Clyfford Still Paper 1

Shayna Weingast


ARTH 3539

The Clyfford Still Museum

“To be stopped by a frame’s edge is intolerable.” – Clyfford Still

The paintings of the Abstract Expressionists consist of some of the most recognizable and influential works in the history of art. From Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings to Mark Rothko’s smudged color and Willem de Kooning’s frightful “Women,” their pure abstracted aesthetic and grand scale have dominated the vocabulary of American art since the end of WWII. At virtually every museum and exhibit that boasts to show the work of the Abstract Expressionists, including the recent Abstract Expressionist exhibit that took place last winter at MOMA in New York, of which I was fortunate enough to attend, there is a clear emphasis placed on exhibiting the paintings that highlight each artists’ mature style, such as Pollock’s drip canvases and Motherwell’s “Spanish Inquisition” paintings. With the advent of the Clyfford Still Museum, art lovers, for the first time, have the privilege and opportunity to experience the journey of a seminal Abstract Expressionist’s painterly evolution through his own history of art, including, but not exclusive to, his mature style, which can be easily recognizable today.

One of the lesser known Abstract Expressionists, Clyfford Still was a true pioneer of abstract painting. Born in Grandin, North Dakota, in 1904, Clyfford Still spent his formative years in Spokane, Washington and in Alberta, Canada, where his family maintained a wheat ranch. Still began painting at the age of 15 and was interested in representing his surroundings, distorting and transforming his landscapes into surreal abstracted forms. As Still was developing his style, an underlying theme of his early work seems to be man’s attempt to survive in an unforgiving environment – a notion that is sometimes symbolized by vertical shapes rising in defiance against a horizontal landscape. During this period, there was a distinct emergence of the color scheme (dark, earthy tones punctuated by flashes of bright colors) and technique (thick layers of paint applied with a palette knife) that would dominate the artist’s entire mature style. Though he would later denied its significance, the vast, flat landscape and harsh lifestyle of the prairie would exert a lasting influence on his artistic practice.

Still relocated several times in the early 1940s, first to California (where he befriended Mark Rothko), then to Virginia (where he taught at the Richmond Professional Institute), and finally to New York in 1945. This persistent inability to settle down and find a home has been said to have a great impact on his desire to move toward total abstraction; Still did not see the world in terms of concrete notions, but rather, in subjective terms, where sensory experiences trump reality. His residence in New York was the beginning of an exceptionally constructive period for him.

The paintings he exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s Gallery in 1946 showed evidence of a unique and revolutionary style on the cusp of maturity, echoing themes that would later be assigned to the Abstract Expressionists, such as all-over compositions, pure abstraction, and large-scale canvases. In these monumentally scaled works, all recognizably human forms were discarded and replaced by flame-like shapes that rise vertically through dark and expansive fields. Although now represented in pure abstract terms, these paintings can still be read as dead and expansive mid-Western landscapes. Along with his adoption of a non-representational style, Still also began to shy from the use of referential titles for his compositions, and would eventually settle on a nomenclature composed entirely of numbers and dates.

Virtually every aspect of the Clyfford Still Museum is designed to maximize a visitor’s encounter with Still’s work, from his early gleaners to his later works of monumental scale and pure abstraction. The space itself serves as a medium through which his work is highlighted and emphasized. The open-air ceiling brings in maximum amounts of natural light that elucidates both the earth tones and the more vivacious shades of yellows and blacks present in all of his work. This use of natural lighting is truly one-of-a-kind, and assists in creating the “environments” that I can only assume was Clyfford Still’s intention. As well, the beige earth-toned building only serves to accentuate Still’s work, without taking away too much attention from the paintings themselves. The often-harsh sterility of the building is only warmed by the seemingly-infinite volume of the galleries, accented by the streaming light that makes each space radiate with vitality and life. The space facilitates contemplation and suggests that the life-force of the paintings are meant to foster creative thought and conversation.

I have never before experienced such a profound dialogue between space and art as I did when attended the Clyfford Still Museum. The Clyfford Still Museum undermines the idea that art is lost inside the void of the gallery space, or the white cube, as presented in Brian O’Doherty’s seminal essay “Inside the White Cube.” I found myself just as entranced by Still’s work as I was by the relationship of each painting to each other within a given gallery, as well as the way in which the gallery space itself was designed to highlight certain paintings. The chronological flow of the Museum functions as an aid for both the art lover and the art neophyte; it provides an accessible window into the both the life and the artistic development of the artist The gallery spaces flow together and guides the viewer through the career and life of Clyfford Still. No single gallery space contains an overwhelming amount of paintings, nor are they so sparse that you feel forced to meditate on each painting for an excruciating amount of time.

As an art-history buff, I have been to many museums around the country and in Europe, and the Clyfford Still Museum is one of the most exceptional spaces I have ever been fortunate enough to experience. The Clyfford Still Museum now serves as a benchmark for what a museum should and can be, and the ways in which space and art can and should enter into a sincere dialogue. The museum fosters both the creative and intellectual spirit, and provides a wonderful glimpse into the enigmatic life of one of the founders of arguably the most important movements in American art.

2 Responses

  1. This paper is very well written and the background information provided is quite interesting, I like the context. However, I think this paper is lacking in specific examples of Still’s art on which to base the analysis.

  2. You do a good job of describing his general style and I like your analysis of the museum, but agree with Brittney’s statement that your paper would benefit from more specific examples of Still’s work.

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