Clyfford Still Paper – Lane Mitchell

Lane Mitchell


ARTH 3539

Clyfford Still Paper

Considered by many as one of the Great American Painters of the 20th century, Clyfford Still managed to produce over two thousand works over the course of his career. Beginning with figural representations of farm life and exemplifications of the internal effects of the Depression, Still’s work slowly lost more and more “form”, losing any specific focus and transforming into his great Abstract Expressionist pieces. As his works and style progressively changed and morphed, one thing remained the same – the focus and importance of the internal and emotional state of the figure.

Still’s early work tended to be the most representational work of his collection. Created during the time of the Depression, many of these early works were farm scenes, “many committed to revealing the physical, emotional, and even psychological effects of hard work” (wall panel –Clyfford Still museum). This piece (below) exemplifies these effects through the male and female figure. Standing upright and vertical, the figures represent life. The use of verticality and horizontality is common in Still’s works; vertical lines suggest life while horizontal lives suggest death. While this piece was executed in a fairly expressionistic style with apparent brushstrokes and dramatized features, this is one of the most representational pieces of his career, showing a clear male and female figure within a composition. Still’s art began to transform quickly, simplifying his compositions, transforming them into abstract “anti-compositions” as his career continued.

Taken at the Clyfford Still museum

Quickly altering his style and technique, Still’s interpretation of the figure loosened and became less about the outside representation of the figure and more about the inner and mechanical state of the figure. While figures became less representational, Still’s work in the late 1930s still contained a composition with a loosely representational figure. His works around this time began to contain many mechanical aspects by using lines and broad shapes of color. The piece below is an example of this increasingly abstract style. Similar to the first piece discussed, this piece contains two figures within a composition. The viewer is able to distinguish two human like figures within the composition, but not much more than that. The composition begins to lose its representational qualities and gains abstract ones through the use of large blocks of color and organic horizontal and vertical lines. After this phase of Still’s career, his work began to progress quickly, becoming increasingly abstract and expansive in scale.

Taken at the Clyfford Still museum

As Still’s works became increasingly abstract, the scale also increased by a massive amount. Still wanted these massive paintings to create an environment for the viewer to experience, its sheer size practically able to consume the viewer. These later works also replaced any remaining recognizable figure that may have been apparent in his earlier works with the usage of huge planes of color. “Lines and shapes that once described the figure of the landscape were freed from their representational origins” (wall panel – Clyfford Still museum). Still’s work was now truly abstract.

Still’s abstract paintings seemed to have emerged from his abstract feelings within him. Still painted his emotional state that he could not manage to express with words. “If you can write about it, why [paint] it?” (Clyfford Still movie). A prime example of this abstract expressionism mentioned above is the massive painting pictured below. This environment expands pasts the viewers peripheral vision, and while the painting is predominantly blue, it seems to be alive. This life within the painting came directly from the life that was put into it. Using pallet knives and  pigments mixed by hand, Still would apply layer upon layer of paint, scraping off and adding as he continued. This adding and subtracting process gave his paintings movement that is quite astonishing (detail below). Paired with this expanse of blue are two vertical lines, orange and black. While the orange line is rather small in comparison to the rest of the piece, it seems to protrude from the painting into the viewers’ space. Referred to as “lifelines”, these vertical lines appear often throughout the duration of Still’s works. As mentioned above, verticality and horizontality, representing life and death, are common in all of Still’s works. “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” (wall panel – Clyfford Still museum).  These “lifelines” paired with the lively application of paint, create an energy about Still’s works that is readily apparent.

Taken at Clyfford Still museum


Though Clyfford Still began his career as many artists do, with their own unique variations of traditional techniques, it can be said that with the maturity of his talents, Still’s later and more abstract pieces are more genuine expressions of his true creative self. It is these later works that eventually caused Still to be considered as one of America’s great painters.

2 Responses

  1. Lane, I think it’s so interesting that we visited the museum together and discussed many of the works, and yet the paintings and ideas we chose to write about were so different.

    I like your description of the detail of Still’s painting. From a distance, the blue is fairly flat; up close, however, the dimension in the layering was incredible. I think we sat and stared at this painting for a solid ten minutes, both from the bench in the middle of the room, and with eyes two inches away from the surface!

  2. Lane, I love the pictures that you put into you work it really helps while reading along and to have a visual. To quote you “Still’s abstract paintings seemed to have emerged from his abstract feelings within him” I completely agree Still seemed as though he let himself breath in his work. I felt that every brush stroke rush of emotion.

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