Clyfford Still Museum: Justin Neely

Clyfford Still was a very prominent figure in the progression of art in the 1900’s, whose artistic effect still stands tall amongst art and art scholars of the present day. Throughout his years of stretching and pulling the boundaries of art, he went through several phases of painting. At first, in the early 1930’s his style was a somewhat fundamental style. His pieces displays ranged from still life sketches of form to abstract interpretations of form. He used several types of mediums, including charcoal, paint, and wood. Some pieces were contour drawings, accurately capturing the form of a subject with as little detail as possible. The majority of the pieces during this phase were smaller than his later works, averaging about two feet tall and fifteen inches wide. Some were in color and some were not. In the late 30’s and early 40’s, Still developed a heavy emphasis on the human form in labor. Instead of depicting humans as they were, he elongated their faces and hands, showing the work fatigue in their figure. Almost every painting Clyfford did during the 1940’s was in color. It seemed as though most of the colors were earthy and mellow, contrasting his later works. His pieces from the early 1940’s were more realistic in form and external appearance. Each color was accurate to the subject it depicted. Later works from the 40’s focused more on the mechanics of the human body. There was still a formidable figure shown on canvass, but not realistic by any means. I could tell the subjects were bodies, but they were quite warped and filled with what looked like inorganic, but still functioning material. At this time, Still began using the canvass itself as a part of the piece, leaving off-white bare spots arranged across his compositions. The color in these pieces started to drift from actually depicting the subjects’ real colors to randomly coloring the subjects whatever color he pleased. The internal “organs” of the figures resembled machinery more than actual human organs, possibly showing the replacement of humans by machinery, or showing humans as machines. At the end of the 1940’s and into the 1950’s, Still’s paintings slowly lost most figure and began to emphasize the motion and expressive stokes of his art. These later pieces were a mixture of line divisions and abstract and expressive color spots. I felt as though his colors in these works were much deeper and more layered than the previous works. However, the main spectacle of Still’s late pieces was the shear size. Some were almost ten feet tall and fifteen feet wide. Each of the colors on the canvass seemed to be a combination of at least two colors, allowing for lighter and darker accents across each colored section. He painted more with darker colors during his later years. These were the years when he truly identified his own style of abstract art.

The first painting that I paid close attention to was Still’s PH-1007. This was a large piece about nine feet tall and eight feet wide. It struck me because of its color scheme. From afar, the main colors that stuck out were red, yellow, and green on a white canvass, but as I got closer I saw many more colors. Although some parts of the piece were unpainted, the parts that were painted had very thick layers, with a brown base and other colors on top. The thick layers of paint amplified the texture of the canvass, something I noticed in almost all of his paintings from this time. The piece itself had an upward motion to it, somewhat like a wave about to crash. As I dissected the painting more, it started to remind me of a forest fire. There was a small amount of yellow and brown on the left side, a large amount of red in the middle, and then a medium amount of green on the right. The fire was obviously the red section, but I saw the yellow/brown section as trees in the process of being burned, and the green section as trees about to be burned. Amidst the dominant red section there are stripes of black, which to me resembled fully charred trees, since they are entirely engulfed in the flames. Although this subject matter made for an interesting interpretation, the parts I enjoyed most about the piece were the random, small spots of brilliant color. Each spot had a layer of brown as a foundation, but was then painted over with what seemed to be five or six more colors. This made for very vibrant accents of blue and purple throughout the somewhat uniform color scheme.

The next piece that stuck out to me was Clyfford’s PH-297, painted in 1938.This was a medium-sized (three feet tall, two feet wide) piece with a central composition consisting of two prominent figures. From afar, each figure looked like a large rock protruding from the ground, but as I stepped closer I could see their resemblance to human heads. Although they were severely distorted, I could pick out clear brow structure, eyes sockets, and drooping nose-like structures. Barbed wire and wooden posts surrounded these figures. This struck me as some sort of imprisonment or protection of the two figures. In any case, one of the figures was white and the other was a mix of light and dark brown. I felt as though this was a statement of equality that Still provoked. Both colors were together within the barbed wire, equally punished or equally protected. Also, the white figure is looking down and the brown figure is looking up and off into the distance. This could be signifying some sort of man and woman relationship, where they could be trapped inside or protected by their love. The barbed wire was very effective. It looked like Clyfford painted a thin grey line and scraped paint off the middle of the line in certain spots to give it a reflective appearance. The color scheme was also very effective, in that is was mostly calm, earthy colors that set a gloomy mood over the whole piece. Colors ranged from shades of brown and grey to white and dark blue. The downward stroke of light grey from the dark grey above made it seem like it was raining, giving it an even more melancholy tone. To me, this painting symbolizes the longing for freedom. Whether the painting is showing imprisonment or protection, each has its own limiting factors, which is the barbed wire.

The final painting that I chose to analyze was Still’s 1951 painting, PH-297. I felt that Clyfford’s main point of this piece was to study color relations. The canvass was about nine feet tall, about fifteen feet wide and mostly dominated by tantalizingly deep blue paints. There was a thick black line just to the left of the center, and a thin, bright orange line to the left of the black. On the far left side was a strip of unpainted canvass rising up about seven eighths of the painting’s height. This was definitely one of the pieces that someone has to see in person to truly understand. When I looked into the deep blue abyss of color, I felt as though I saw every shade of blue that I had ever seen before in that one painting. Layers upon layers of different blues gave it a phenomenal sense of texture and depth. The black stripe had no reflective properties and was completely matte. It gave it textural contrast to the blue, while at the same time bringing out the darks in the blue as well. The blue against the bright orange stripe was, to me, extremely pleasing to the eye. The contrast between to two very vibrant colors was very enticing. The white strip of bare canvass allowed the lights in the blue nearby to come out more. The shear size of the piece made it very hard to miss. It was as though it was obstructing my vision every time it was in my peripherals until I stopped to give it attention. At that point I felt like I truly understood the monumentality of Still’s work, as well as other abstract expressionists’ works. I realized that it was not the subject or lack of subject that a piece had, but rather the feeling that the piece in its entirety provoked.

2 Responses

  1. I like that you mention the size of his paintings early in your paper because I think that this is a very important aspect of his work. I also enjoyed how you compared PH-1007 with a forest fire. Forest fires evoke so much emotion when you see one that I can only imagine how this work was making you feel.
    I think a conclusion wrapping up your final thoughts of the three pieces could have added to this essay. I would have liked to hear what you felt emotionally while looking at the works. In all I thought your analyzation of paintings was good, and interesting to read.

  2. I like how descriptive you were in describing the artwork, I can visualize the pieces without having the actual image in front of me.

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