Clyfford Still Paper (Alysa Sharp)

Clyfford Still Museum:

“Hip galleries, world-class museums and fun First Friday festivals – Denver’s art districts are the pulse of the Mile High City’s creative community” (Denver.org). Among these museums is the Clyfford Still Museum where over two-thousand works painted by none other than the artist Clyfford Still. According to Still’s will his works would be given in its entirety to one American city who would make a permanent museum so that others may observe and study his works. The main mission of the museum is “to advance the understanding and appreciation of Clyfford Still’s art and legacy through the presentation, research, interpretation, preservation, and stewardship of  its unique collections” (clyffordstillmuseum.org).

Clyfford Still was an important painter in the twentieth century, who’s work changed American and modern art. Through his work it becomes apparent that he wanted people to look inside themselves. He uses abstraction to connect energy that is directed to the viewer. Because Still grew up in the country side rather than a thriving metropolitan city he developed a style that suited him; highly expressive, psychological, and people are “stripped to the bone” meaning he showed what it was really like for people. However, as Clyfford’s works progressed people became less and less distinctive within them. An example of his work from some of his earlier work with people in it can be seen in PH 77 which Still painted in 1936. Here the scene is set in a field of wheat where the sky is dark but the wheat is golden. There are two figures within the painting both similar in stature with long arms and legs both with a sullen weary expression. The one in the front is wearing a red shirt, dark black pants, and worn shoes. He is reaching down to the ground to pick up some wheat for his bundle under his left arm. The right arm that is reaching down is disproportionate in sorts; the forearm is much larger and distinct so are the hands. The hands are large with long fingers, the hand looks worn from working in the fields all day like the farmer himself. The second figure behind the first is in a yellow shirt with overalls on and shoes. This figure too has long almost gangly like arms with hands that are big with long fingers. However, unlike the first figure this second one is painted so that we can see his face. The face though is not very detailed you see a nose an ear a mouth and two eyebrows. If one looks hard enough one can see that this is an older man, tired and worn from the years of work. The first figure then must be the son and the second figure is the father. While the son’s hands are worn the face of the father is.

Clyfford in this painting makes it clear who the people are and what they are doing but as his work continues on people become less and less distinctive, rather, they become part of the background. This can be seen in his work 1937 (PH-343) that he painted in 1937. This is where abstraction starts to play a key element within his paintings. The background is simple divided in half the right is red and the left is white; this also demonstrates the use of color field painting within his works as well. On the right side of the painting a “figure” is painted there but there are only minimal amounts of distinguishable features, such as, the shoulders, the arms, hands, and chest. Otherwise what should be a head with a face is more of a hill like mass that is drawn down and flows to the rest of the “body.” Where there should be a torso there is rather just a mass, there is no clear distinction of where it should start or end. There does appear to be a belly like part of the body and then the “legs” are short almost like stubs that end where the femur does there are no knees or the rest of the legs and feet, they just end. The arms however, even though they can be made out they start to conform with the body, they become one with it. The right arm clings to one of the black objects that are on the left side of the painting.

On the left side of the painting there is a contrast of black against white there are thick black lines that are randomly placed, there are black circles as well and then there are thinner black lines that intertwine with the thick black lines. There is no true pattern of how the lines and circles are placed rather more of a random order that makes it difficult to distinguish what they might represent. This painting in particular starts to make one question what is reality, what is real, and what is figurative, what can be distinguished, and what is indistinguishable. There is an emphasis on verticality which expresses life force where as the horizontal is death. That then creates the question of if this painting is meant to represent life and death or just life or neither? Because there appears to be a greater sense on verticality within the painting then horizontal and because of the morbidness of the “body” it makes one question whether or not Still meant to have this painting be interpreted for life and death.

Even though Clyfford Still loved to paint he also had a love for his country. When Pearl Harbor occurred he set aside his painting more so that he could put forth duty to his country. He worked at the docks building ships for the war effort. As soon as the war was over he picked up his painting again, however, this time it was different more abstract and it did not fit any norm that previous art had before. His paintings instructed while they destroyed the norms of paintings. This is when the new approach to painting now known as Abstract Expressionism began. It was marked by the “abstract forms, expressive brushwork, and monumental scale, all of which were used to convey universal themes about creation, life, struggle, and death” (clyffordstillmuseum.org).

This new form of art can be seen through Still’s painting 1949 No.1 (PH-385) oil on canvas that is massive in size 105 x 81 inches. This painting contains no figures or anything that can be truly distinguishable as an object, shape, etc. Rather instead it is a balance of reds, black, and little hints of white, blue, and a light, light pink. There are many layers within this work of art each of which adds another layer of energy and emotion to invoke the viewer to experience some form of the “human condition.” There are hard brush strokes and then there are other more soft brush strokes. The harder ones appear closer to the top and bottom corners where as the middle is more smooth and soft; almost like Still was working from the inside out of the painting. Upon viewing this piece for some it could invoke the emotion of struggle. With the darker colors of blue and black it creates a sort of anguish within the painting. Because the colors and the brush strokes evoke emotion from the viewer; whether that be anguish, hurt, pain, sadness it creates almost an eerie feeling. The way in which the colors overlap and work with each other and flow from each other creates abstract forms. Where the darker colors seem to emphasize a darker emotion there appears to be almost a hope like tie in within the painting through the lighter colors of white and blue.

Because there are no figures or objects this becomes a color field painting where the juxtaposing colors form a variety of formations within the painting. Unlike other painters who did color field Still’s appears to be more jagged creating and revealing the colors underneath such as in this painting. As well Clyfford applies the paint thickly which creates an variety and shades within the painting. As Still said himself “I never wanted color to be color. I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse together into a living spirit.” Which is exactly what Still accomplishes.

Whether it was from his early paintings to his last ones before his death Clyfford Still changed the way many view art and create art. He not only created a new form of art he created a new outlook on it. Rather than conforming to the regular patterns and ideals from the artistic world Clyfford Still changed them and brought forth a new way to view art and make it more full of emotional energy. This then allowed America to be finally viewed as one of the artistic “hot spots” in the world and was looked at for inspiration for art around the world. As Clyfford continued his work his paintings changed from less open to more open with less paint on the canvases. It becomes more apparent that art to him was more of a solitary aspect rather than to be made with someone, and staying true to one’s self just like Still did. “I am not interested in illustrating my time. A man’s ‘time’ limits him, it does not truly liberate him” (Clyfford Still).

2 Responses

  1. Alysa, your descriptions are very easy to understand and imagine, and it is interesting to read your analysis of brush strokes, color usage, etc. You also ended your essay strongly with a fantastic quote. At times, it was a bit hard to follow, however. I think it would have been more beneficial to actually introduce Clyfford Still in the first paragraph rather than focus on the museum. Also, the writing is a bit difficult to read due to lack of punctuation throughout, as well as choppy sentences in the beginning. Other than those few things, good job! :)

  2. You give some nice descriptions of the paintings, but it would be nice to have had photos of what you were describing. I’m not sure if I would have described any of his lines as randomly placed. I think he was very deliberate with all of his strokes he executed. Good information though.

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