Clyfford Still Paper by Molly Plummer

Abstract expressionism’s aesthetic history is rooted in progression.  Artists sought an innovate form of expression to fit the new cultural landscape after World War II.  These artists lived through and experienced the America’s transition through the Great Depression and World War II and were left with a new cultural landscape.  These artists felt that this new landscape also needed a new form of expression, a new aesthetic to fit this environment and abstract expressionism was born. Clyfford Still’s paintings showcase this transition proficiently.  At the Clyfford Still museum Still’s works paint a picture of his journey beginning from images of the Great Depression and progress in terms of abstraction until the viewer is left gazing into his definitive, infamous transcendental paintings that define abstract expressionism.

Clyfford Still was an American painter who pushed the bounds of normalcy in art after World War II.  He is part of a group of influential and prestigious artists who developed this new form of painting, abstract expressionism.  Joined by Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, Still developed a style of painting that was highly expressive, abstract and sought transcendence.  Monumental in scale these works leave the viewer in awe although there is no discernable imagery.  These paintings instead work through abstraction, scale, and expressive strokes and composition to evoke the sublime.

Born in 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota Still emerged into a life centered on the farm and vast desolate landscapes.  Although his later work is a study in abstraction, these images play an important role in shaping his work.  Still spent his childhood in rural Spokane, Washington and Alberta Canada.  It is in these places where Still became infatuated with the concept of the man and the machine.  Still was trained in San Francisco and moved to New York for the majority of the 1950’s.  After becoming frustrated with the art world in New York, he moved to Maryland where he spent the rest of his life with his wife and his artwork.

Clyfford Still once claimed that the image stood behind all his images.  Walking through the first room of the Clyfford Still exhibit, Still’s words ring true.  The first room is littered with images that depict realistic scenes of the Great Depression, centered on his early life in Alberta Canada.  These images focus on buildings and people in rural landscapes.  Still begins to incorporate the machines used on farms in these pieces.  While these pieces seem far differ from Still’s later famous style, they have show an important relation.  This is apparent “particularly his early use of chiseled planes of intense color and desire for monumental grandeur” (“Inaugural Exhibit”).

In the next set of paintings, Still uses images of his life during the 1930s in Pullman, Washington.  Although during this time Still was in pursuit of his education, he was still surrounded by rural, Great Depression era desolation.  Still finished his masters degree in 1935 and began to teach art.  Most of these images are farm scenes and even as they show a degree of realism, they are “increasingly expressionistic” and opposed the propaganda of the time (“Inaugural Exhibit”).  He instead used this expressionism to show the unattractive side effects of hard work.  His worked moved away from realism during this period and is especially apparent in the image of two men sucking wheat.  Still discussed the memories of Pullman that influenced this painting referencing “arms bloodied to the elbows from shucking wheat” and “men and machines ripping a meager living from the thin top soil” (“Inaugural Exhibit”).  Still’s quotes exemplify the tone of the piece, ominous and desolate.  This piece begins to show Still’s move towards abstraction in the exaggerated arms of the men and their dark faces.  The image stops looking as realistic and becomes “carefully executed arrangements of line, color, and interlocking shapes” (“Inaugural Exhibit”).  This change is echoed in his later works.

The exhibit then shows the viewer Still’s beginning of true abstraction.  This set of paintings, created in Pullman, Washington and Oakland, California in the late 1930s, show seeming nightmares of the Great Depression.  The images include dark collections of images including  “creature-like protagonists… totems, bone fragments, quasi-figures, and other vertical elements are set against nocturnal backgrounds” (“Inaugural Exhibit”).  While the images are still present, they are much less discernable and definitely more abstract.  On first glance the viewer might not even notice the connection between the man and the machine, but instead see a dark nightmare.

PH 313 particularly shows Still’s mood in this series while also showcasing the abstraction and bright colors of his later pieces.  The painting shows human figures huddled around an object, thought to be a totem or staff.  The figures are interpretive and barely discernable and the objects suggested.  Still includes red and black lines at the top as parts of machine handles, continuing his theme of the man and the machine he experienced first hand during the great depression.  This image, along with the rest of this series, is highly original and illustrate Still’s move towards abstraction.  The painting on first glance seems completely abstract and showcases Still’s power with colors.  Splashes of bright colors jump out at the viewer, but the painting still seems menacing and gloomy.  This begins to make the viewer feel something emotionally that is very different than his realistic pieces do.  There is a sense of awe and that the emotion the piece elicits is an intention of Still’s.  Although this piece thematically fits Great Depression era art, it importantly showcases parts of Still’s infamous style while concretely solidifies Still’s move towards abstraction.

What follows is inevitable: a series of paintings that are true abstractions.  These paintings were created during Still’s tenure at “Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where he synthesized many of the ideas he had been developing over the previous ten years” (“Inaugural Exhibit”).  While there is a combination of Still’s previous themes and ideas, he finally liberated the lines, figures, and landscape showing works that were radically different.

Several paintings in this collection even show a progression of to a greater degree of abstraction and expressionism and showcase the birth of Still’s radical style.  The series opens with a rust colored piece that is monumental compared to his previous works.  It is a piece that showcases Still’s dramatic expressionism.  He still uses the colors used from the previous works, but they seem brighter.  Two overlapping, contrasting shapes outlined in bright rust intrude the background.  Although this is abstract in nature, the figures are gestural and seem inspired and thematic.  The piece is also monumental in scale, a defining quality of abstract expressionism.

1944 – N – No. 1 was created at the close of World War II and showcases even further the colors and lines Still would become famous for.  This piece exemplifies his use of flattened space intruded with what Still referred to as “lifelines”.  “My paintings have the rising forms of the vertical necessity of life dominating the horizon.  For in such a land a man must stand upright, if he would live.  And so born and became intrinsic this elemental characteristic of my life and work” (Clyfford Still).  These lines ascend upward from the edge of the canvas and create movement by intruding the flat color.  These “lifelines” continue and actually enhance the abstraction, as they look less like figures and more like naturally moving wisps.

While Still discovered the beginnings of his defining style in Virginia, he solidified and enhanced this style in San Francisco in the late 1940s.  His works became even more gestural and even the abstractions from the Virginia series seem liberated marking a “tremendously fertile period in which his paintings gained new power through vibrant colors, jagged forms, and heavily encrusted surfaces” (“Inaugural Exhibit”).  Still also mastered the art of the bare canvas during this period.  As seen in PH-118 Still began to aggressively use areas of bare canvass expressively in which these unpainted areas appear gestural.  In this piece most of the area is unpainted, but the painting is still gestural and has movement.  The painted areas in this piece are structural, moving, and completely abstract.  Their placement in the blank canvass combined with the monumental scale impacts the viewer intensely.  This piece is the birth of transcendence in Still’s works.  While he has hinted at the feeling before the combination of paint, bare canvas, large scale, and color illustrate the sublime.

The exhibition continues and ends with Still’s paintings created in New York in the 1950s.  These pieces showcase Still’s definitive style and solidify his place in the Abstract Expressionist movement.  Paintings of monumental scale with huge fields of color, areas of blank canvas, and gestural abstraction show Still’s desire “to engulf the viewer’s field of vision and to be experienced as environments” (“Inaugural Exhibit”).  The pieces take up entire walls and the fields of color range from the size of a person to the size of a garage door.  Littered with blank canvas, these gestural abstractions define transcendence.  The viewer experiences the sublimity in the work while nothing is recognizable.  These works are so expressive in nature that they seem to speak of topics greater than everyday life but of which the viewer does not know.  Still mastered the dramatic conceptual nature that defines abstract expressionism.

The exhibition showcased Still’s works in a natural progression that left the viewer with a greater understanding of Still and the Abstract Expressionist Movement.  The works reveal so many contexts that are so important to Still’s works and make his signature style seem inevitable.

Works Cited

Inaugural Exhibition.  Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Colorado.

2 Responses

  1. I liked how you touched on the point that although his pieces became more abstract, they still remained structural. This was one point I found very interesting about his work. He had the same forms reappear in his paintings. While they became more abstract….they still existed, just in a different representation.

  2. One thing that stuck out to me that you talked about in your paper was about the colorfield paintings that had minimal amounts of paint added. While I was there, those were the paintings i found myself moving past more quickly than the others. You described them as having the empty unpainted canvas appear to painted space because the small amount of painted areas very dynamic. I went back and looked at some of the pictures that i took after reading your article and understood those paintings much better.

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