Clyfford Still Paper

Emily Potter

January 31, 2012

ARTH 3539

Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still

            Clyfford Still was named to be one of the top Abstract Expressionist artists of the twentieth century.  His paintings began obvious in meaning and apparent in inspiration with shapes and figures the audiences’ eyes were familiar with.  Gradually becoming more familiar with his own style Still began to slowly transform the shapes and figures into something more “somber and complex” in approach.  Human figures began to transform into creature like shapes and becoming ominous in quality. In the 1940s, Stills art continued to advance in inventive and highly original ways transforming into the paintings we now know as Clifford Still’s.  The museum provided an overview of the artist’s imagery and his dramatic stylistic progressions during his fifty year career. 

Growing up in the quiet prairies of eastern Washington State and Canada Still was highly influenced by the land and labor.  His images show the people and places that were well known for being rich in agriculture, including buildings and machines set against bold landscapes.  Still’s earlier works relate strongly to his later works with use of layered and intense color, and the desire for monumental grandeur.  One of Still’s works, PH-77, 1936, is quickly recognized by viewers as two farmers in a wheat field.  The two men are center stage while holding and reaching for their “props” of golden wheat.  The blue chiseled sky surrounds the men as to imitate the surroundings of wheat, while the wheat meets the skyline about a forth of the way down the canvas.  The men’s arms are long and stretched, as if to exaggerate the timeline of how long they have been picking up wheat bundles.   The arm length is not scaled “ideally” to the men’s’ bodies.  Their backs are hunched, giving the audience a since of exhaustion. 

The man on the left wears a vibrant red shirt and holds a large bundle of wheat in his left arm.  If he gathers anymore harvest, he will drop what he has.  The man on the right is hunched very similar to the man on the left.  Wearing a yellow shirt, he reaches with both hands to grab his first bundle of the day.  The colors in the painting give the viewer a since of passion and joy in what the men do for a living.  However, their posture and long, stretched out arms tell the story of how tiring and hard labor they go through in order to have a living.  Still was able to give off two emotions; one of exhaustion in the forms and pride in the color.

In the early 1940s, Still’s human subjects began to be replaced by creature-like figures.  Vertical elements were set against nocturnal backgrounds giving the different compositions a nightmarish and ominous quality.  While this transition grew, the imagery of grasses and machinery were still evident in Still’s newer style.  Nature and landscapes are always evident in Still’s pieces.  The figure becomes a main importance throughout Still’s work.  PH-235, 1944, was one of Still’s first fully abstract paintings.  Made near the end of World War II, the dramatic technique, flattened space and large scale were all characteristics of what would “define American painting over the next decade.  The large canvas stands a possible six feet by five feet.  The background is black, but the viewer can see near every layer of paint Still applied.  When sitting on the bench in front of the painting, the natural lighting reflects off the paint to help the viewer acknowledge every brush stroke and size of brush the artist used. 

Against the black background, five colors are apparent.  The colors strike down like lightening in their own space as if to illustrate a storm on the farm.  The eye is never drawn to the center of the canvas like it was in the farmer’s painting, but instead is drawn toward the right side.  The red lightening strike of paint touches all the way down to the “ground.”  The purple, white, yellow and teal strikes, much smaller than the red, seem to branch off of the red, but away from the canvas.  When the viewer is seated while looking at this piece, it is then realized that on the very bottom right corner Still has applied one “dab” of bright green paint, adding a sixth strike of color.

Still began to teach at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.  There, he expanded on many of the ideas he was developing over the past ten years.  Figures or landscapes that were originally recognized by viewers were “freed from their representational origins.”  Still had reached Abstract Expressionism.  The pieces he had created embodied the characteristics of Abstract Expressionism before Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem De Kooning. 

During the late 1940s early 50s, Still mastered the technique of using bare canvas as an expressive visual.  He then worked in much larger scales and created an atmosphere in his paintings that gave a greater impact in their placement.  PH-1079, 1951, does not show the use of bare canvas, but exemplifies the use of significant size and emotion.  The almost all black canvas is again layered several times with black paint.  When sitting on the bench in front of this specific painting, the viewer can yet again see every layer of paint.  The pattern Still used to apply the paint, and the lighting seems to make the paint look like it is melting off the canvas.  The shiny black paint sucks the viewer into an emotion one of their own.  It puts the audience in an atmosphere out of this world.  Once you have been overwhelmed by the blackness, the almost covered white line is noticed.  It is not quite in the center of the canvas, yet more to the right, touching the canvas top to bottom.  Once the eye hits the white line, the eye becomes curious at what else it may find.  To the very far left, running three fourths of the way up the canvas, Still has placed a thicker orange line.  It is easy for the viewer to get lost in the blackness of the painting, but they are always able to find their way back to reality by finding the white and orange lines.  The color reminds the eye where they are and to keep moving. 

However, Still’s PH 1049, 1977, presents itself on the other side of the room from PH-1079, 1951, as if set up purposely as the 1951’s opposite.  This was one of Still’s paintings that honestly showed Still’s technique of using the blank canvas as an expressive tool.  The majority of the piece is blank, off white canvas.  Yellows and the occasional orange and red streak, camouflage their way onto the canvas.  The viewer cannot tell that the canvas is mostly bare until they walk up closer to the piece.  The size of the canvas swallows the rest of the room and keeps the viewer in its space until interest is moved to another painting.  The colors are not applied in any obvious shape or area on the canvas, yet are visually balanced in size, shape and distance.  The paint almost drips from the top, as if the canvas went through a light car wash of paint.  Close to the center of the piece, the yellow quietly begins to transform from yellow, to orange, to dark red.  It is subtle, but apparent. 

Clyfford Still invented Abstract Expressionism and made it his own during his fifty year long career in the art world.  Many people were not aware of Still until the Clyfford Still Museum opened in November 2011.  Most of Still’s work was never seen by the public before until this permanent museum was made for his work.  May Still’s work continue to inspire new generations of artists and keep the older artists’ stories alive.

3 Responses

  1. Emily,
    I am fascinated by something you stated early on in your paper. You said that nature and landscapes are always evident in Still’s pieces. I wonder if you meant that his earlier style always made itself present during his abstractions and his color fields, because that would be a very interesting way to look at his later works. Your descriptions about his paintings were above par and I can almost exactly how you felt when you observed these pieces.

    I am also glad that you liked PH-1049. I was completely amazed with how bare the canvas was, and yet, the bareness of it was more powerful than the paintbrush. Awesome job overall Emily, a truly informative paper.

  2. Although there are no images included in your paper your descriptions and use of words such as “ominous”, “nightmarish”, and “nocturnal,” construct a scene of the paintings that you are describing here. I really like that as you describe PH-77( the painting of the two farmers), you also create a story that makes the painting jump to life. It is interesting that you were able to interpret Still’s artistic techniques just simply by taking the time to really look at the pieces. Looking closely at the large canvases I was astounded by the use of color that seemed to absorb all of my attention.

  3. Emily,

    Your paper had good organization and I was able to make sense of your descriptions without visual indicators. When you were describing the figures in PH-77, you said “The men’s arms are long and stretched, as if to exaggerate the timeline of how long they have been picking up wheat bundles.” This was an interesting interpretation. Also, the way in which you personified the works made your descriptions very effective and brought your experience to life for me.

    One thing that could improve your paper is for you to include images and to make a connection to between Still’s art and your relationship with the art. How did you feel when viewing the art.?

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