Clyfford Still-Melissa Nunes

Melissa Nunes


Clyfford Still: Abstract Expressionist


Clyfford Still impacted the Abstract Expressionist movement immensely during most of the 20th century.  He was one of the first of many abstract expressionist painters to show the world this new form of art that had not been seen before.  He started out painting figures that the viewer could make out as a shape or a specific object then slowly moved to paintings that were more abstract.  They had color and emotion but did not show the audience a specific figure that could be made out by the human eye.  His first paintings were depictions of the hardship of farm life that he portrayed using people and machinery.

The first of these paintings that caught my eye was PH-77, 1936.  The two farmers are centered in the middle of the painting and are the main focus.  The background of the painting is made up of 75% sky and the rest of the 25% is the hay and fields that the farmers are planting.  The sky is made up of what looks to be a mixture of colors that fade out around the farmers.  The top of the sky is a dark navy blue color that eventually turns into a mix of blues, greens, yellows and some pink.  It fades around the farmers into a faded yellow color mixed with white.  The fields are a dark yellow color that seems to run very far behind the two men.  Closer to there feet and towards the very bottom of the painting there is dirt that is a dark brown almost black color where they have already gathered the hay.

The first farmer to the left of the painting has a red shirt and dark pants that are rolled up so you see his ankles.  He has dark hair and is more slender than the other farmer.  His face is facing downwards looking at the pile of hay he is about the pick up.  He has black shoes and a barrel of hay in his left arm.  He is bent over at the waist with both of his knees slightly bent.  His right arm is reaching towards the ground grabbing hay.  His arm has lines flowing down them depicting his muscles that seem to be strained from doing this backbreaking labor.

The second man has a yellow shirt and is also bent over at the waist.  This farmer seems lest tall and slender than the other.  He has overalls on that are rolled up at the ankles and black shoes.  The left sleeve of his shirt is rolled up.  The right sleeve seems to come unraveled and is falling down his arm.  Both his arms are reaching down ready to pick up a stack of hay.  His arms also have lines depicting his strained muscles.  He is bald and his head is slightly turned towards us.  Both of the men’s faces are blurry and there are no distinct features on them.

The painting portrays the hardship and strain of being a farmer.  It depicts the reality of what the farmers feel like as they are gathering the hay from the fields.  The bent over bodies show the backbreaking work that these farmers had to endure.  The muscles and elongated look of the arms over exaggerate the pain of this work that these farmers had to go through.  Not being able to make out their faces shows the audience that they are not specific people that Still was painting but the large group as a whole.  These farmers could be anyone that lived and worked during these times.

This next painting that I noticed I had never seen before entering this museum, PH-343, 1937.  At first glance all I saw was a human like figure and some sort of machine that this human figure was pulling.  This painting is cut down the center, one half being the human figure and the other half being the machine.  The human is a yellow brown color and, like most of Clyfford Still’s paintings, does not have a face.  Black and white lines outline the human.  There are lines that run down the human as if to show the inside of this figure.  The figure is human shaped but is not proportional to a normal living human.  The hands are very large and the fingers very slender and long.  The shoulders are very high up giving the figure no neck and a very small head.  The legs seem to end at the middle of the thighs as if the figure had been amputated from the knee down.  The background behind the figure is a maroon color outlined in black and white just like the figure.

To the left is a machine that is all black up against a white background.  To the far left there is a black bar that seems to be holding the machine up against the wall.  It is attached to another bar that has a black circle shape coming off of it in the center and another black object coming off towards the bottom.  This large pole bends at the top and is attached to another black pole that the human figure is holding on too.  This pole too has many black shapes coming off of it making it look like a large tool that this person is using.

Stills liked to show both humans and machines in his early work.  The left side of this painting was made with warmer colors to depict this human while the right side is made with contrasting black and white colors.  The machinery shows the industry that was used for the farm life at that time.

Still’s later work portrayed more of an abstract look.  He used certain brush strokes and colors to portray his emotions. One of the paintings I saw with these characteristics was the PH-335, 1949.  The canvas background is covered in mostly red with some black and white splotches.  The upper half of the painting is mostly a bright red color but as you move towards to bottom you start to see large portions of black that are surrounded by a darker red.  Inside the black and the darker red are smaller portions of white specks.

When looking at this painting I saw a lot of emotion; especially because he used the colors of black and red.  Those two colors by themselves usually represent things that are dark and painful which I believe was part of what Still wanted to get across in his work.  The sections of the painting that show the black and dark red, seem to be somewhat chaotic and may demonstrate what Still was going through during that time.  I took it as him still trying to figure out what kind of artist he was and the hardship that he endured trying to accomplish this.  It shows his frustration and eagerness to be the artist that he wanted to be.  Also at this time he was trying to balance his artistic career and having a family, which was difficult for both Still and his wife.  This stress and chaos in his life was shown through his work and eventually when he reached an old age he became more comfortable and knew exactly what he wanted to paint.  His brush strokes and colors became more spread out and demonstrated a clear view of the artist that Clyfford Still had become.




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