Clyfford Still Paper, Athena Brownson

Athena Brownson

Contemporary Art History

Professor Kira Van Lil

Clyfford Still

In the past three years of my art history education here at CU Boulder, Clyfford Still has not been one of the artists that has even been looked at when studying abstract expressionism for me. I assume in survey classes he usually gets overlooked by teachers who want to focus on artists more like Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko; the real stand outs of the movement. But to be quite honest, learning about Clyfford Still and visiting his gorgeous new museum in downtown Denver has by far been my favorite experience in learning about abstract expressionism. Not until one can see the full evolution of an abstract expressionist artist from their early days until their prime and beyond, can one fully appreciate how these artists were able to each pioneer their own styles, as Clyfford Still did. By experiencing an artist’s work from early years until death, a viewer can fully appreciate the artist’s genius and skill as I was able to see by visiting the Clyfford Still Museum. It is very rare that art has the ability to completely mystify me and touch me on an emotional level as the later pieces of Clyfford Still did. I have never been a student that has necessarily found meaning in abstract art, but after experiencing this museum, I can now say I have been affected by the psychological impact that these large scale paintings hold, and the pure genius that is necessary to create these compositions.

Clyfford Still was born in 1904, living between farm towns in Alberta Canada and North Dakota. According to his family, Clyfford was always interested in art as a child, but was kept very busy by his father who used him solely as a labor source for agriculture. This lifestyle of hard labor in rural farmland is very apparent when observing Still’s early works, which are only slightly abstract representations of people who are clearly being worked to the bone in agricultural production. Looking at the paintings from the early 1930’s and before, it is clear that they revolve around the themes of miserable people being worked to the bone in the fields. These figures are almost surreal as their faces and limbs stretch vertically down the canvas causing them to look as if they are melting. These images are largely painted in earth tones and most definitely reflect popular artists at the time such as Dali and Picasso. From the video in class I learned that although Still grew up in rural Canada and the US, he was constantly searching for ways to see popular art of the time.  It is clear that he was definitely influenced by the surrealists, cubists and impressionists that he would have seen at the time. These early works don’t necessarily show Clyfford developing his own style, but instead showcase his abilities as a painter who was able to grow into his own style.

As years progress in the 1940’s Still’s works become more and more abstract and minimalist, and also begin to grow in size. Still slowly gets rid of recognizable forms completely, instead turning to a focus on vertical lines and linear abstractions. It seems that when Still goes back to the west coast to live in San Francisco in 1946 to 1950 that he really begins to develop his own style instead of replicating the styles of prior painters. During this period, we begin to see Still develop his signature color blocking and large scale works that he is most famous for. The first painting, and my favorite piece, that I really observed in detail from this period was titled “No.1-Ph 385” and was painted in 1949. This emotionally powerful work is fairly large in size and is dominated by a variety of vibrant red oil pigments that he mixed himself. The painting itself consists of color blocking of mainly crimson red with swatches of a deep maroon and black over-laid with small hints of white and bronze. The paint, as in most of Still’s later pieces, is applied in a thick impasto technique that is truly built up on the canvas to create a texture that is only apparent when seeing the works in person. To fully appreciate this piece as well as others, it is necessary to first step back and view the piece from a distance to gain an understanding of the surprisingly balanced composition, and then to step forward and observe the painting at close range to really see the hand of the artist and be engulfed in the work. Viewing the painting in this way, the viewer really becomes one with the piece, and for me viewing his works this way had a profound emotional affect. I believe that because there is no representational imagery in his works, they almost play into whatever is going on in the viewer’s life at the time. Simply looking at them you can tell how much of Still went into them, and this fact makes them special and profound in a way that truly cannot be articulated. Being in the presence of these paintings impacts the viewer for the reason that they are so incredibly well executed, yet it is impossible to pin- point why they are so amazing. Works such as this can only be created by a true revolutionary artist like Clyfford Still.

Once I was able to peel myself away from the sea of crimson red I continued into the next room which displays works from the prime of his artistic career, his years working in New York City with the other abstract expressionists. Still moved to NYC with his family in 1950 to take full advantage of his artistic abilities and continue developing his color blocking style, with other artists such as Pollock and Rothko who were on the same page. During this time the scale of Stills works escalated and he continued to create compositions consisting of vibrant colors as well as earth tones and black. The painting I focused on from this period was painted in 1951 and is titled “1951-13 (Ph 247)”. This painting was one of the largest in the exhibit and is very Rothko-esque in the color blocking style that it was created in. The painting is dominated by an ultramarine blue, but when looking from many angles the viewer can see hints of black, purple and red in the canvas. It almost seems as if Still painted red under the blue to give the painting a firey glow when viewed from a distance. Slightly to the left of the center of this rectangular piece is a thick swatch of black which runs from the top to the bottom of the piece, and to the left of this is a thin line of neon orange. This addition of the orange stripe really enlivens the painting almost like a jolt of lightening. How paintings can be so full of energy is beyond me, but Still is able to do so with small additions like this neon stripe. This large-scale painting clearly shows the hand of the artist with its thick, inconsistent brushstrokes layered in many shades of blue on top of each other. Standing up close to the painting the viewer is completely engulfed in this sea of blue. As with all Still paintings it is nice to view them from many angles and distances to get the full psychological impact. A bench is also placed in front of this work allowing viewers to sit and really take in the energy that this painting holds.

In 1961 Still made the decision to drop out of the art world by leaving NYC for a rural house in Maryland. Still did not approve of the NYC art world at the time, as he believed this his fellow abstract expressionists were selling themselves short by trying so hard to exhibit their paintings. One of the things that I admire most about Still in learning about him is how he always stuck to his beliefs regarding how he wanted his works to be shone. Still was never begging for his works to be exhibited, but instead wanted his pieces to only be seen in a certain way. He believed that an artists works should be exhibited only in a solo exhibition which would consist of large numbers of that artists work, allowing the viewer to see how the artists style developed over time. So unlike other abstract expressionists, Still was never selling off his pieces one at a time, which is one of the reasons that Denver is able to have such a large collection of his works. Once living in Maryland, Still continued to paint constantly creating a huge output of works that almost no one ever saw until this Denver museum opened. Still did gift two prior museums with his works allowing them to show about 30 of his images in solo exhibitions which portrayed the evolution of his style. The final painting that I really studied was from this period, painted in 1974 at his barn in Maryland and titled “ Ph 929”. This large piece consists mainly of black and white paint applied to a not fully covered raw canvas, with small drips of the primary colors, which draw your eye around the piece. Looking at this painting the eye really focuses on the positive and negative spaces created by the black and white paint, and in a strange way the black paint reminded me of flying black birds. Now obviously this painting is completely non-representational, but the human eye can really transform these color swatches into that it wants. This was by far the most hectic painting of the three I have talked about, as it almost holds a nightmarish quality the way the black paint was roughly painted onto the canvas in all directions.

In Still’s final years in Maryland, he wrote up his will stating that his entire collection of over 2400 art works would be donated to the American city that was willing to build a museum that would only show his works, while preserving his works to be shown for generations. He wanted viewers of his work to be able to focus solely on how his words were able to affect the viewer psychologically, while not being distracted by the works of other artists. Still wanted the viewer to be able to connect to the energy of his works and feel them emotionally. Lucky for us, Denver was the city that raised enough money (by selling a few of his works) to build a gorgeous museum that will house his works for generations to come. After visiting this museum I can now say that Clyfford Still is my favorite abstract expressionist painter not only for his insane talent and ability, but for his persistence to show his work the way he thought best. I do believe that these works may not have had such a huge affect on me if I had been distracted by the works of other artists.  In the words of Clyfford Still “these are not simply paintings but life and death merging in a fearful union”.

5 Responses

  1. I really liked how you detailed you were when describing the paintings. You gave the reader a great sense of what the painting looked like. Also, your paper flows very well as you work from his earlier paintings to his color field paintings.

  2. I found your methods of viewing Still’s Colorfield paintings quite helpful. I agree that it is important to view these pieces from different angles and positions throughout the room. It was remarkable how different each painting could appear depending on where one was looking at it from. I particularly enjoyed your description of “1951-13 (PH 247)” because I also noticed how the colors in the painting changed as I walked around it. At first it seemed to have a distinctly blue background but when viewed from the side it clearly contained vibrant tones of red. I was amazed at how much could be found in this painting that did not immediately meet the eye. I had not realized, as you pointed out, that this effect has a profound psychological impact on the viewers subconscious.

  3. I think you did a really great job of describing the works and also the experience of seeing them. I was unclear about the formality and format of the paper so I was confused on how exactly to word and whether to talk in first person. I really enjoyed the way you discussed your sensory experience of seeing the work.

  4. I found your references to other artists quite useful as it pointed out similarities that I had not necessarily considered before. Your descriptions of the paintings are very vivid and make the paper enjoyable. There were certain sentences that didn’t flow as well as others but overall, it is a well written paper!

  5. Your paper is very easy to read and understandable. I enjoy reading your description of the paintings and was able to picture them perfectly. Connecting Still’s work to other artist was a great ideal.

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