Clyfford Still Paper-Brittany Hill

Brittany Hill

A Review of Clyfford Still

The impressive collection at the Clyfford Still museum in downtown Denver showcases the extensive career of the influential abstract expressionist artist. The pieces displayed range from his early traditional paintings and drawings, and progresses into his most recognizable work during the abstract expressionist movement. The museum also features everything from small sketches to massive canvases. This all-encompassing collection allows the visitors to fully understand Still’s development and his influences that are repeated throughout his work.

Abstract work, in general, can sometimes be difficult to understand and appreciate. However, seeing Still’s work from the beginning of his career during the 1920s through the 1930s, substantiates his wide range of artistic abilities. The oil paintings feature a very traditional oil painting technique, which often utilizes the palette method of application. The subjects aren’t significant; mainly referencing what he sees from his surroundings. Growing up on farms, and experiencing a humble, rural upbringing, his paintings showcase open prairies and trains, farms and the classic self portraits.

As Still progresses as an artist, the exploration of the human form becomes more abstract. He doesn’t just experiment with the human form, but with the emotional and physical strain on the bodies of people doing back breaking work, specifically in agriculture. His work during this period also reflected the hardships felt during the depression. The figures have dark, sunken faces, and their bodies are distorted and manipulated into angular representations that resemble bones jutting out at the skin, exemplify their fatigue. The bodies look emaciated, successfully conveying the difficult dark emotions like depression, hunger, exhaustion, that Still was exploring. Still was mostly likely drawing from his own experiences as well of working on a farm, and the pressure he felt from his father to be a hard working son.

The 1940s was when Still’s work progressed into the style of abstraction that he is most recognized for. His early abstractions were personally some of my favorites featured in the museum. For example, the piece PH129 (1949) has a vibrant energy by fusing unexpected colors together on a large square canvas. It’s dominated by a rich, warm yellow that is layered with a significant texture. From underneath, a streak of lavender peaks through the thick paint. In the top left corner, an ominous mixture of black and red pushes through the yellow. The piece is pure abstraction, no figures can be imagined, it’s only a vast colorful landscape. Clyfford said “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.” This is evident in his early abstract experimentation. The texture of the painting from the way he applied it cannot be described easily, because it has never been seen before. Still developed his own process of mixing his own paint from dry pigments and linseed oil, which other artist are still studying today. Also, the color in PH 129 cannot be captured in words, the energy that radiates from the use of those specific hues, transforms them into something more than just color. All the elements in this relatively simple piece truly do become a living spirit.

After his first solo show in 1942 at the San Francisco Museum of Art, his abstract style was embraced by the art world. By the 1950s, he was associated with other artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, who were all very involved in the abstract expressionist movement. Still was a leading figure, and started working in New York City where the movement was based. His paintings became more and more massive, an element commonly found during this period because of it’s ability to transform a piece into a landscape and envelope the viewer. At the museum, a gorgeous canvas titled 1951 B, spans across the entire wall. A subtle mix of dark, almost black and deep yet vibrant blue, fill the entire piece. Centered, is a vertical strip of an inky black that balances the piece. Slightly off-centered to the left, is an expressive, almost fluorescent broken orange line the slices through the shadowy canvas. The color-block technique that Still used, could cause the composition could verge on being too plain. Once again though, the color isn’t just color, and the texture isn’t just texture. The encompassing blue slowly pulsates with an indescribably vivacity, and there is a subtle opacity in the endless layers of paint.

To supplement the collection of paintings, the Clyfford Still Museum has a incredible collection of 1700 drawings. Completed on paper, they vary in mediums from charcoal, pastel, crayon, ink, various paints, and silkscreens. I found this to be one of my favorite aspects of the entire museum. An artists’ sketchbooks can be the most revealing and personal aspects of their work. It gives a multitude of insight that helps the viewer better understand the work. You can observe Still’s experimentation with shapes, color, and compositions. The themes, such as human forms and tools, that have carried themselves throughout Still’s career can also be seen in his drawings. One of my favorites was the watercolor PH 508 (1943). It had a very strong composition featuring only black watercolor on white paper, and although it was highly abstracted, it depicted a human face. Despite the fact that these are small, experimental sketches, they can certainly be recognized as “fully realized artworks in their own right.” I also enjoyed the drawing of the male human figure surrounded by a herd of horses. The figure were contorted, and had a similar shape seen in his first abstract figure paintings. The human face resembled the horses’ faces, and their legs and boney knees all bended together to create one strange creature that melds the features from both species. For me, his drawings show his traditional art training, and helps validate him as an artist, because you see how successful he is in multiple mediums and styles. By seeing his progress in this collection of work, the viewer is given visual hints to the content and inspiration behind his large scale paintings.

Still realized the art world wasn’t for him, and retreated to Maryland. Returning to his rural roots allowed him to do what he believed was his best work. During this time, his paintings became more free flowing, and allowed more negative space to be featured. In his piece PH-929, there is an obvious movement and energy in the piece. Also, the plain canvas is shown in the negative space, which is characteristic of his style late in his career.

Clyfford Still is obviously a very prominent contemporary artist because of his work that  contributed the the abstract expressionist movement. The Clyfford Still Museum successfully outlines his extensive career by showcasing his earliest traditional paintings, to his more and more abstracted figures, to full abstract expressionist. Also, by seeing his drawings and sketches, we are let in on his amount of experimentation in the arts. We can also see how his childhood and life experiences have heavily influenced his pieces. His unique style that was developed demonstrates his ability to capture the raw energy in pigment and texture and shape that was unmatched by any other artist during his time, and is still admired to this day.

2 Responses

  1. I really agree with you that abstract art can be difficult to understand; I also agree that being able to view his work from early on made a big difference in understanding. His working knowledge of different materials was really interesting to me and I like that you spoke about it in your paper.

  2. I too found it rather difficult to interpret and understand abstract art, however I feel like it appeals to each of us in a different way that creates it to be unique, whether that be the emotional appeal or what one sees within the abstract art. It deffinently made it easier to understand the progression of his work from seeing how his earlier works were and the transition stages that were created. Overall I thought that you wrote a good paper that was captivating!

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