet.

Several of the color field works evoked strong emotion from me, and it was interesting to be forced to experience such a massive work with such brilliant and careful color. One piece that made me feel strongly was a piece that was painted mostly dark red and black. With its size, it was hard to not feel as if I had become a part of this piece, and I stood in front of it for quite some time, looking into all of the intricate layers of the paint. On the outside, the works seem extremely simple, but the closer I looked, the more I realized the number of layers of paint. Also the texture and thickness of his paint make for very interesting and unique work.

After the section of solid color field works, more shapes began to make their way he back into the work, but the shapes seen were often small compared to the rest of the piece, and seemed scarce. Many of the works seemed to become more and more simplified as time went on, and the final works were the most simple. The ways in which deep color palettes and dark imagery claimed Still’s earlier work were contrasted by his latest works which were mainly on white or light backgrounds with few colors added very carefully. The final paintings in the museum seemed much more simple and lighthearted than his earlier work. I wonder if something changed in Still’s life or thoughts that made him feel compelled to make lighter work. It is not to say that his later works were more elementary in any way, but they were less labored over and felt more loose and free.

The first piece that I thought was especially interesting for an analysis was “PH-343” (made in 1937). Still’s work by this time has taken a turn towards surrealism and abstraction, and the figure shown has lost most of its human qualities. It still has somewhat of a torso, ribs, hands, legs and a penis, but its face has disappeared into a series of shapes and colors. It is interesting to see how Still’s work slowly shifts from realistic depictions of human subject matter to living things being shown as merely vertical shapes. The color palette in this piece is also especially interesting to the piece, and the introduction of the primary colors yellow and red, but not blue, change the mood of this piece quite significantly. The shapes to the side of the figure look to be something like tools or machinery, but are painted as mere silhouettes and have less definition than the figure. There is a sadness to this piece, and the figure appears to be trapped within a block of red background. The crudeness of this piece as well as the use of black to outline each of the shapes adds to the overall mood as well.

The second piece that I wanted to talk about is PH-235 which was painted in the early 1940’s. Still’s work from this period took a turn towards complete abstraction and somewhat towards minimalism. This piece is almost completely layered with different shades of black, and only a few stark colors are painted throughout. The shape and harshness of the lines creates a very dark and harsh mood for the piece, and the combination of a dark background with red slashes through it makes me think of the canvas being cut or torn in some way. A couple of other colored shapes are shown throughout in teal, yellow and white, and each of them is painted with a sharp edge, like a slit or slash of some kind. It is also possible that the shapes are meant to look as if they are melting or dripping in some way. The lack of figure or clear subject in this painting marks a very important time in Still’s artistic development, and shows that his final style included much more abstraction than his previous works.

The last painting I would like to talk about is PH-929 which was painted in 1974. Painted later in Still’s life, this painting has somewhat of an organic quality to me. The black silhouettes remind me of leaves or shadows cast by trees or bushes. The piece has an interesting pulling effect, and it looked like the shapes were moving slightly, even though they were clearly still. All of Clyfford Still’s shapes have somewhat of a living quality to them, and they are unique to his work. Although many different artists have painted with abstract shapes, the way that the colors are edged in these works is specific to Clyfford Still. His work is such that you would know a Still painting when you saw one. That is definitely something that a great artist should strive for. Another interesting detail to this painting is the few hair-like streaks of color that seem to be moving through and interacting with the painting. They flow both with the grain of the black silhouettes and against it. They look to me like threads which are peeking through the painting, and make this piece somewhat lively even though the main palette is black and white.

I was happy to see his works in person, and I feel that with many great works of art, a photograph on the internet is not a good representation of what the work is actually like. Still’s work needs to be experienced in order to be enjoyed.




3 Responses

  1. I thought your observation of the hands was interesting and I couldn’t resist going back and taking a look at his self portrait! Considering that he would later use the elongated hands as a symbol for the hard work encountered by rural farmers, its a very interesting comparison. Maybe he was trying to emphasize his own hard work by portraying himself with strong, capable hands, we’ll never truly know.

  2. I had a similar experience while observing the gigantic abstract canvases at this museum. The combination of vibrant color and massive size was breathtaking, and at times, a bit overwhelming. I appreciate your reflection of the layers of paint in Still’s pieces; the recognition of the individual strokes, and the piece as a whole, helped me to attach a much deeper feeling to the paintings, as well aided me in sorting out the different and specific levels of each piece.

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