Clyfford Still Museum Response- Natalie Prescott

Natalie Prescott

Due: January 31, 2012

Clyfford Still Museum

            The Clyfford Still Museum located in the heart of Denver’s Cultural Art District is an impressive display of Still’s work from his entire estate, including his complete archives. He wanted his estate to be given to one city where it would be housed in a building designed specifically for his work only, without the distraction of any other artist’s work. The museum was started in December 2009 and finished almost two years later in November 2011. It displays a wide range of Still’s work starting with his first pieces to his last monumental sized Abstract-Expressionist pieces. The museum takes the viewer through each of the different time periods of Still’s life from his first drawings in his teens to his latest paintings in the 70s, all in which show how his artwork dramatically changed over time. Still became known as one of the leading Abstract Expressionist artist of all time. As I walked through the museum I realized how hard it would be to choose just three pieces of his to write about. I decided to pick a piece from each of his different types of works; a piece from his works on paper, one multi-media piece, and one piece from his monumental-sized Abstract Expressionist collection.

The first thing I noticed and photographed when starting through the museum was Still’s palette knives that were laid out for display behind glass. The way they were lit under the lighting made them a work of art all in their own. I thought they were beautifully lit and nicely brought the viewer into the introduction of Still’s famous paintings. I noticed that nowhere in the setting of tools was there a paintbrush, only palette knives. This was very interesting to me and was a great thing for me to see before going to the second floor where all his artworks are shown. Displayed in the case next to his palette knives is his box of paints and the different mediums he used on paper.  I found both of these displays to be pieces of art just as much as Still’s artworks that are displayed on the second floor. I loved seeing these things on display before entering the area where his paintings are displayed.

When choosing the first piece I was going to write about it was between several of his earlier works on paper from his archives. I had trouble deciding between one of his pastels on paper of the native people and settings of Nespelem in north-central Washington and one of his gouaches on paper. I chose one of the pastels on paper named PP-489, 1936. This is an image of some of Nespelem’s people and setting. Nespelem is the headquarters of the Colville Confederated Tribes in north-central Washington. It is believed that this image was created for documentary purposes because its style does not match Still’s style of his studio works that were made during this time. Even though this image was just made for documentary reasons it is very moving and meaningful piece of imagery.

PP-489, 1936 shows a Native American teepee standing tall next to a covered common area with a few people congregated underneath. The teepee is colored with bright red, blue, and green triangles. The teepee and common area are shown in the foreground of some layered hills that have very little detail. The colors Still used on the teepee show the Nespelem people built there impermanent homes with artistic style and aesthetic. It also shows how the people made places outside of their teepees to gather and spend time together. This open gathering area says that it is inviting to others to come and join them. If they didn’t want other people to know they were gathered and possibly come join they would gather in their teepee where it is closed off to the outside.

This image shows that Still had artistic talent outside of the abstract style that he was made famous for. It is a simple composition with simple subject but done so that it speaks about the people he is documenting and shows them in their relaxed state. He used color in a realistic sense that even if this was not the exact way he saw it the viewer will believe that it is. Not all of Still’s artwork is done in such a serious style as Abstract Expressionism is. This image carries just as much beauty and meaning as his Abstract Expressionist pieces but with a completely different style.

The second piece I chose is one of Still’s multi-media pieces from his archives. It was interesting to me because I have watched videos and read about Clyfford Still in multiple sources but never learned that he had done some multi-media pieces that were in his estate. This is one of the reasons why I love the fact that we have this museum in Denver because there is still so much for people to learn about Still’s lifetime of artwork. In the museum there is a floor display of three of Still’s multi-media works. They were displayed in the room where his works on paper were hung on the walls.  There is only three multi-media pieces on display at the museum and I want to know if there is anymore that he has done that just aren’t on display right now.

PS-3, 1938 is one of three mixed-media works on display and the one that I liked the most. It is made out of carved pieces of wood, metal, and metal wire. It looks like it may have been some sort of ritualistic piece that Still saw when he documented the Native Americans in north-central Washington. The widest part connected to the base is made out of a rectangular piece of wood with a crescent moon shape carved out of the upward facing side. Connected at the base is a long, skinnier rectangular piece of wood that is a little more than two times as long as the wider rectangular piece with the crescent moon shape on one end. At the very top is another skinnier rectangular piece of wood that sticks up about 5 inches from the piece of wood it’s connected to. Connected at the upper most part is a circular piece of shiny metal. Still used the metal wire to line the outside of the centerpiece of wood on each side. The way the bottom piece of wood is carved like a crescent moon on the top and the shiny piece of yellowish metal is carved in a circle makes me think it represents something for a ritual most likely used by the Native Americans that Still documented. Also, the way the pieces of metal and wood are placed within and around each other it makes me think of a guitar. I find this piece to be very meaningful even though I don’t know exactly what that meaning is.

The third and final piece I chose is apart of Still’s Abstract Expressionist style. It was hard for me to pick a favorite out of all the pieces that I photographed in the museum but I finally did. It is displayed in the Eleanor and Henry Hitchcock Charitable Foundation Gallery room named as PH-972, 1959. The painting has vibrant orange and blues with a darker red color and a greyish blue and black. Still said he never wanted “color to be color, texture to be texture, images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit.” In this painting these elements did just that! The colors and shapes speak a loud message of bright rebellions standing out amongst the crowd to the viewer. It shows the change in style from surrealism to post-war abstraction with its vibrant colors and unknown shapes. It expresses the moods of the American people trying to overcome a sad time in their country’s history. This painting brightens the room and its viewer’s mood. The blank parts of the canvas that are surrounding the bluish gray and red shapes give the chaos a sense of containment and subtlety. This is the feeling the American people were probably feeling during this post-war time after World War II, still upset from the war wanting to let their feelings out but holding them in.

It was very hard for me to pick one Abstract Expressionist painting from the Clyfford Still Museum because of the vast exhibit of them the museum has. But I did not want to leave out the other works from Still’s archives that would be completely unknown if not for his estates donation to a city to be shown. I’m happy he put into his will that the city he gives his estate to make its own building to display his work because it really gives perspective to his vast lifetime of works. It also lets people learn about his work that we may never see otherwise. The viewer can dive into Clyfford Still’s life as an artist and not be distracted or derailed by any other artist’s work. The Clyfford Still Museum is a beautiful contemporary building built to house one of the most amazing Abstract Expressionist artists of all time. I particularly find Still to be one of my favorite Abstract artists. I especially like that the museum has his whole estate and interchanges his works so people can go back multiple times but always see something different.

Clyfford Still’s knife palette

PP-489, 1936

PS-3, 1938

PH-972, 1959

One Response

  1. What I liked most about this paper is how one of the pieces was PS-3, one of Still’s multimedia works. Multimedia was by far the smallest collection of works, and they reminded me so much of his paintings. I found it interesting that his multimedia pieces captured just as much of his character as his paintings did. The only thing I wanted out of your paper was the emotions that struck you when viewing his pieces.

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