Clyfford Still by Sonya Rivera

Clyfford Still is generally regarded as a master of his time, specifically a leader and founder of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the United States.

Though many artists strive to impact their surrounding world, not all have the drive and passion to fully generate such a task. Through very articulated phases of his life, Still was able to create a new style of art in an entirely different approach of which the society he lived in thought to be appropriate. Yet he stood firm in his beliefs, that art periods restrained an artist. Above all else, Still wanted to be free to express himself.

Many of Still’s beliefs, particularly those reflected in his work, came from the harsh realities embedded in his upbringing. Still was born in 1904 in North Dakota, yet soon afterwards his Canadian parents moved their family to Spokane, Washington. It was there, in the harsh farm land that Clyfford grew up, that he developed certain mentalities directly correlating to his life there. He was quite taken with the hardships of people involved in farm life, particularly the tough labor and emotions caused by it.

As a child, Still was already interested in painting, and as he grew older, it was evident that he could paint very well. He began his career painting in a highly representational style with great accuracy, on average-sized canvases. His work reflected his childhood surroundings, with subjects such as people, buildings, tools, and machinery. In the 1930s, the artist began to develop a slightly more abstract style, enabling the dominant figures present in his work to act as metaphors. Many of these metaphors are believed to have originated from good and evil, with an almost constant concentration on two images in his work. Instead of clean cut, obvious figures, Still elongated and exaggerated certain features of things, particularly human body parts. The men became very haggard and bony, while the women became bloated in appearance. Both genders were featured with somewhat long, miserable faces, as if stretched. Their hands became very disproportionate to their bodies, specifically very large, signifying the strain on the body of such hard work on a farm. Pain is a pronounced emotion, depicted in red. It is almost as if the person in the painting is alive, and the audience can feel the pulsing of such a sore and aching hand reaching out. This was a dominant example of the realities of the human condition, in particular of hard labor for means of survival. The background of most of his early paintings consisted of flat landscapes similar to those from his childhood, a subtle personal yet emotional touch to his work.

The painting PH-297, done in 1938, is an example of this period in Still’s career. It stays true to his incorporation of two figures, as well as the tranquil landscape in the background. The two figures present are very organic-looking, with the dominant object on the canvas being a large brown structure. It is very tall and fluid, with both the deep brown color and brush strokes weaving it to the grounded surface in the painting, presumably the earth. The figure behind it slightly stands out in contrast to the dark tones of the forward object, since it is very light-colored, seemingly white. It is much shorter than the brown object, and seems to be slightly out of place. It does slightly blend in with the background colors of the sky, which are very tranquil and light, giving the foreboding objects a less daunting tone.

The paintings of this part of Still’s career are not fully representational, for at first glance one would not automatically know what certain objects are. In this particular painting, the figures are presumed to be rock formations. They may have been stretched, exaggerated, and personified to both provoke or describe an emotion felt by Still. One may believe these objects to be extraterrestrial beings, ghostly figures, or perhaps a sort of animal. However, it has been noted that many of Still’s inspirations came from objects that he had previously seen, or even those that had an impact on him. He was believed to focus on details from certain pictures and then in the future reinterpret them in a different manner than before. The figures present in PH- 297 may have been from previous works, yet reevaluated by Still in order to capture a different emotion.

While viewing the painting, an eerie feeling is dominant at first. This is most likely the case due to being faced with the unknown, for not knowing what exactly these figures are supposed to represent. The dark brown figure may be a distorted human, perhaps, one in agony and utter pain. The white figure may act as a support to the brown figure, share its misery, or perhaps be the bringer of such discomfort. However, once letting the eye take in the background colors of pinks, blues, and whites, a different emotion surges throughout. Instead of fear and skepticism, the painting as a whole radiates a sort of sadness through beauty.

The unfortunate events that occurred during Clyfford Still’s lifetime, such as the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, were reflected in his work. Particularly, the emotions he felt, the struggles he faced, and his opinions of humankind. The entire Abstract Expressionist movement was founded on such events, in efforts to become free from artistic boundaries. Clyfford Still, after such events, began to celebrate life and death, with an increase in ragged and nonfigurative forms in 1943. He began to use very dark colors and tones, giving his paintings a certain edge. Still believed that verticality represented life, while horizontality depicted death in every sense. This is also the period in which he began to incorporate the “all over” characteristic of Abstract Expressionism, making full use of the canvas and drawing the eye to every corner with subtle bursts of color and texture.

The painting PH-118, done in 1947, is an example of this period in Still’s career. It is very significant since it demonstrates his mastered use of the bare canvas as an expressive device. Upon first glance of the painting, the black, white, and yellow shapes are very dominant. The black is what stands out the most, since it contrasts to the off-white color of the canvas. Figures are seemingly made out from the blunt colors, emerging from very angular and textured paint strokes, creating a sort of depth to the composition. The black figure is lean and long, stretching throughout the entire painting, eventually drawing attention to a very mild red splash of color in the upper left side. The highly texturized yellow is present in the right side of the painting and seems to be grounding the black. A larger and shapely white figure exists on the bottom left corner, seeming to stretch up to the black figure. Many small splashes of white dance across the rest of the canvas, drawing the eye around the painting perhaps to provide balance.

The emotion conveyed in this painting is very strong. It seems that the underlying figures that Still used are more dominant in the particular work, yet at the same time it seems that the figures are meant to be interpreted on individual terms, subject to personal reactions. One may see two dancers, others several birds, while others may only see paint scattered throughout the canvas. When viewing this painting, I personally saw a dark angel rising, the red signifying energy pulling the figure upwards from Hell, while an angel attempts to keep the other grounded. However, Still did not expect for his work to be understood. His work was meant to be abstract, his own version of an autobiography.

Toward the later years of his career, particularly after 1950, Still lightened his textures, enhanced his colors, and defined his areas more clearly. He also began working with enormous canvases to convey monumentality and boundlessness. It became particularly important to view his art up close, to feel the massive dimensions closing around oneself. As with many other Abstract Expressionist painters, the art was produced to experience physically, therefore enormous canvases were imperative.

One such painting is PH-1034, done in 1973. Though it is not one of his largest paintings, it is still extremely large compared to his earlier works. This painting first catches the eye with its vibrant red color which inhabits almost two-thirds of the canvas. The bottom consists of a sweeping black motion which seems to reach upwards towards the long, textured strokes of orange and yellow in the upper half of the painting. As with many of his paintings, unexpected strokes of color make appearances throughout the perimeter of the canvas, such as the rich green in the bottom right corner and vivid yellow in the bottom center. This painting is not as texturized as the previously mentioned painting, instead creating sweeping motions that emphasize movement towards the center of the painting. Here, the eye rests on two black angular shapes which balance the art in a sort of tranquil manner.

Still was not painting for representation at this point, but instead painted for the art of painting. It was a celebration of the material that liberated him as an artist, that would not tie him to a history that he did not want to belong to. Instead, Still was free to create his own history, to let his art tell his story as was intended.

One Response

  1. The descriptions and analysis of Still’s early works was very insightful and I particularly liked your description of the background and there effect on the overall painting. When originally viewing the paintings I was more focused on the distorted images and did not register much of the background. I really related to your descriptions of the feelings associated with the various paintings, and overall, this was a very interesting paper.

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