Clyfford Still Paper Jacob Vasquez

During my visit, I was taken into a new experience of what art can do to someone. During his lifetime as an artist, Still’s work changed dramatically from his still-life paintings, to his development of giant color field paintings. The techniques, compositions, content and approach of his paintings changed drastically over his life and the museum helps the viewer see this transition.

 To begin, one piece that truly shows Still’s earlier work is the piece titled “Field Rocks” from 1925. The piece is one of the few pieces that have a sense of “realism” and stays away from the Abstract that Still’s are known for. The painting is roughly 12×18’ in size and depicts a pile of colorful rocks. The brush strokes used in each rock add to the attempt of producing texture on a flat surface. I was shocked to see this painting because this painting was one of the last that I saw during my visit. The reasons why I was shocked was because this painting was drastically different from what Still’s was known for just under ten years later, which are his abstract expressionistic paintings. Another piece of work that fell under this category of realism was a work done with Charcoal on paper. The piece depicts a woman’s torso and shows an almost photorealistic drawing of the woman. The drawing is definitely an example of what “classical” influences had on art. This piece shocked me because it was so different from the drawings around it. It was surrounded by drawings with elongated, abstract figures and really showed a progression from where Clyfford Still started and where he was going and also that his work was ahead of it’s time.

The elongated figures in Clyfford Still’s paintings bring me to my next observation.  As I walked through the museum, I noticed the drastic change from the “real” to a more abstract, dark presence both emotionally and physically in his paintings. These paintings came in-between the paintings of realistic, clean still-life and portraits and the color fields that he is well known for. The moment that these paintings were produced, Pearl Harbor and the United States involvement in World War II had took a toll on the American people. A more somber and dark approach to his work was starting to become a main motif through out his work. Of these works, the piece that really caught my eye was a work called PH-414 from the years 1934-1935. The work showed figures that were very pale and were almost deteriorating to skin and bones. The faces and bodies of the figures are elongated. The piece gave me chills and made me very uncomfortable when I was looking at it. It made me feel what Still wanted to get across, a somber and melancholy feeling that I had never experienced from a painting.

Another that depicted an elongated figure, but added more of an abstract approach to it followed this painting. The painting uses a dominant color pallet of browns and it depicts an elongated figure sitting with a yellowish light coming behind it. The vertical posture of the figure adds to the idea that this figure is a life. One art historian said that Clyfford Still’s work depicts the living and dead with vertical and horizontal figures, that everything living grows vertically and becomes horizontal when it dies. (Clyfford Still’s Museum) During this period of work, these figures become the main motif of what Still was working with and I believe helped him move from figures in his work to completely getting rid of them all together.

This brings us to the large-scale color field paintings that Clyfford Still is known for. Before my visit to the museum, I had never experienced large-scale paintings in person and I have to say that the experience was amazingly overwhelming. The use of color and scale gave the feeling of being engulfed. One work that really made me feel this was was 1944-N-No. 1 (PH 235) from 1944. This painting shows “dramatic image, gestural technique, flattened space, and monumental scale, that were all characteristics that defined American painting for the next decade.” (Clyfford Still Museum) The painting has a solid black background that almost makes you feel that you’re in an empty and dark space, but as you’re eye moves across the space, you are introduced to thin, expressionistic strokes of bright colored paint. These colors are red, blue, yellow and white. While standing in front of this piece, the colored lines made my eye move around and made me follow where they wanted me to go, but at the same time, I was engulfed by the black, empty space. The color made me feel optimistic, that something good was coming as my eye moved through it.

Overall, my experience at the Clyfford Still’s museum was a great one. I was able to see the drastic changes that Still’s made to his work and that was truly an experience I can never forget. The shock that I experienced after observing at “Field Rocks,” slowly moving to his elongated figures and finally seeing his color fields is a hard feeling to express in words. Clyfford Still’s said “These are not paintings in a usual sense, they are life and death merging in a fearful union.” This quote sums up what Still’s works became over time, which was an attempt at bringing the viewer into the painting and keep them there and to feel emotion and I felt it happen.

3 Responses

  1. Comment from (Franklin) Perry Martin:

    I appreciate your continued use of the word elongated to describe many of the desolate figures Still painted in his earlier years. This was the aspect of these installments that stood out the most for me, as I feel they very accurately depicted the generally gaunt and somber emotional themes of famers and the hard-worker in the years during and after the Dust Bowl. My grandfather has spent time describing to me the overall desolation of American culture over this period and he has shared many stories with me regarding the reality of financial and food related hardship characteristic of this time. As a result of Still’s paintings and the memories of my grandfather’s stories, this portion of the museum was quite powerful.

  2. I’m glad you brought up his charcoal drawings early on in your essay. When I saw them at the gallery, they were something that I could more easily relate to as an artist, but unfortunately I didn’t have room to fit them into my own essay. It was also interesting to see that he did sketches and almost thumbnail version of his larger paintings. It gives the sense that he had to plot out and think about his paintings before he even attempted to execute them. That’s something most artists do, but you don’t think about it with someone like Clyfford Still. I felt the same way you did about the large colorfield paintings; they were utterly overwhelming and without doubt felt as though they were engulfing the entirety of the gallery.

  3. I agree with you that many of his paintings evoked a dark and somber emotion. When I was visiting the museums, I felt the same way as I walked through the different rooms of his life. I did feel though that his earlier works were where I felt the most uneasy. The way he chose to portray his figures in those paintings were very disturbing to me but I did not get the same disturbing, saddness from his later paintings that were much more abstracted.

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