Clyfford Still

Camille Paley

Clyfford Still Paper

Before enrolling in this class I had never heard of Clyfford Still. Through visiting his museum and learning about his life and artistic methods I can now say that I have a great appreciation for his work and his contribution to the history of art. The evolution of his style and the shear magnitude of the number of pieces Still has created is remarkable. I am very impressed that Still did not emerge from the New York art scene but still paved the way for Abstract Expressionism and influenced many modern artists.

I honestly can say that visiting the recently opened Clyfford Still museum in Denver was an experience that is unmatched to any formal art setting I have witnessed before. The white and grey minimalist style building really let Still’s pieces take center stage and set the tone for the importance of his work. One of the most enticing things to encounter was being able to peak into the room on the first floor where they were restoring Still’s work. It is amazing to think that the city of Denver has been privileged enough to obtain 825 of Still’s paintings and 1575 of his drawings.

Beyond the room where the work was in the process of being restored and sorted, there were numerous artifacts that were unveiled from the entirety of Still’s life. It was interesting to see the jars of bright pigments he used to create the highly diverse colors he utilized in his paintings. In addition there were articles, photos (such as the Irascibles), and letters Still had written. These archives, as well as the interactive computer screens that summarized Still’s life, were a helpful precursor to understanding his work.

From there I made my way upstairs where a portion of Still’s work was on display. Still was born on November 20, 1904. Still’s family were farmers and he spent his childhood engaging in difficult laborious tasks. His early work is a reflection of his surroundings. While most of his early paintings are obviously rooted in figuration, an Impressionistic style is showcased in his work. The way he used his palette knife and bold colors to depict desolate landscapes conveys a strong emotional pull.

As the Great Depression came to a head and rural families faced great turmoil, an unprecedented change can be seen in Still’s paintings. His figures became more abstracted and he turned to austere subject matter. An example of this can been seen in the painting “PH-80” done in 1935. This piece shows a family of four after a long day of backbreaking labor. Their frail bodies and concave faces allude the scarceness of their resources and the demise of their crops. The man in the center of the painting is emaciated and his ribs protrude from his feeble chest and torso. The bright red pigment on the hands and limbs of the individuals allude to the pain-staking task of shucking wheat and engaging in monotonous physical labor. In background one can make out industrial devices that have lost their purposefulness with the downfall of the families crops. Perhaps the most haunting element of this painting is the ominous, dark horizon and colorless field that foretell an bleak and difficult future for this family.

One characteristic that sets this painting apart from Still’s previous works is the abstraction of the human figures. Still reduced the individuals’ features down to simplistic shapes and lines, which actually better coveys the destitute of the situation at play. The thick, dark brushstrokes that make up the sunken eyes, hollowed cheek bones, and solemn mouths add to the drama of the piece.

While Still portrayed mostly realistic figures throughout the 1930s, in the early 1940s his work evolved into almost complete abstraction. One piece that demonstrates this evolution is “A (PH-751)” from 1944. This painting is composed of dark colors such as brown, red, and grey. One can vaguely distinguish bone fragments, heavy machinery, handles, and buttons. The juxtaposition between the human features and the industrial elements presents the fear of the rural workforce at the time. During this time period machinery became more efficient because it was quick and cost effective. Therefore, it became unpractical to hire numerous individuals and many were left impoverished with out employment.

To me this painting shows the empathy Still felt for the families who were affected by these new, all-encompassing mechanisms. Still might have associated himself with this group of people because he was raised in a diligent farming family that worked extremely hard to make ends meet by engaging in laborious tasks.  I believe the painting conveys an intense feeling of grief and rejection and accurately expresses how this industrial equipment affected the people of the time.

By the late 1940s Still’s work was entirely abstracted and started to take on the characteristics that Still is best known for today. During this time period Still spent the majority of his time as a professor at the California School of Fine Arts. His artistic style developed significantly during his time at the institute and he became one of the leading figures of the movement Abstract Expressionism.

My favorite painting on display at the museum was “No. 1 (PH-385)” from 1949. This piece can be characterized as a Color Field painting because of the expansive blocks of pigment and the focus on color as the primary subject. The painting consists mostly of variations of red and black, which are now viewed as some of the primary colors Still utilized. The way the black forms cascade over the red background creates an appealing composition and element of depth. Still describes these formations as “lifelines.” “Lifelines” are Color Fields invaded by vertical shapes. Still believed that these shapes represented life and the human condition.

In addition to these innovations in style, Still began to solely paint on monumental canvases that would nearly take up an entire wall. These colossal paintings began to be seen as an environment, rather than a mere art object. Viewing this painting in person, I can readily say that standing in front of these works elicits a very strong emotional response. Being up-close to a piece this large in scale that carries so much energy is entirely overwhelming. While I cannot put into words what I felt in the presence of this painting, I know it was unique to any response a piece had elicited in me before.

I really enjoyed seeing the progression of Still’s work over the course of his fifty year career. While I was captivated by all of his paintings, I felt the strongest connection to his Color Field pieces. Witnessing the body and breadth of Still’s work was really inspiring. I hope to continue to visit the Clyfford Still museum to view the ongoing restoration of his art.

3 Responses

  1. I really liked your description and analysis of PH 80. I, too, was struck by the abstraction of figures in this piece and how they represent life on a farm. Particularly, I found your description of Still’s brushwork and use of color quite insightful. I like how you connected this to the overall meaning of the piece, as I had not previously considered it. The colors are so ominous and foreboding that they subconsciously affect the viewers experience when looking at the painting.
    Also, your take on PH 751 was very helpful in understanding the painting. Before reading your paper I had not realized how concerned Still was with the increasing industrialization of rural life. When viewing the painting one can observe Still’s own fears with what industrialization meant to farmers and their families. The weary figures and use of color set beside machinery really explains the imminence of industrialization to the point that the painting is haunting. Personally, I felt that these were some of his most evocative works but I do agree that the Colorfield works are the most important for their creativity and uniqueness.

  2. I really like your description about PH-751 i also looked at that painting but did not write about it. It was quite interesting. It definitely displayed how people were impoverished by making these figures change from human like to more of a creature. Also, when you talked about the juxtaposition, was very good.

    Great paper!

  3. I really enjoyed how you began your paper by describing your tour through the museum for the first time. I found that very inviting. I also love your descriptions of all of Still’s work, I think you were spot on and your wording is just beautiful. For example, your description of “PH-80”: “Their frail bodies and concave faces allude the scarceness of their resources and the demise of their crops. The man in the center of the painting is emaciated and his ribs protrude from his feeble chest and torso.” My only suggestion for improvement would be to maybe group your paragraphs together more I feel like some of them could be considered one paragraph anyway…

    wonderful job!!

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