Clyfford Still Paper, Madison Rupp

The Showcased Brilliance of Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still has always been a mysterious figure in the art world.  With humble beginnings in rural North Dakota and Washington, Still’s talent and style brought him to the ranks of famous mid-century painters.  Yet he still remained an enigma.  As the art world has come to resemble Hollywood, Clyfford Still has denied himself the celebrity status of his peers and denied the public of most of his work.  Until now.  With the opening of the Clyfford Still museum in November, the world has come to recognize this man as a talent that changed the course of modern art and a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism.  The Clyfford Still museum highlights the artist’s vision by exclusively displaying Still’s works and by organizing them into discrete groups based on geography, which gives a rough chronology.  In seeing Still’s work as a cohesive whole, the viewer gains a better understanding not only of the artist’s process, but of the man’s genius.

A contradiction in itself, Clyfford Still has always been known for his obscurity.  Still was born at the turn of the century in North Dakota, and grew up in rural parts of Washington and Alberta, Canada.  His youth was characterized by the hardships of farm life, and Still knew hard work from a young age.  Still was also interested in art from an early age, teaching himself how to paint from magazine reproductions of Regionalist and American Scene art.  His early works depict daily life in rural settings, but do so in a tone that commands respect.  An important feature of his development, Still would continue to be influenced by these genres throughout his long career.  In the early thirties Still attained a masters in arts from Washington State College, and stayed on as part of the teaching staff.  Here, we see the rigid naturalism of his training shifting towards a more figural, expressive representation of both human and landscape.
An exemplary work from this period is PH-77, 1936.  Following the museum’s location-based chronology, this work is situated in the first main gallery (after the ‘Orientation Gallery’ that houses Still’s self portrait and two very early landscape works).  PH-77 depicts pastoral subject matter that was typical of the time, but moves towards a more gestural representation.  The paintings in this gallery are intended to express the daunting, exhausting nature of farm work.  This particular painting is about 5 feet tall and 6 feet wide, and two men hunch down within the paintings’ frames to harvest their crops.  While most of their bodies are proportioned in a naturalistic formula, their arms are elongated, their hands are huge, and their facial features are long and geometric.  Their bodies strain under their work, and their hands are visibly heavy.  The landscape itself seems to sympathise with the workers, dipping just below the hand of the worker on the left.  The colors adhere to the bold primaries of Regionalism, but their application is more tangible and painterly.  Bright white clouds frame the men, and then fade into the deep sky with bursts of color applied with a thick brush.  The work shows Still’s sensitivity to emotion, it exudes a sense of fatigue and frustration.  It also forecasts Still’s later work in its size (although it is small by later standards), bold color, wide plane, and focus on emotional states.
As Still continued to work at Washington State, his works became increasingly abstract.  They reflect the influence of Cubism and Surrealism in their near-complete breakdown of human form and their ominous, dreamlike illustration of psychological interiors.  The paintings as a whole are done on a slightly smaller scale, and the color palette becomes limited to muted colors with interspersed flecks of bright color.  They are still figural, retaining a humanistic vertical (which would translate into most of his abstract works) and occasionally allowing a recognizable human feature to appear.  Nonetheless, there is a distinct shift in these works from his earlier endeavors, and this group is displayed in the next gallery space.  Also included in this group are works that Still did while in Oakland, California.  Still moved to Oakland in the early forties to work on shipyards as his contribution to the military efforts of WWII.  During this time he was not as artistically productive as before, and continued to work in a ruminative, semi-figural style.  However, standing in the museum, one can look into the next gallery and guess that this was not the case for long.
The next work immediately draws the museum-goer’s attention.  It also happens to be Still’s first work of pure abstraction, titled 1944-N No. 1 (PH-235).  It is directly visible from the previous gallery and tempts most visitors to move directly towards it.  Once in front of this vast canvas (it is the largest one yet- more than eight feet tall and seven feet wide), the viewer confronts a field of black, interrupted by an ephemeral line of red paint and sliced by single daggers of white, yellow, and green.  The black is heavy, it is applied in thick waves that weigh down on the viewer, but lightened by tiny empty spaces of white canvas.  It almost feels like a deep night sky, but one that has been struck by technicolor lightning.  While it’s tempting to cling on to a perception of a landscape, one must let this go and make the leap from viewing a painting to experiencing a painting.  At this point it is impossible to respect the suggested viewing distance of 18 inches.  In order to try and grasp the features of this great black monster, one must take advantage of every available vantage point.  The painting changes every time you look at it, developing into a visual dialogue with the energized flashes of color.  1944-N No. 1 is intimidating and relentless, but transfixing at the same time.
1944-N No. 1 is a product of Still’s time in Richmond, where he taught at the Virginia Commonwealth University until 1945.  After his lull in Oakland, this was a period of high productivity and even greater innovation.  It was during this period that Still became acquainted with painters who would later come to be known as the Abstract Expressionists, but Still was the first of his peers to work in a completely abstract style.  These paintings are done on a larger scale than before, their presence is much more physical, and the hand of the artist is integral to the definition of form and color.  However, they mostly retain the muted color palette of his Washington and Oakland works, as well as the vertical orientation of forms.  This stage in Still’s development is monumentally important as his first abstractions, but could be considered the mere tipping point for his later artistic expansion.
Still left Richmond to live in New York for a short time, and then moved to San Francisco to teach at the Art Institute.  It was a highly productive time for him, during which he further explored the boundaries of his abstractions.  The forms of color appear more as separate entities, in flux with each other but constantly expanding across the canvas.  Still retains his use of bold color, which adds drama to the jagged forms.  The paint is applied in swift movements but retains a heavy texture.  Still also experiments more with using blank canvas space as one of his color forms.  During this period, Still maintained communication with other Abstract Expressionists and was considered an important voice amongst them.  These artistic exchanges created a sense of commonality, even though these painters’ styles varied greatly.  This sense of commonality inspired further development in Abstract Expressionist work, which led to further recognition and increasing acclaim.
Clyfford Still’s move to New York in 1950 coincided with Abstract Expressionism’s rise to an unprecedented level of fame.  In the movement’s apogee, Abstract Expressionist painters became a household name.  Abstract Expressionism was heralded as the first truly modern American style, and its creators had the reputation for being stern, macho men that drank heavily and worked hard.  Still stood apart from his contemporaries in that he kept his personal life and his work very private and that he denounced the celebrity nature of his success.  Because of this, Still is sometimes underestimated amongst the Abstract Expressionists.  Regardless, Still’s work was extremely innovating, and lay the groundwork for color field painting.  Still falls under the color field strain because of his focus on the psychological and abstract, his use of huge scale and bold color, and his emphasis on the flatness of the canvas.  Color field painters also wanted their work to be whole and self sufficient, an end in themselves.  This means that the painting should be about the psychological impact of the abstracted form and an experience of some greater awesome force, rather than a narration produced by realist imagery.  This is apparent in Clyfford Still’s work from this time because the huge canvas was meant to engulf the viewer’s field of vision, so that once surrounded by these color fields the viewer could interact with them on an emotional level.
One can see this at work in PH-1123, which was painted in New York in 1954.  It is one of the biggest canvases on display and when standing in front of it, one almost feels as though they have entered another world within the painting.  Blacks, whites, and greys dominate the painting, and new experiments in texture enliven the surface.  Still now uses the blank white canvas frequently as an actor in his color scheme, and implements various glosses that interact with the lighting of the gallery.  A streak of orange interrupts the monochrome color fields, as well as a subtle royal blue at the far right.  These bright colors create tension amongst the monochrome forms, challenging the dominance of each one.  The fields of color appear to be in a delicate balance of giving and taking, almost as though they were caught in a pleasant debate.  But one can also see trademarks of Stil’s hand: the verticals, the bright color, and huge scale.  In this new work, on sees how the paintings have become more complete, the color fields interact amongst themselves and create a whole visual dialogue.  As mentioned earlier, there is further experimentation with texture and glossiness, pushing the boundaries of how the painting interacts with the gallery space.  What is truly apparent here is the work’s new ability to inspire awe.  The color fields invoke notions of a higher power that is both beautiful, but incomprehensible.  The work has a compelling presence, which the viewer cannot help but to respect.
Becoming increasingly disillusioned by the New York art scene, Still withdrew from the art world.  He moved a final time to a farm in rural Maryland in the early 60’s and worked there until his death in 1980.  During this time, Still continued to develop techniques for texture, gloss, and brush stroke.  Colors maintain their dynamic qualities, but the forms appear lighter and more in flux.  There is an ephemeral quality to the color fields, as though they flicker in and out of visibility within the frame.  Until recently, most of these works have been kept out of the public eye.
The Clyfford Still Musuem offers an incredible insight into the career of its infamous namesake.  Because of Still’s strict stipulations regarding the preservation and display of his paintings, his works can now be seen in their entirety.  The musuem brings the viewer through a chronology of his works so that the viewer can discern innovations between periods of artistic production, but also so that one can follow Still’s distinct artistic vision woven into each piece.  The mystery surrounding Still has dissolved greatly because of the musuem, though art historians may never truly understand the stormy figure that stares out from Still’s self portrait.

One Response

  1. Your descriptions of the pieces you described are very vivid. Even without the photos I think I could have picked out exactly which pieces you were talking about.

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