Clyfford Still Paper by Ashley Ludkowski

Ashley Ludkowski

ARTH 3539-001

Clyfford Still

An artist far beyond his own lifetime, the expansiveness of Clyfford Still’s artwork has finally been gathered and assembled in one location, 32 years after his death in 1980. His most expressive and well known style, belonging to Colorfield Painting, emerged during the late 40’s. Before this explosion of endless color synthesized with textured forms was created, Still worked with an expressive figurative style. His early compositions consist of real life forms, yet heavily altered from that of Realism. Intrigued with the sublime, Still examined this idea throughout his entire career. From the basic sketches of human figures and skulls, to the vast exploration of paint, Still created a body of work that not only supersedes his life, but will forever extend far beyond it into generations to come. 

Considered to many as the leading figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement, Still has a colossal collection of pieces that were created much earlier than this movement. Born in North Dakota, Still’s family maintained a wheat ranch while he was a boy. With quite the collection of landscape pantings adorned with the struggles of men and their machinery, these compositions come as no surprise when looking at his early work. This lifestyle was a harsh reality whose crop depended on the sweetness of nature that year. Still was quickly welcomed into the powers nature holds simply from understanding how it affected his family’s lifestyle and income each year. This existential struggle of life intertwined with the overwhelming spirit of the land was an intriguing thought for Still, one of which he heavily focused on in his works. While his beginning works were filled with many landscapes depicting human life, during the 30’s his framework turned to consist of compositions filled with figures. In 1934, Still started PH-414, finishing it the following year. Two nude figures, one male and one female, stand hand in hand, flat-footed upon the earth in this piece.

A natural, healthy skin tone is replaced with a grayish white tone that portrays quite the image of death. The only color beyond the grayish tone on the bodies is seen on the males two abnormally large hands, which contain a murky, brown color. The life seems to be missing from these figures. Their withered bodies are highlighted with fierce brush strokes, contouring their sagging bellies. Not only are the faces elongated and drooping towards the ground, the woman’s breasts replicate the age seen within their faces. The deeply colored foreground contradicts their bright bodies, yet, further implies this realm of death. Arising near the figures feet from the bottom of the canvas is a form of foliage, executed with tones of orange. Next to these plants, blue paint sneaks onto the bottom left corner of the canvas. The imagery and colors combined conveys the emotions Still may have felt growing up in a rather dissonant environment.

This entire composition seems as if it is held together in the center where the individuals hold each others hands. This simple gesture adds a sense of life into these somber faces which stand upon the ground. Still did not place these figures in a completely empty foreground, they are accompanied with a tiny hint of the natural earth, of which he felt held a powerful spirit. For Still, his exploration of the figure was innovative for his time. With very little detail in the face, the idea he portrays goes beyond concrete lines and forms. It is about the very idea of existence, and the harsh reality of it. Gloom and despair stand above the earth here.

Completely covering the canvas in layers of paint, Still left no spot bare of color in this piece. Pouring to the edges of his canvas’s, his surface area and paint exploration would only increase with time. From the land, to the figures upon the land, Still was always investigating the unparalleled nature of it all. As time progressed within his life, he wished to create works that would go beyond the limits of time. WWII quickly became a major role during Still’s time. This unbelievable tragedy not only enraged, but confused Americans, creating a sense of backlash to what was considered acceptable. Artist’s began to create outrageously abstract pieces that held meanings unlike anything seen before. Easily understood compositions were set back in the American art scene, and a sense of irrational individuality began to thrive. During this time, Still began to break free into his own form of conflicted expression that would exceed time.

Still moved to California in 1940, then across the country to New York in 1945. This is where he began to lay the foundation for the revolution known as Abstract Expressionism. Discarding all forms, Still began to move away from the figure and into the realm of pure color. He never considered himself part of the New York scene, as he lived mostly on the West coast during this revolutionary time, but beyond his own mind, Still played a major role in the formation of this new art wave that hit its peak in the 50’s. Not only did Still begin to disregard forms in his new style, but he created such a large eruption of colors that they began to embody their very own form and create compositions purely through color placement and texture. Known as Colorfield Painting, Still began to embody this new discovery and quickly move with it from the 50’s and on.

PH-272 is a painting executed in 1950. With the majority of the surface adorned with a brilliant red; orange, brown, yellow, black, and even a tiny hint of blue add to the expansiveness of this canvas. It is at this point that Still began to leave areas of the canvas bare, working with the natural color and texture of the canvas as well as the paints. The sweeping red is charged with so many different focal points, there is never one place for the eye to rest comfortably upon. Immediately drawn to the black portion inside of the orange, the colors never allow your eye to cease the visual exploration. This section of orange leads to another section of orange, which then escorts your eye to the lower left corner which was left completely bare. Questioning this idea of the bare canvas is quickly withdrawn as the brown section above captures your attention. Soon across the top, down the other side, and another brown comes in to play. Balancing the composition with these equalizing colors becomes confusing and rather confronting. Such an all-over composition suddenly has a sense of balance, throwing off the rapid scattering of the eye which attempts to capture it all.

A little bit of yellow within each brown creates another sense of balance, but suddenly the black portion pulls you back in. Here, a small drip of blue that may have been missed the first time around unexpectedly shows its color. Still works with and beyond the canvas in these all-over compositions. Even though they are flat, they never cease to be filled with movement. PH-272 embodies a completely alternate view than a piece done a year earlier. This deep, red covered canvas contradicts the 1949, bright yellow one. Still never stayed with one idea very long, he was constantly studying and expanding upon his very own creations.

PH-4, completed in 1952, continues on with this new pattern of expansive size, yet provides a completely new platform of design. Much less canvas is showing here than previously and the brush stoke pattern is fierce with an intense vertical drip effect. Layer upon layer, the colors pull you in, enticing you with questions. It seems as if bare canvas is peeping through the orange, but it is simply lighter shades mixed with darks, playing on the shadows of life. Hot and rough, the colors are so textual they seem to throw the viewer into a desert world. Stretching and growing across the canvas, this canvas differs from previous years as it was stapled and stretched after the paint was applied. Admiring the sides of this canvas display openly visible staples. Not wanting to conceal the procedure, every canvas that was stretched from this date forward has visible staples and ends with a custom size.

This stretched piece with the paint pouring to the edges conveys a sense of life and death. The vivid orange, coupled with the bold red seem so alive, yet are still influenced by the harsh reality of life with the black and blue at the bottom. Standing in front of this piece gives me a charging feeling. Compared to PH-272 which was almost  unsettling, this piece makes me feel in control. I want to cry, or possibly fly. The pattern of the red across the orange, interrupted by the black, but still flowing over the edges back to orange want me to break free. A hot, dead, other worldly planet, such as Mars, immediately comes to mind when letting the colors absorb over my body. Enjoying the versatile edges, the empty orange space in the upper right corner urges me to dive in.

Still creates enticing compositions with colorful textures that make the viewer want to explore. When he broke into this form of painting in the late 40s, he was on the verge of a brand new reality. Completely associated with other Abstract Expressionist’s of his time such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and De Kooning; Still didn’t completely enjoy this association. He removed himself from the art scene and withdrew his work from the public in 1951. Continuing to create new pieces everyday, his spacious movement’s of color brought him to a level of world-renowned recognition far beyond anything his very own mind could have grasped within his lifetime. From his beginning works that clearly display his need to depict the overwhelming reality of life with direct compositions and powerfully laid paints, through his imaginative figurative stage, to his expansive and world renowned colorfield paintings; the colors are always the most striking and abundant element. Removing lines and forms over time, Still ended working with pure color. He progressed from a more realistic interpretation of the land and his surroundings, to a completely abstract experiment of life. Yet, intertwined within all of this is his underlying subliminal questioning of existence.




2 Responses

  1. I like when you describe his painting, you are not only explain the color, shape and, composition, you describe the painting well by connect with the period, and many many details that I did not notice.

  2. You have a deeper understanding of the paintings that I really enjoy, and I was interested in reading all the way though your paper. You really displayed a strong grasp on Still’s history. The incorporation of his history and the ideas of his work were done very well. I like how you introduced his colorfield painting work and how the farm in North Dakota could have guided his hands in the landscapes.

    Great Paper

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