Clyfford Still

Morgan Kairey

January 30, 2012

Contemporary Art

Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still is studied as one of the most essential and noteworthy artists of the 20th century.  Still became a crucial figure in a continuing art movement, known as abstract expressionism.  This movement, and the artist involved, aided to institute the United States as a cultural frontrunner following World War II.

At the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Still filled the place, from wall to wall.  Downstairs showed off his extensive book collection, his paints, painting knives, and the other paintings that they had in storage.  Upstairs at the museum, rooms upon rooms were filled with his works.  I thought the lighting, presentation, and placement of all of his paintings really complimented his works.

Clyfford Still was born on November 30th, 1904 in North Dakota.  He grew up on a farm, by a farming family, which is depicted through many of his early works.  Still started creating his art right towards the end of World War II, which was a dark time for the country.  His early work seemed to be very dark.  Some of his first works shown in the museum were sketches, and detailed drawings, some abstract but many that weren’t.  One that stuck out to me was a charcoal drawing that he did of a skull.  I thought it was very different from many of his other works.  I found it interesting because when I think of Clyfford Still, this is not what I imagine.  In 1937 many of his works were very dark and gave off a nightmarish quality.  His human forms turned into odd creatures.  In this time in his painting, I really disliked the paintings of the nudes and skeleton like people.

In the early 1940’s, Still had reached a radical abstraction.  Still had started to use lines and shapes beyond what people had seen them as before.  Still had started the movement of abstract expressionism well before Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, or Willem de Kooning.  During this time, I really admired one of his paintings, 1994-N-No. 1 [PH-235].  It was made near the end of World War II.  It was one of the first paintings to contain a “dramatic image, gestural technique, flattened space, and monumental scale.”  I really love the bursts of color and the dramatic lines.

From 1946 to mid 1950, Still returned to the bay area.  During this time, his paintings gained new power with their lively colors, rough shapes, and thick surfaces.   In the 1950’s, Still decided to sever all ties with museums, galleries and showrooms.  He stopped displaying his work to the public and devoted his life to making art.

When Still decided to move back to New York, his art increased dramatically, but he still sought for his paintings to overwhelm the audience’s field of vision.  His jagged shapes produced by enormous fields of bold color also mark his works of the 50’s.  Areas of bare canvas also take on a larger role.  This role suggests that Still believed “emptiness could be as expressive as densely painted areas.”   One of his paintings that intrigued me with its areas of bare canvas was PH-118, 1947.  The shapes of color intrigued me also but it was the spaces of canvas in between the color that really got me interested.

When Still died in 1980, his work contained over 2400 pieces of art and most of it had never been viewed by the public before.  He wrote in his will that when he passed, he wanted his works to be shown in an American city that would agree to construct and maintain a long-lasting museum solely for his works of art.

I really enjoyed the Clyfford Still Museum and Still’s works.  The extreme differences between his paintings and his time pieces are so interesting.  I loved the overwhelming size of his paintings.  They took my breath away, and I felt engulfed in the painting.   Still created a movement of art that changed the world.

One Response

  1. I am really glad that you brought up Still’s charcoal drawing of the skull! I think this piece was significant and carries a strong relation to Still’s paintings. The skull is a symbol of “memento mori” and represents the transience of life. This theme is frequently conveyed in Still’s paintings. Once Still began his Color Field paintings it is clear that he is fascinated by life and death, and juxtaposes the two states often. Life is represented by what Still calls “lifelines” or Color Fields invaded by vertical shapes, and horizontal lines allude to death.

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