Clyfford Still -Kevin O’Hara

The Clyfford Still Museum offers a unique chance to for viewers to experience the life of one of the foremost abstract expressionist painters.  At Still’s own behest his large volume of artwork is allowed to unfold chronologically without the distraction of other artist’s works.  The audience follows Still from his humble upbringing on farms in the Northwest to Academia in California then to the height of the New York art scene in the 50s and finally returning to a quiet farm.  Throughout his life Still’s style evolves from realism and figurative work to one of the foremost abstract expressionists in history.  Still’s greatest works stand the test of time as colossal representations of the sublime.

I found many of Still’s earliest works to be some of his most fascinating.  Not that I didn’t enjoy his later abstract work but I found it very interesting to follow the path that brought him there and to see the humble beginnings.  In particular his painting of a snow plow locomotive was one of my favorites, His use of color and composition instantly conveyed feelings of cold, bleakness, and weight as well as ideas of industry.  In two landscape paintings of frozen fields and haunting towers in the distance I saw what I felt were the beginnings of abstraction.

Born in 1904 in North Dakota Still spent his adolescence on farms in Washington as well as Alberta, Canada.  Growing up on a farm during the depression heavily influenced Still’s earliest works.  From grim self-portraits in putty grays to bleak snowy landscapes Still created work with thick paint and expressive brushstrokes that conveyed the weighty labor of farm life.  At an early age Still’s understanding of color is impressive, he uses a muddy blend of earth tones and sickly grays and greens as flesh tones to convey the harsh life of farmers and their connection with the earth.  Still also begins to experiment with abstraction in the 1930s as he elongates the faces of the farmers hollowing their eyes and leaving their bodies skeletal and bent.  “By 1936-37, he began to simplify his subjects as he moved closer to abstraction. Passages that’s once described anatomy or landscape now reappear as carefully executed arrangements of line, color, and interlocking shapes.” (Clyfford Still Museum)  The Farmers become as the walking dead save for their enlarged and reddened hands, indicative of manual labor.

As visitors continue into the museum into the rooms that hold the abstract paintings there is a small gallery of Still’s drawings and sketches.  I absolutely loved his pastel sketches on toned paper.  They looked like an experimenting ground for ideas that were later reincarnated in gigantic paintings.  I found it interesting that in some ways the modestly sized compositions did something for me that the colossal paintings did not.  I would almost like to see some of these sketches displayed next to the paintings to see the interaction between the two.  The enormous paintings can feel to bold and self-important while the understated drawings invite the viewer into Still’s world the paintings effectively force it upon you.  I found that the drawings made me appreciate Still’s use of color and composition in a way that some of his largest paintings did not.

Still continued to abstract his imagery and reject his earlier representational style, exemplified in the 1937 piece PH-343.  In this painting Still compares man and machine without using overt realism.  The painting is divided vertically into two sections; on the right man and on the left we see the machine.  The human figure is now shown with lines and earthy color fields but the viewer can still feel the weight of labor and life crushing down on the person.  Still maintains the verticality of his earlier figures but now only the hands are readily identified.  The ribcage becomes a series of semicircles while the stomach becomes an almost completely abstract form while lines and color seem to play within the confines of the figure.  In contrast to the blending color and wandering lines of the figure the machine is represented as defined shapes in stark black and white.  The warmth and earthiness of the red background is gone and replaced by an empty void of white over which cold unfeeling black shapes crisscross.  Using clean lines and geometric forms Still is able to capture the essence of machinery without having to show the viewer anything specifically mechanical.  The figure reaches into the mechanical side of the painting with a twisting, breaking, and painful looking gesture, grasping a black shape in a closed fist.  This work shows Still’s developing talent for abstraction.  Without explicitly representing either man or machine Still creates a haunting image of man’s involuntary dependence on mechanization.  Subtle lines and shapes suggest forms that the viewer fills in themselves while color informs them of the mood and emotion.  Still was ahead of the other abstract expressionists in his work as they continued to create figurative-surrealist works into the 1940s.

In 1941 Still moved to the San Francisco Bay area which would become the staging ground for his progression to a leading abstract expressionist painter.  In the late 1330s Still was pushing his abstraction further and further by the late 40s he had rejected representational imagery completely.  Still began creating colorful nebulous but jagged forms and thick black monuments of paint on increasingly larger canvases.  The large canvases were designed to bring the viewer into the painting and transform the work from a painting into an entire experience.  While other color-field painters, such as Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman, used simple geometric shapes Still created kinetic fields often separated by blank canvas, as if the different colors of paint repelled each other.  “Still built up his palpable, evocative surfaces through the use of trowels and palette knifes. His use of intense colors, ranging from blood-red and blaze orange to powerful browns, yellows and pinks, is highly unique.” (Clyfford Still Museum)  From 1946 to 1950 Still taught at what would become the San Francisco Art Institute, it was during this period that he developed the style that would later become his signature.  The applications of vibrant colors with a palette knife, creating color fields hanging in space became the hallmark of Still’s greatest abstractions.

I have to be honest I am no great fan of abstract expressionist paintings.  I often find that abstraction alone is not enough to hold my interest, however, I dedicated myself to spending some time in the museum to understand and appreciate Still’s work.  Many of Still’s early abstractions seemed to me to be large canvases covered in large amounts of sticky-looking black paint.  It was not until he started introducing bold colors and blank canvas that I really became interested in his work.  There is something magical about those brightly colored violent clouds hanging in the empty ground of the canvas that is truly magical.  I found myself marveling at how such a simple thing, color and shape, could create such an indefinable beauty.

Still’s 1947 piece PH-118 serves not just as an excellent example of the artist’s work but also as a prediction of works to come later in life.  The painting consists of jagged color fields of black, white, yellow, and a brilliant crimson suspended in the empty space of the raw canvas.  The colors take on a life of their own curling, reaching, and sprawling across the canvas like the colorful clouds of nebulas in a deep space of canvas.  Still’s own words come to mind in describing this work; “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 together into a living spirit.”  The twisting colors reach out to each other with faint trails of paint left by the swipe of a palette knife, moving the viewer’s eye from one form to the next.  When confronted with the sizable painting viewers are removed from the world of the museum and pulled deep into the boundless canvas world populated by unfolding forms.  Still’s color choice is excellent with the solid black form spreading unchecked across the canvas diagonally, threatening to overrun the composition.  Smaller white forms pop in at the viewer from the tan of the canvas, while a yellow form, outlined by the diminishing strokes of the knife, writhes above the main body of the black field.  Finally a single modest sized field of dark red pulsates in the top left near the clutches of the expansive black.

Paintings like PH-118 won me over on Still’s and as I progressed further into the museum I found myself enjoying more of his work.  As a painter myself I found Still’s use of bare canvas both interesting and aesthetically appealing.  I found making use of the natural surface and color of the canvas as an active part of the composition a stroke of genius.  The compositions that took advantage of the canvas as the painting with small but brilliantly colored fields were some of my favorites.  Still’s ability to create a composition that seems cohesive yet barely there and at the same time expanding out of the painting is truly amazing.

During the 1940s Still began interacting with the New York art community.  Having a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1946 the 1950s saw Still move to New York to pursue his artistic career.  However at the height of abstract expressionism Still declined all public exhibitions from 1952 to 1959.  During this period Still created PH-401 a mammoth painting of competing red, black, and white with dashes of other colors seeping in the gaps.  The composition makes it impossible to say that any one color is either advancing or receding, all the colors do both at the same time.  Still uses more directed and precise forms than in works like PH-118.  In the midst of the chaos of black, red, and white, small fields of grey, orange, and yellow can be seen, most of which feel like a small part of something outside the bounds of the canvas.  I believe it was Still’s goal to create exactly that sensation; “It’s intolerable to be stopped by a frame’s edge.”  The sheer magnitude of PH-401 makes the viewer feel as if they could literally walk into the frame like a portal to another dimension.  Paintings like PH-401 exemplify the height of Still’s work  and the culmination of years working with color, shape, and composition.

In spite of not being initially drawn to abstract expressionism or Still specifically I found the museum to be an enlightening experience.  In the time I was there I was able to gain an understanding of Still, his work, and his life.  Seeing his paintings in person and experiencing them from oldest to youngest was enormously important for me in appreciating his work.  Seeing the paintings in person transforms them into the experience they were meant to be and spending time wrestling with the images leads to a much greater appreciation for the work.  On my way out of the museum I walked past the collection room and saw a number of paintings half-hidden in storage.  Among them was without a doubt my favorite Still that I had seen so far; vivid blue and yellow jagged fields over raw canvas.  That painting left me wondering what other masterpieces might be stored away in that room.

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