Clyfford Still Paper- Danielle Mulein

Danielle Mulein

Art History 3539

Clyfford Still

From the early 1930s through the mid-1940s the world was trapped under a threatening shadow. For the United States, 1929 brought about the Great Depression, a state of economic distress that trickled down through society and into the international sphere. Germany, faced with economic, political and societal strain, was gasping for air when Adolf Hitler acquired power in 1933 and soon began the devastating and detrimental Second World War. As American citizens dealt with the repercussions of the Depression, Pearl Harbor and the Holocaust, America’s artists began their own process of grief. The movement of abstract expressionism began, with Clyfford Still in the foreground.

Still, who grew up in Middle America with the burden of manual labor, saw the hardships and broken spirits of those around him, as well as the vibrancy of the landscape. Never satisfied with farm work, Still was attracted to the arts at a young age and began to paint. Throughout Clyfford Still’s life his creative style drastically evolved as he became one of the premiere color field artists of the abstract expressionist movement. However, Still did not begin his career on top but gradually worked his way across the country and through the dichotomous relationship between life and death.

The onset of Still’s career began where most painters begin, with what you know. Subjects, objects and landscapes where Still’s initial inspiration. In 1932 Still used charcoal and paper to create a faceless woman figure. This early image instantly struck my curiosity since it was so different from the other works in the displayed collection. It is a simple piece. The woman is in a seated position, slightly skewed to her right, knees bent, sock-clad feet reaching towards the ground with one arm at her side and the other propped against her waist. As mentioned previously, Still did not add any details to her face, except for a facial form and whimsically sketched hair. Her feet are another flat, muted and dull, aspect of the image. Therefore, with an empty face and fading feet, the entire focus rests upon the body. This piece is not about individuality, but a detailed view of the female form, the root of life. As my eyes roamed up from her calves, thighs, to the softness in her round belly, the weight of her breasts and the protrusion of her clavicle I was taken back by how precise and elegant the female figure appears. The simplicity of the nude combined with Still’s attention to depth and shading created a sense of life within the figure.

As I moved through the layers of the Clyfford Still museum I was initially shocked by how drastically Still’s aesthetic altered from the early 1930s to the early 1940s. It was in the late years of the 1930s that Still began to play with the proportion and shapes of his human inspirations. In the wake of Pearl Harbor and America’s investment into World War II, “a more somber and complex approach characterized Still’s work” (Clyfford Still Museum). Similar to many other abstract artists of the era Still used his art as a coping mechanism in the overwhelming union of life and death surrounding him.  All of his emotion pulsates through his art, hoping that the audience internalizes their own emotions felt through the art evoking a personal response for every viewer. Still’s once human figures were being replaced by abstract shaped creatures.  Pieces during this time were grim, figures were stripped down to bone and flesh, and faces were long, unrecognizable, and broken.

During this in-between period, Still created an almost monotone image of an abstract figure. Certain aspects of this figure allow one to assume Still was continuing to draw inspiration from the human form. Half of a pronounce head, a rotating shoulder, a knee bent in the seated position all reference the human body. It is the colors, lines, and shapes that detract this image from being too representational of a human and allow it to be freed.  Initially this abstract image dressed in muted colors seemed so dense, but with a closer look one can detect colors of blue, brown and soft pink among the shades of grey, white and black. The top central portion of the piece is brightly lit with a half mood of yellow, lined in thick red. This shape fades into the background of the piece as does the other half of the figure’s head. The burst of yellow, with the absence of lines, allows an illumination to occur. A light, aided by the yellow sun, comes from this figure and continues to grow up and out of the piece.

The vertical composition of Still’s art, exclusively the piece below, comments on the impacting force of life. The influence of life is present with the broken figure and murky color palette. However, this piece seems to be more of a comment on one’s soul and the interval between life and death.  The brightness of the sun and the light that comes out of the figure evolves, as does a person’s soul moving from life to death.

The period from the mid-1940 until Still’s death in 1980 was characterized by his vibrant color field large-scale paintings. It was during this time that abstract expressionists, such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, were expanding the canvas into an environment, not merely a piece of art.

In 1959 Still created the large and radiant piece below. With a composition and colors different from either of the two pieces discussed earlier, this image truly exemplifies the brilliance of Still’s abstraction. The image is freed of a subject or object and instead relies on color and texture to make a statement. The incandescent orange takes over a large portion of the canvas as the backdrop, allowing the other patterns and colors to burst to life. For me, this image resembles the spirit. The theme of life and death filters through Still’s earlier work, yet as he progresses his paintings take a shift into the unknown, the sprit. No longer life or death just the beauty of color. Each alternative color is surrounded by a fresh slice of canvas, a bit of freedom. The experience of life creates the ability of a spirit. In this painting I see the colors represent alternative sides of an individual, the different aspects of one’s soul that is paralleled in the spirit. The rouge on the bottom right or the grey and black bolt that vertically breaks up the arrangement all resemble collective pieces that make a whole. Possibly the most beautiful aspect of this painting though is its ability to transform in the eyes of the beholder. To me it resembles the mended spirit, a place beyond life without the darkness of death, and to you it may be something completely different. That is the advantage of abstract expressionism; it allows the viewer to become the storyteller.




One Response

  1. Danielle,

    I also really enjoyed PH-972, the last piece you talked about. The way you described it reminded me of how I felt when i stood in front of this incredible work of art. I also agree completely with the way you interpreted the piece and I find it very interesting to hear how others view art.


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