Clyfford Still Paper- Elleree Fletcher

Clyfford Still – Elleree Fletcher

Clyfford Still was an artist before his time, even he was aware of it. He exclaimed, “I’m not interested in illustrating my time. A man’s ‘time’ limits him, it does not truly liberate him.” Due to Still’s lack of what he thought as appreciation, he locked all his work away, waiting for the time when all his paintings could be shown at the same time and place. He felt that his art had to stand on its own, and he did not want his work to be distracted by other artist’s pieces. Therefore, Still gave his paintings to a city, not an institution. Luckily for me, I was able to experience all of Still’s work in his new museum in Denver. It truly made a difference to exclusively enjoy Still’s work; I was able to understand his development, but was also captivated by his abstract expressionist paintings.

Teaching himself to paint, Still’s early work from the 1920s was inspired by his upbringing in Alberta Canada, and the vast landscapes and farm equipment that surrounded him. From afar mountains or hills can appeared to be more abstract than realistic, and he was able to distinguish the slightest change in color. Most of Still’s early work was inspired from exactly what he perceived; along with many landscapes, he did portraits as well. Before any traumatic historical events affected Still, he only painted in a realistic point of view.

The Great Depression influenced dark imagery in Still’s paintings. Starting around the 1930s, his realistic portraits turned into slight abstractions, to show the effect of the depression on workers. His color palate became very somber and he illustrated the suffering that he and his family, as farmers, felt during this time. In one painting done from 1934 to 35, Still paints a couple, in all monochromatic blue; the only light in the painting comes from hay that lays behind their feet. The faces are static, and they show no emotion, as if they are giving up. The figures are also naked; they are exposed and vulnerable, which displays people unanimous dark feelings during this time. To emphasize this desperation, Still elongates the body and face to exaggerate the challenges, and desperation that many felt. Even before Still moved to abstraction, he was able to evoke emotion in the viewer. I certainly felt run down, and desperate when looking at this piece. Although I was not alive for the depression, Still makes me feel as if I was in the painting with the figures. Still is certainly expressive, but at this point only slightly is distorting the figure.

Around 1935, Still moved more towards abstraction. Although he still depicted farm life, he elongates and changes the shapes within them. Still is more interested in what occurs on the inside of a being, rather than the obvious representational outer layer. He starts to add a flow of energy throughout his figures, and abstract representations of bones and organs. It is somewhat eerie for the viewer because one can see the reference to figures, but also that they also that they do not look human. Still continues to play with emotion, and makes the viewer question the human figure and energy flow. At this time Still is still interested in a darker color palate, but now the figures blend more into the background so that it is hard to decipher where the body ends. Also at this time, Still had a fascination with verticality of life, and the horizontality of death. I found that most of the pieces from this time involve this verticality, but also the flow of energy, and these themes continue later when he moves into a complete abstraction.

From the late 30’s to the early 40’s Still continues to play with the idea of verticality and energy, but his figures become undefinable. There is still some sort of central figure in his paintings, but they are in no way human. They are the focal point, in that they stand apart from the background, but Still begins to draw the eye across the page in a different way.

After World War II, Still’s paintings take a drastic turn towards the abstract. Just as other Abstract Expressionists did, Still felt the need to convey emotions, rather than the harsh realities that were occurring. More specifically, Still became a color field painter. He used large scale canvases, and swaths of color to make the viewer forget the horrible events that were prevalent, and take them to a different place. Still became completely non-objective, and focused on, “Life and death merging in a fearful union.” This is reminiscent of his earlier influence of verticality, but now there is a definite blend of the two; life and death seem to be playing with each other, moving back and forth on the canvas like fire. One painting that I viewed, PH-605, was done in 1950, right at the peak of Abstract Expressionism. I was astonished that from afar, or on a computer screen Still’s work seems insignificant. I was immediately proved wrong when I stood in front of this piece. It was almost entirely blue, with slight gaps of blue, red, and white paint. When you step closer and are engulfed by the piece, you realize the depth and motion of the paint. It has so much texture and depth, along with a slight change of dark blue that add to the movement. The bright red and blue pop out at you, and at first it is all you can focus on, but then you notice the slight change in background color, and it grounds you. It made me question simplicity, and the impact that it can have when you are surrounded by it.

Another painting, one done in 1960, called PH-960, was my favorite by far. Done by Still later in his life, it truly shows the control he has on the viewers emotions. I felt calm and at piece immediately. This painting had a cream base, with lighter and darker shades of this color to add movement like wind or water. Small segments of color flow with this energy. Blue, red, black, and orange seem at ease within the cream background. They are all strong colors, but there is a sense of serenity, and they do not overpower the piece, or steal the viewer’s eye. The scale of this piece is what truly makes it amazing. It towers above you, and encloses you in a calm flow of energy.

Both of the last two paintings mark the end of Still’s developmental transformation. He created a new way to think of art. Being non-objective, Still removed the associations that people have with objects and left them alone with their emotions. Still was able to remove his work from the typical format of the painting; no where for the eye to rest, his paintings became anti-compositional. Still uses line to create movement and energy, rather that making a specific object. His color choice adds to the emotion that the viewer feels. He knows how to create tension, but also serenity. Also. Still’s use of a palate knife to apply his paint gave his paintings depth, and a new sense of energy that complemented the lines. It is as if the paint is actually moving, breathing. These Abstract Expressionist paintings display Still’s full potential. He has made art more meaningful than just representing images, but he transports viewers to a different mind set. Throughout his painting career, Still had the talent to manipulate emotions through color and line, but these large scale Abstract Expressionist paintings capture and entice the viewer, and has left me wanting more.

One Response

  1. I likes that you discussed the full range of his works and the influences of the time period for each one. It was interesting reading about your sensory experience in comparison to mine, and am glad you included your reaction to his work. It might be nice to add a little more visual descriptions of his earlier works, and I think you could make the transitions flow better with a couple slight adjustments, but overall a good and interesting paper.

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