Clyfford Still Paper (Jasmine Lewis)

Clyfford Still paper

 

The Abstract Expressionist scene of the mid 20th century spawned a new movement in the art world and impacted generations of art makers. The culmination of social and political change, the onset of WWII, and a new technological age called for a new type of art. The action painters emerged with large color-field and gestural paintings that sought to respond to a new and changing world. One greatly influential painter of this time was Clyfford still, who created large color-field paintings from the early 1940s up until the end of his career. It is the work of Clyfford Still, who’s career spans nearly 50 years, that is showcased in the Clyfford still Museum in Denver. The museum houses a massive collection of his work from early paintings produced in his youth all the way to the large abstract expressionist works he created up until his death.

Still spent the bulk of his childhood in rural setting and it could be argued that this greatly influenced his early works and their eventual development. The early examples of Still’s work on display at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver are paintings of open farmlands, trains, and natural features. As he develops as an artist the forms change significantly from studies of his surroundings to distorted images of sullen figures with protruding rib bones and bloated stomachs. With elongated faces and expressions of exhaustion, they elude to the difficulties of rural farm life during that specific period in history. This development coincides with the onset of the great depression. The images in his paintings are physically diminished and the muted color palette adds to the overall feeling of despair. In the painting PH-77, 1936, on display at the Clyfford Still Museum, the figures are captured in the act of working and there over sized hands, elongated faces, and the inclusion of a dark palette points towards the hardships of work. When viewing these earlier works, there is definitely an overwhelming feeling of woe and the subjects invite empathy.

As Still’s paintings continued to evolve into the early 1940s, the obvious figures gave way to further abstracted forms that were somewhat macabre. Pieces like 1944-A (PH-751), depicted monster like figures with mechanical and skeletal imagery that morphed into a single dark image. Personally, these early images had the most impact for me. The use of color and abstracted forms were beautiful yet disturbing and I liked the slight incorporation of figural imagery. They were abstracted forms, but some sort of figure was present in the painting and I enjoy that element of relatability. His later color field paintings have beautiful colors and images, but personally, they were not as resonant.

Continuing into the 1940s and on Still began the work he is most known for, the large and abstracted color field paintings. Still was concerned with moving away from the European tradition and creating a style all his own. He wanted to create art that moved beyond historical reference and influence, even beyond the physical into the sublime. The color field paintings were extensively large and no more than about five covered the walls in a single room. A particularly memorable painting from his later work was a very large blue painting that covered almost an entire museum wall. The foreboding size created an all-encompassing feeling when standing in front of the work. I really enjoyed the texture in all of his painting, but in this work in particular. Every stroke of the palette knife could be seen and the layering of paint was evident when I stood close to the painting. Personally, the engaging aspect of the color field paintings is that there is something new to discover every time it is viewed. I came back to this painting several times and during each occurrence I noticed something different, whether it be a new color dimension to the blue or a stroke of coral pink that was lost among the darker hues.

In 1961, still moved out of New York and into Maryland, separating himself from the art world. He had become disillusioned with the commercial art scene and entered into seclusion. It was during this period that the color field paintings developed even further. The Still Museum displayed several later works and they are definitely a departure. The paint and color application became sparser and the incorporation of empty space as a part of the composition often resulted in barren patches of unprimed canvas. This evolution seems to speak more to Still himself. He was often concerned with the vertical and the relationship between life and death. The vertical quite literally representing life and the horizontal being death, as we experience life standing up and lie down in death. The color field paintings in the 1940s incorporated dense layers of color and definitive upward horizontal movement. As still became older, the colors were disjointed and more fluid, interacting with each other in a more reserved state, which could be argued, reflected his resigned state in life.

Nevertheless, I think the Clifford Still museum explores an obviously integral part of the abstract expressionist movement. Still was daring in his attempts to capture the unobtainable, which is a daunting endeavor. Overall it was a great experience to explore an artist I had no prior knowledge of, and to view his work from the initial paintings through to the end of his career. Although his color field paintings are significant I found them to be less impactful than the early works of farm life and the highly abstracted figural forms. They were really beautiful to explore and just be around because I love color so much, but I feel the immediacy of the early paintings was more resonant.

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