Clyfford Still Paper

Abstract Expressionism and Clyfford Still

By Aubrey Heffley

Clyfford Still’s art had many influences from his early works to his later ones, depending on where he was living at the specific time.   Even though he had different subject matters, his work always leaned towards the abstract expressionist viewpoint.

Clyfford lived in the prairies of eastern Washington State and central Alberta, Canada early on in his life.  He lived there with his family, who had many farms.  Many of his artworks from the 1920s to the early 1930s depicted this vast open farmland that he knew so well.  He portrayed depictions of men and women from the agricultural setting.  Some of these paintings showed farmers doing vigorous labor in front of the typical farm landscape.  His intense color palette makes these paintings extremely alluring to the eye.  He used typical colors of a barren landscape such as browns, reds, blacks, blues, and yellows, but rather than make them dull and dusty as if the landscape were in a drought, he made them bright as to pop off of the canvas.  Clyfford also used clear-cut planes.  His subject could easily be depicted, such as in the painting of the naked tall man and short woman holding hands in front of a dark nighttime field of wheat.  This painting was very much abstracted as the figures’ features were over expressed.  The woman’s face and breasts were over elongated, and her hips were widened.  Back then it was beautiful for a woman to be fuller as it showed her healthiness to reproduce.  The man’s face, legs, and arms were elongated as well.  He was much taller than the woman, and rather than looking straight on at the viewer, gazed off to the left, as if he were thinking about the work he had to do in the fields ahead of him.  It was clear that the background of this painting was not just black, but layers of various colors atop one another.  When standing close and at different angles with different reflections of light, you can pull out different shades of blue and gray.  In the figures’ bodies, although predominantly white, when inspecting the image more closely, you can see shades of yellow, brown, blue, and gray.  Being one of Clyfford’s earliest works, the subject matter in this specific painting was much more clear, but it still had an abstract feel to it.

As time passed, in the mid 1930s to early 1940s, Clyfford’s work began to stray away from a clearer subject matter, although still depicting the agricultural setting, and started leaning way more into an abstract feel.  In one specific example, Clyfford portrayed two large figures which took up a predominant amount of his canvas.   Both figures could be distinguished as a male and female by only certain recognizable features.  The woman on the right had long blond hair coming down over her right shoulder.  Her breasts were clearly visible but semi covered by her extremely long arms, which hugged her knees.  She also appeared much shorter than the male figure, which draws more attention as to who has the most power, that being the taller, stronger, more confident man.  The man had no distinguishable hair, which was common to not portray back then, especially in an abstract image.  His ribs were also clearly portrayed with various shapes, which would not be as distinguishable if the figure were a woman with breasts.  In this image, Clyfford also used agricultural landscape type colors: reds, browns, yellows, blues, but they began to grow in brightness and contrast.

Later in the 1940s closer to the 1950s, Clyfford Still’s works became masterful in expression.  He began working in much larger scale and the subject matter strayed away from his agricultural interest as seen before.  His works became much more abstracted in that the subject had no true depiction.  It was open for interpretation by the viewer alone.  He still used shapes and a bright thick color palette, but the shapes could not easily be made into people or places like they were before.  They instead, stretched across the entire, large-scale canvas in many forms.  The colors were again very bright and contrasted against each other.  In one particular work, he used orange, yellow, deep red, gray, black, and a tiny splash of blue.  The work was predominantly warm colors, but then the splash of dark and cool colors allowed ones mind to change their interpretation.  At first I would relate it to a bright summer day, but the dark colors made me ponder a new subject.   In another painting, my personal favorite, Clyfford used yellow, red, orange, black, and a little bit of blue.  This painting was done on a massive size canvas, larger than the average size person.  Over half the canvas was yellow, which was cut in two by an enormous black rugged shape.  Inside this shape was an area of red.  Only towards the upper left was a sliver of blue.  When looking up close, just like in most of his paintings, you could tell that the colors were caked on with a palette knife.  They were thick and protruding off the canvas.  Clyfford once said, “I never wanted color to be color, texture to be texture, images to become shapes.  I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit.”

Later on, a little before/into the 1980s, Clyfford continued to experiment in his work.  He embraced the large-scale canvas even more, and used a lot of open space.  One painting in particular, from far away appears to be completely black.  But when you move up close, you can see that it is made of many layers of color.  His brushstrokes are clearly evident as well throughout the painting going in all different directions, very loose and free and uncontained.

Clyfford Still was a predominant art figure in the abstract expressionist time period.  His artwork opened up a whole new parameter of what art could become and what it could be interpreted as.  His works through his lifetime were explosive in bold color, personal feeling and expression.

One Response

  1. bahaha love your first pic i wonder who took that!?

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