Clyfford Still – Margaret Corcoran

Margaret Corcoran

January 29, 2012

Clyfford Still

I never wanted color to be color, texture to be texture, images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit.” –Clyfford Still

The artwork that created by Clyfford Still is in a style that he had developed as a means to separate himself from the art that had become mainstream and formulate a new genre, Abstract Expressionism, for which he is credited as an originator. As a founding father for the new artistic progression, Still gained worldwide recognition for his artwork. Still’s work had been held out of societies viewing due to his own wishes to exit the conventional art world. The opening of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver allows the world to experience the magnitude of the art that he created while viewing the work in Still’s intended setting. 

Still’s style of painting goes through various changes that can be linked back to certain events that occurred in his life as well as events that were happening in the world around him. Born in 1904, Still spent the first 35 years of his life living on a farm in the depleted prairies of Washington and Alberta, Canada. Still’s earliest paintings were made beginning in the mid 1920’s and followed a constant theme of the people and places of agriculture.

In the late 1930’s Still left the family farm and went to Washington State College where he received a masters degree in art and humanities in 1935. During this time, Still’s art consisted of many pastoral scenes that were extremely expressional and more abstract than any of his previous work.  These works, such as PH-80 (1935), do an excellent job of showing not only the visual aspect of the scene, but also letting the viewer feel the emotion that is present. The hands of the farmers are large and in great detail portraying that they are of great importance as they were essential during a long day out in the fields. The technique in this painting, as seen up close, is the use of a palate knife to create diverse textures to appeal the viewer’s eye. Still continued to use palate knifes in most of his paintings to create the fineness he wanted to come out of his works.

PH-80 (1935)


The first abstractions by Still came out during the early 1940’s, while Still was teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University. The lines and shapes that had once formed defined images were now set free to explode all over the canvas. At this time, it was said that Still reached a “radical abstraction”. Still moved to New York City in the 1950’s where he was catapulted into the spotlight along side the other great abstract artists of the time, such as Rothko, Pollock, and Motherwell. This was also the time when Still’s paintings became truly amplified in size and composition with a goal to immerse the viewer. While a composition can be seen in nearly all of Still’s work, the viewer becomes compelled to decipher and conceive what they believe Still intends for them to observe.

The change in style of painting done throughout Still’s life is shown on a small scale in the Museum’s Works on Paper room. The Museum has about 1,700 artworks created from media such as anything from oil paint to egg yolks that was placed on everything from canvas to silk-screens. While these pieces are not comparable to many of Still’s large-scale pieces, they provide easier to decipher clues as to the inspirations that Still drew from when he created his art. Frequent subjects that appeared in Still’s artwork include: the human body, landscape references, images connected with farming, and others are pure abstraction with no clear focus. Still’s earliest pieces depict a lot of humans, often woman, with defined and exaggerated features. During the 1940’s Still experiments more with abstract shapes and demonstrates his ability to be prolific as well as a high level of creativity.

The emotions and stories that a painting can trigger is the enticing reaction that artist’s often aim for when creating and displaying their works. When I stood in front of PH-129, painted in 1949, the colors and textures seemed to blend together to create a seamless scene. The rough yellow edges looked like sulfur used in high school experiments many years ago.  The bright yellow running down the middle created a cheeriness that could make even the sternest onlooker crack a smile. The vibrant lilac meandering its way through the piece looks as though it is searching for an unknown destination.  The powerful texture that comes forward around the lilac creates an illustration of bombardment due to the clashing of such parallel colors. The parts of the canvas that are left blank provide a nice balance that keeps the piece from becoming too cluttered or overwhelmed.


PH-129 (1949)

The intensity that hits the viewer standing in front of a canvas that is nine feet tall and thirteen feet wide can take anyone’s breathe away as they step into the painting’s environment. This is the reaction I had, as I stood in front of Still’s PH-972.  This piece, painted in 1959, is an ideal example of Abstract Expressionism at it’s finest. While no clear-cut subject exists, something deeper lies upon the canvas beneath the oil. Standing inches away from the piece I was able to see faint pencil marks that may have been used to plan the space of the work. The flush gray tone that carries down the middle of the piece, displayed light pencil marks through itself even though parts or the paint seemed many layers deep. Seeing these tiny details made me wonder that if perhaps Still had changed him mind as he worked through the piece and had used the layers of paint to cover these changes in arrangement. The thickness of the paint could also represent the act of covering something up emotionally. The pieces of canvas that are left bare create a balance of texture that moves through the entire work. The dense colors that are used create a blissful feeling. My eye was especially drawn to the rich maroon along the bottom of the canvas as well as the explosive spot of light blue to the left of it. The deep dark blue protruding the right corner seems to be seeping in, provoking the question of what lies behind the painting that did not quite make it onto the canvas.


PH-972 (1959)

Clyfford Still’s work took an incredible rollercoaster ride though the most acclaimed artistic genres of his time. He began painting landscapes and figure work; using art as a way to express the life he encountered everyday. Through the following years, his work slowly began to lose its defined lines and became more loose and free form. Clyfford Still is one of the most innovational artist not only because of the works that he created but also as a forerunner to the world of Abstract Expressionism.

2 Responses

  1. Margaret, your narrative of PH-129 was very engaging. With any work of art, different viewers bring their own opinions, backgrounds, experiences, prejudices, preferences, etc. and I think you demonstrated this well in your description. While the yellow induces you recall high school science experiments, the color instantly reminded me of a shirt I was wearing in an old Christmas photo. I think it’s so interesting to view works of art with others and share our associations!

  2. Margaret, I really like your paper! I think you did a great job with your descriptions, your account of the work using analogies make for a great use of figurative language. And, overall your paper was engaging to read, nice job!

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