Clyfford Still Paper- Katerina Kapodistrias

Katerina Kapodistrias

ARTH 3539


Clyfford Still Paper


Before this class I knew very little information about Clyfford Still. Cconsidered him being one of the most significant American artists in the twentieth century, he also most certainly blew me away just like so many people, with his mysterious but extraordinary in size and content works of art. It is quite remarkable how 94% of Clyfford Still’s collection, has never been inspected or seen by the community or art critics, and we are fortunate to have these authentic and original masterpieces to view in our city.

There was this TV screen in one of the rooms in which, they were screening just phrases and quotes that Clyfford Still has said. One of them that really stuck in my mind and immediately wrote down was this: “People should look at the work themselves and determine its meaning.” Which followed with this saying: “I never wanted color to be color, texture to be texture, images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit.” I found these words very powerful, while when I was viewing the paintings i automatically started to brain-storm and imagine what could this line/brush-stroke mean? What does it remind me of? What does it look like? He was so successful in his work, that even without this first quote above, people just like me, automatically started to wonder and place a meaning in the painting without anyone having to ask to do it. The way the brush-strokes are constructed and painted in Clyfford Still’s work even though abstract, they contain an aliveness where the eye can never stay in one place and wonders around the canvas but also in most of the paintings the paint looked like it expanded out of the canvas as if it was never ending.

The three paintings I decided to pick are slightly different from each other in the sense of size but also the color palette. I noticed that Clyfford Still had a specific color palette and had a preference in colors, that as I observed he used in almost every painting in the museum, even if it was in a little space on the top right of the canvas, but also how he used the bare canvas just as significant as a color would be. He started leaving the bare parts in the canvas earlier as well but in the 1940’s he used it as an expressive devise. He loved to create complex structures which time by time they expanded as a greater impact by the way they were positioned alongside the unpainted parts.

The first painting I picked to talk about was one of the later paintings Ph-929, dated 1974. I decided to write about this one, because I noticed it was one of the biggest scale paintings in the whole museum. The painting is mostly black strokes where when staring at it there is an implied movement going on very vividly, like the forms in the painting are in motion. From far away I thought they sort of looked like a cluster of feathers the way those black paint-strokes were colored. The part that was the most interesting to me in this painting was the very thin red line slightly curving at the bottom, that goes through the painting from the top till the bottom and it seems that on purpose he has covered a small part close to the middle because you can still see the texture of the red line up close underneath the black paint, which made me wonder. But also how a blue line just like the red one is coming in from the end of the left closer to the bottom side of the canvas but only goes to about one fifth of the canvas and then it just stops. In addition on the bottom right side of the canvas there is a same line but yellow and curved going towards the inside.

The other interesting aspect of this painting is that at the sides where the canvas ends all around there are little brush-strokes of colors like, light brown, blue, and light purple. We also see the concept of expressive qualities of empty space that Clyfford Still explores, because he believed that emptiness and void could be as expressive as thickly painted areas were, in which I mentioned above, but also the use of the color white on top of the blank spaces of the canvas where you have to go up close in order to notice it. With this painting being so large in scale and the structure of where he decided to locate the paint is quite intensely overwhelming in a fantastic way, like it is coming out of the canvas. It was one of the paintings that struck me the most. This painting was done six years before his death in 1980 where he was living in Maryland and was isolated from the outside world. I can see much emotion and bareness in this piece especially because of the extreme use of black.

The second painting I picked to talk about is again about the same scale as the Ph-929, in 1974, titled Ph-247 and dated in 1951. In the beginning of the 1950’s it was when Clyfford Still increased dramatically the scale in his paintings. With this painting I had a slightly different experience. The color palette he uses in this piece is mostly a mixture of different color tones of blue also mixed with black, in most of the area of the painting, but also blacker and a little orange. It sort of reminded me of the colors of an ocean or a field of some kind. This painting in comparison to the first one I talked about had more texture and smaller dabs of brush-strokes as I saw up close. There are still many similarities of course in the style and structure of the painting, for example we again see a light colored orange line cutting through the first half of the canvas from the top to the bottom, just like the red line in the first 1974 painting I talked about, but instead of curving it’s was a completely straight thin orange line. In the middle of the painting parallel to the thin orange line, there is a thick black vertical line. After looking at a couple of paintings the vertical lines started to get to me. Was he is some way separating different parts of his life in a way, since he was a person that lived in different places constantly? Did it have to do with some kind of experience in New York? Since that’s where he was when this painting was made. It still has me wondering.

Just like the 1974 painting i first talked about above, this one as well had a space of bare canvas just as many of his work. In this painting though it was in a very awkward and peculiar spot. On the very left of the canvas right where it begins there is another vertical line, but of the bare canvas, not starting from the very top of the canvas, but from about the one eighth and down. Also horizontally on the very bottom of the canvas there is a tiny line of bare canvas where the mixed tones of blues with black drip on top of the thin line of bare canvas where the canvas ends.

The third painting I decided to focus on and write about was the Ph-335 dated in the 1949. This was quite a painting. The first thing that I was drawn into in this painting was the intense bloody red color that Clyfford Still has decided to use. This bloody red is one of the colors that I think was used in many of his paintings in the museum. The power of the bloody red in combination with the darker red, black parts and the tiny parts of white and yellow that stand out, seem like this painting is going to explode. In this painting the eye never stays still since the moment you look at it. The composition is set in a boundless way where nothing seems to look flat but very much alive seeming like there is a constant movement flowing around. This painting is one piece of Clyfford Still that when you look at it, it seems as if the image extends and grows beyond the canvas, but also the black abstract forms of different sizes all around seem to be rising at the surface while it is expanding. It almost reminds me of a particular part of a map, where the black parts could islands and the red parts the ocean. Another interesting part n this painting is a little grey part of a dab of paint on the far top left corner. It is the only place where he had used this light tone of grey. This painting was done in San Francisco, where many more of his other paintings during this time while he was there were done with the same vibrant colors and many more. I noticed he had used less black and more yellows, jagged and “locked-in” shapes and forms as well as these deeply layered surfaces in which I talked about also in the first painting.

Clyfford Still is considered such a successful, influential and respected artist, considering that he started painting in a young age in a completely different way when he lived in the farms till the day he died in the 1980’s. His art pieces have taken such different directions since he started to paint where he painted more about the daily life, places, and people in labor in agricultural districts but also landscapes. He then again continued with farm scenes but in a more expressionistic style. After that along came a more abstract style in Clyfford Still work including anatomy but also the play of line, shapes and arrangement, where human became more like creatures and it was in the 1940’s where Still took the complete turn into his first abstractions where after a long way he ended with abstract expressionism while exploring empty space and vivid colors where like Still said “the figure stands behind all of my work.” All these twists and turns made Clyfford Still the thriving artist that he was.


1st) Ph-929, 1974

2nd) Ph-247, 1951

3rd) Ph-335, 1949



One Response

  1. Really nice paper, your descriptions of the three paintings is really well developed and I like how you used them in comparison to one another. I think it is interesting to question the vertical lines in many of the paintings. I like that you consider them as possible distinctions between time in Still life. this might also be applied to Stills notion of space, which is so split by verticals. Growing up on the prairie strong vertical forces, such as a big tree or barn, must have had an intense presence in the vertical low lying field landscape. also liked the video with quotes form Still, I think they are very useful in understanding his take on how to approach art.

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