Clyfford Still Review- Bruce Kenyon

Bruce Kenyon

Clyfford Still Review

Clyfford Still was born 1904 in North Dakota but quickly moved to Alberta, Canada for the remainder of his adolescence. Clifford lived on a farm with his intelligent parents, however; his dad was said to be very formal and even cold to Clifford. When he was fifteen Clyfford started teaching himself to paint. He painted images from magazines that his parents had, and was able to develop his own realist style and painted the landscape of the open wheat fields, passing trains, and other sights from the open prairies of his environment.  His technique during this time, reminds me of Van Gogh, with his short brush strokes that add a motion and texture to the piece. With the colors he uses and the style of cross hatching with paint I got the sense that even from the beginning Clyfford’s work was more then aesthetic realism- it effectively portrayed feelings.  These landscape paintings demonstrated an appreciation for the beauty of the landscape, but also a kind of loneliness as the subjects in his work were usually machinery or just open space.

In America in 1924 the stock market crashed, there was a twenty five percent unemployment rate, dust bowls were tormenting American and Canadian prairies, and the period known as the Great Depression occurred. Still had been mastering the European realist style by studying famous art works, but now we see his art taking on more abstraction, which in effect is able to further the transfer of emotions. In one of his pictures we see two men with elongated arms and hands bent over picking wheat from the earth. One of the men has red hands that look like they could be bloody. Both faces are in shadow, and both have a grim and tired look. The men are wearing brightly colored shirts and are surrounded by this white light, which has a variety of layered colors revealed just above the men’s heads and backs. Around the white light there is a dark blue that matches the color of their jeans. The bright color shirts and denim jeans these two have on give a sense of comradely. The white light around them gives a sense of hope and success. The dark blue in the back along with the dark faces and uncomfortable posture give a sense of depression and hard times. Clyfford was representing what he felt about the times, a sense of hope even when times seem blue. In other works of his there is less optimism, and more dread, tiredness and frailty depicted. We start to see the faces of his subjects become more and more elongated; you can see the bones in all of his figures. In a couple paintings there is a man and a women side by side naked. Their faces are elongated, their skin color is a grey blue, their bones showing, their features all seem to be melting, and they are surrounded by a depressing blue grey color. They seem over worked and tired. “In an interview still described vivid memories of “arms bloodied to the elbows from shucking wheat” and “men and machines ripping a meager living from the thin top soil.” He obviously felt empathy for the hard all hard working countrymen who suffered the hurt from the natural disasters and economic breakdowns of the times. As time went on and America and Canada started recovering and from the last decade of disasters and war, Stills work became more and more abstract.

We start to see the figures in his paintings loose more and more of their natural form. At the same time, the space around the missing features became texturized abstract shapes, lines, and colors. In many of these paintings the rib cage is identifiable due to the fact that when looking at his earlier work we see the rib cage so often exposed and depicted. In one for the pieces I particularly liked, we see a dark brown outline of part of a figure sitting on something. Once I had the awareness of where his art was coming from, the figure is more identifiable. There lines reminiscent of an elongated head, a bony shoulder, a couple ribs, and a leg. The texture and color in this piece are really amazing. Using grey, blue, brown, light, red and some yellow, we see the bottom half and left side of the figure covered in this dark complex shadow. Where the face would be is an inferred line, but the space is a bright white that seems to be poring into the figure from the top right side of the painting. I think this picture carries one of Stills most prominent themes, that is the duality and interplay of light and dark, and the awareness of the power of this light to overcome darkness. Clyfford said “These are not paintings in the usual sense; they are life and death merging in a fearful union.” In this painting there is also a little bit of bright yellow corner of a circle shape, outlined in bright red. I think the use of these bright colors red and yellow, like in the prairie labor paintings he did previously, is Stills way of connecting one to another, the idea of.compassion and empathy

In 1946 still did his first solo exhibit in New York, the art capital of America, and in the 50’s still moved to New York to be a part of Americas emergence of its first unique art style- Abstract Expressionism. Clyfford started working with huge canvases- some around fifteen by twenty feet. The figures became less and less human, and natural shapes retreated from this work.  “By 1941 space and figures in my canvases had been resolved into a total psychic entity, freeing me from the limitations of each.“ When I was viewing these huge paintings the energy from the vivid colors, the dedication, and free flowing consciousness that had been put into theses works and from really blew me away. It was interesting to see that in several of these paintings that were 98% covered in color and texture, there usually was a strip down the left side of the painting that was left uncolored, or was colored something that clashes with the rest of the painting. Still said “it’s intolerable to be stopped by a frames edge,” and I think this was his way of implying that he was depicting and transferring energy that went beyond his canvases. One of his fully abstract paintings I like looked from a distance to be a boring all black color fields. However, when I got closer to it I could see multiple shapes that were a little lighter shade of black, and also were accentuated by areas of gloss on the painting. There also were a few small strokes of red in the painting. Apart from being aesthetically a real cool piece, the idea that you have to get close to something to appreciate its beauty was conveyed elegantly.

This museum was chosen from a large number of other potential locations and is quite amazing. Still wanted his work to be looked and studied by intellectual people. The ability to look at a man’s life works in progression puts every piece into perspective and gives you a greater sense of the artist’s intention. In this case Still beautifully progressed from realism and landscape into more and more abstract renditions of emotion and energy through space and untraditional shapes. 

4 Responses

  1. An excellent description and critique of the artist and his art rendered in a a mature and flowing literary composition. This abstract covers a lot of ground with a colorful composition of historical fact and artistic imagination which leaves the reader with a sense of reverence and respect for the life and work of an artist who utilized his personal experiences and intuitive instincts to transcend the boundaries of historical artistic expression. Well done! (annelysse eggold)

  2. Your paper is very well written! You gave a lot of historical background, which really helped the progression of the essay. The interpretations of the work were also good; a mixing of technical description and analyses of the content. If I had to give any constructive criticism, I would alter the first paragraph because it seemed to sound too much like a biography, and it seemed to jump into it too soon.

  3. Hey Bruce Great job on your paper, good incorporation of History and your critique of the art itself. The history you gave made it easy to understand the time frame in which Still painted his major works in, and someone that has never seen the work them selves could follow what you have painted here.

  4. Bruce, you did an amazing job describing Clifford Stills work. I recognized the artwork you chose from the museum. I also liked your description and awareness of the change of art forms and what he was trying to get across. You defiantly added new facts to as well as information from the video.

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