Clyfford Still, by Susan Walicki

Susan Walicki
Clyfford Still
The work of Clyfford Still embodies a variety of pieces that display his thought progress and development as an artist from pieces that exhibit all the formal qualities of a classically trained artist to mural sized paintings that incite sublimity.
The Clyfford Still museum exhibit displays the transformation of this spectacular artist and his ability to tinker with viewers’ emotions. His earlier works are painted from a perspective of personal experience that makes the viewer empathize for tragic farm hands and people suffering through the great depression. His later works writhe and radiate color and energy that left me in a hypnotic state staring. The exhibit shows the development of ideas and progression of thought that lead to Still’s famous Abstract Expressionistic paintings.
Clyfford Still’s work of the 1920’s and early thirties displays scenes of his upbringing in Alberta Canada. Many of these scenes combine the stark landscapes with the mechanical influence of the age. Still painted landscapes that portray the “bigness, the drama of the land, the men and the machines.”(p22) Inspired by the skies and landscapes, Still developed a color palate sensitive to the subtle differences within the Canadian landscape. These landscapes begin to portray an abstraction he later develops in their vertical compositions and use of a palate knife to apply color. Other works painted in the nineteen thirties depict scenes of the difficult times of the Great Depression. Being a part of this struggling group of people, Still was able to create works that reflected the hardship and exhaustion of the era through his personal interpretation of the figure. His elongated forms with bleak faces and articulated skeletal strictures blend in value with their environment and convey the fatigue of economic hardship. These works display the combat of man and nature in the upkeep of farmland. These desolate figures express a time when “existence had become marginal, an everyday hell.”(p22) These early pieces of Clyfford Still use the iconography of nature by transforming the objective qualities of the environment to create a subjective metaphor of verticality, of life.
Still’s development of the figure around 1935 displayed a distortion of the human form in a recognizable yet nightmarish way. His depictions of figures retain the recognizable features of humans, but show the inner workings. His paintings reveal what lies beneath the surface through implications of the inner musculature and the inner emotion of his subjects. “One of the most unpleasant of sensations is experienced when we observe abnormalities in familiar objects.” Using the human figure as an object the viewer is most familiar with, Still’s paintings “read not just as a reckoning with painful private feelings but also as a bid to break apart canonical norms.”(p26) These figural works retain distinguishable volumes, but distort form and limbs into more vertical and interweaving parts. The color palate in these pieces becomes darker and the subjects blend with the background where the figures appear as if they are being absorbed by their environment. “His visualization of the crisis plunges the pastoral into a dystopian of limbs, blindness, spent matter. The wasted, bony, or petrified spooks are the old Jeffersonian idyll of the yeoman farmer not in extremis.”(p 28) The monstrous or “abhuman” images Still was creating, assimilated him as a painted of the American Gothic.
Still’s PH-76 painted in 1935 depicts an image of six figures painted in brown and beige hues similar to the color of the background, the lines bordering the forms of the figures blend into one another, blurring the definition from one figure to the next. Saturated red tones seem to seep from fingertip to elbow of many of the figures; and their elongated faces, distorted bodies, gaunt limbs, and faded eyes portray a dismal life of the characters in the painting.
Stills work in the late thirties and before 1943 show the beginning of an abstraction of the human figure into an unrecognizable form. A figure is still present in many of these pieces, but a human figure is undistinguishable. The forms in these pieces could be defined as some sort of figure in their verticality, distinction from the background, and implied volume. During this period Still’s human figures are replaced by creature-like subjects staring against nocturnal backgrounds in his paintings.
During the early 1940s Clifford Still began abstracting searching for transcendence in his work through an elevated unity of technique, color and form. “I never wanted color to be color; I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit.” During this time period in Still’s work the figures began to disappear into the background and shred into spatial fields. “Colors became texture, surfaces implied light or its extinction, hands changed to claws, ciphers, swathes of pigment. Machinery and farm implements meld with the body. Forms split, reunite, scatter, and are echoed.” (p29) This period marks Clyfford Still’s work as Abstract Expressionism. These pieces lack any definable forms, figures, depth, or classical spatial composition. These pieces introduce an overall composition without a focus or any hierarchy of images guiding the viewer’s eye. The pieces created during this time period are painted with heavy textured layers of paint and depth through different reflective and absorbent (of light) surfaces with colored accents that appear to tear and ignite through the special plane. He used the shapes and lines he formerly used to define the figure and “freed them from their representational origins.”
Moving into the late forties and fifties, Still’s work gained presence and energy in jagged edges and vibrant color combinations. During this period the movement and color in his work flourished in a way that embodied explosive surfaces and proved a new viewing experience. He moved from creating work that embodied “the overtones of man’s struggle against and fusing with nature” to a vision and “new hypothesis in experience or sensibility…explosive forces.” This new work stripped away the viewers’ ability to comprehend any tangible form and allows the viewer to experience a more primitive sensation that affects the mind through a sensual experience rather than through an empathetic association with a subject. The application of paint done with a palate knife on these pieces achieves a movement and shredding energy in the edges of color planes and surface texture into “impasto or scars that materialize.”(p40) The color combination and contrast in these pictures creates an effect that allows swatches of color to seem to glow and radiate light. Other surfaces and line quality create a sensation of being absorbed into an abyss. “It is as if something hidden were coming to light, a process visualized by the undertow of emergence and concealment. Surfaces congeal, tear, and even seem to bleed, or… spread themselves laterally to blot the backlighting at their sides.”(p 40)

PH 972, 1959 hangs mural sized with hues of grey, maroon, and ochre shredding through a glowing tangerine orange field. The vertical grey slash left of the center creates a space that the viewer seems to recede into when standing close as rigid fields of color radiate light around. The bight colors in bold and active interaction exude energy, yet the contrast of the bright orange paired with the saturated maroon and grey tones create a composition that is static and hypnotic in it’s vastness.
Still’s abstraction seeks a reaction from the viewer that self-reflective and provokes an appreciation for life. “I want the spectator to be reassured that something he values within himself has been touched and found a kind of correspondence. That being alive…is worth the labor.” Still’s work during the seventies transcends this self-reflection and achieves an effect that takes the viewer to the sublime. Pieces such as PH-960, painted during the 1970s, appear to be driven by a force within the piece. Still transforms this canvas into a piece that appears more atmospheric and airy than tangible. The majority of the canvas is left raw so the white paint applied in a wind blown pattern appears to float from the space in the cream colored canvas surrounded by oil stains that seeped from the paint. These white marks are accompanied by primary blues, reds, and yellows accented with tones that give the marks special depth within themselves. The overall composition of this piece and its size suggests motion from within the canvas that reaches and surrounds the viewer in a euphoric atmosphere. These later works confront the viewer with a feeling greater than ones’ self, a feeling of fear ,anxiousness and awe driven by an invisible force within the painting.
Clifford Still photos

One Response

  1. Susan, I really enjoyed reading your paper, and honestly didn’t find any flaws except formatting. It would be easier to read with indentations. Otherwise, I found your descriptions to be quite captivating, and appreciate your use of quotations- I wish I would’ve used some! You seem to have a very strong understanding of Clyfford Still, and conveyed it in a fluid and engaging way. Good job! :)

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