Clyfford Still Museum – Erin Lorentzen

Clyfford Still Museum

Clyfford Still was a radical artist in the Abstract Expressionism movement. This movement came post World War II, which was a time of contradictions in society containing both abundance and anxiety. Abstract Expressionist artist began to reject the canons of the Modernist movement and to leave behind everything European, the biggest being rejection of the figurative to show the dual nature of the human condition. Through monumental size, attention to paint as an expression instead of just a tool, and the non-representational artists began to express feelings, emotions, themselves, and the human condition. Clyfford Still was at the forefront of this movement, just ahead of his contemporaries.

We may ask ourselves why if Clyfford Still was a force in this movement do we not know more about his work? We know of Pollock, and Rothko, but have not seen much of Still’s work. Clyfford Still removed himself from the art world in the early 1950’s because of the growing decadence and commercialism of galleries and museums. He also believed that an artists work should be held in it’s own space, without distraction from other artists’ work. Still remarkably controlled every viewing of his art to allow viewers, museums, and galleries to only see the expressions he wanted them too. When Still died, his will was very specific as to how he wanted his art to be shown.

Thus, the Clyfford Still Museum was created through the stipulations presented in his will for the collection to be given to a city that dedicated a museum only to his work. Denver, Colorado propositioned the Still family twice and on that second presentation was granted the ability to house, preserve, and present Still’s work to society. A grand display of the work is now open to the public, and as you move from room to room you see the growth and transition in his works. Still knew that his work would be best appreciated by a display from beginning to end, a display that would define and give more understanding to viewers about his works.

Starting in the entrance room of the Museum, the viewer is allowed to see a few early paintings. Born in 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota and spending a major part of his childhood on the wheat farms of Spokane, Washington and southern Alberta, Canada, Still was subjected to isolation and despair. Although in his a far home from culture and academics, Still took a large interest in teaching himself through books and images and later continued to attend and teach successfully at a number of colleges. Figure 1 in the image gallery included in this essay is displayed in the entrance room. The significance of the open landscape with what appears to be a train or a grain shaft is how it relates to the body. A line extending up from the train and beyond the canvas is important to note and follow it through the entirety of Still’s work. Here starts the idea of connecting heaven and earth, and more importantly, the verticality of life that will be a defining aesthetic in his work.

As you move to the first room you’re allowed a glimpse the hardships experienced in Still’s childhood. A pair of paintings, figure 2, allows you into life during the Great Depression on the wheat farms for “The Damned” or people that almost connected life and death, “connecting heaven and earth.” The aesthetic qualities that are most important to note is the attention to outline around the figures, the shape that is created around the boney-ridged shoulder and the ribcage, the verticality of the bodies to signify life, the emphasis on the enlarged hands, and the non-representational start with the ambiguity in their elongated faces and removal of recognizable facial features.

Shortly after paintings like figure 3, still in room one, begin to appear where the body and machine begin to merge. In certain places, no definition between where bodies start and machines stop. The figure is carried through but more disfigured and the face becomes even more ambiguous with only circles representing eyes and rare recognizable facial features. Notice that the emphasis on the enlarged hand, the ribcages, the boney shoulder, and outline are present.

Moving into the second room of the museum the viewer sees where Still is on the cusp of Abstract Expressionism. Figure 4 is a great comparison to figure 3. The resemblance of the machine is still apparent with the quarter circle lined with three dots and the two shafts emerging. Even more important the painting has what resembles a human outline in the ocher toned. At the top of the outline there are reminiscent facial features of eyes and a nose. The outline continues to carry the boney, ridged figure out and down the painting as seen before. The paintings also show the beginning of the ground disappearance. The ground was typically shortened to exemplify the verticality and the focus of the figures, but the ground now begins to completely dissolve.

Also included in the second room is another painting to compare to figure 3. Still has placed the focus of the viewers’ eye on a vertical bone reminiscent of the boney shoulders from his earlier works. The emphasis on the bone along with the ribcage and the single yellow dot for an eye leaves us in the representational. This work begins to show how the application of the paint can be beyond a tool to express an idea, but the emotional characteristics carried in the paint within the earth tone compositions.

Room three and throughout the rest of the Museum is where Still’s work has hit complete Abstract Expressionism, each room designated to a style of a time and location. The paintings are of a monumental size, complete removal of the figure, use of paint as an expression, and the energetic color-fields that dominate Clyfford Still’s most successful works. Figure 6, titled PH1034 from 1973 is a painting that stands out in Still’s aesthetic qualities that relates the emotionalism to be evoked from inside the viewer. The blue paint is applied in thin layers, some appearing lighter and some darker from the precise application of the paint. A small strip of canvas is left exposed on the left to create tension. Important to the emotionalism are the two dominant vertical lines. The thin orange line draws the viewer up the painting beyond the canvas, to a place beyond. The thick black line is a look further inside. It almost invites the viewer to enter the painting or inside themselves, enter an area of emotions coming from the overwhelming blue layers. This painting is beyond representational art; it is a feeling, an emotion that the painting evokes upon the viewer. No emotion is right or wrong as long as the emotion is felt.

A walk through of the Museum here does the work no justice. One must visit, experience, and feel the work by Clyfford Still. The sheer monumental size must overtake the viewer, surrounding them with the emotionalism the paintings omit. What is beyond just feeling these paintings is the “auto-biography” that the Clyfford Still Museum has had the ability to transpire. Still knew that his works were to be understood best through a chronological experience that the museum has successfully accomplished.

Image Gallery – Photos taken at Clyfford Still Museum

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6

2 Responses

  1. I like the way you write your paper, it is like watching a video. You describe from the first room you walk in and use your words to take me to the each room. I like you also compare the painting together, and understand each painting well.

  2. I drew my paper this way because I was completely overthrown by the “autobiography” of the museum. I had liked Clyfford Still before, but as I was walking through the museum it seemed as if I was connected each piece to the last, each aesthetic quality show seemed to transcend to the next. It made the paintings that much more influential to me and I couldn’t help but understand the works that are Clyfford Still. Did you get the same feeling? What pieces did you like?

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