Clyfford Still Paper – Rose Kalasz

Clyfford Still is a name that remains synonymous with the defining movement of the 1950’s, Abstract Expressionism.  However, seeing such a large body of work by Still, and only Still, at the Clyfford Still Museum opened my eyes to the growth of the artist and the themes that resonated throughout his entire career as a painter.  Still was a deeply intellectual man, whose art reflects carefully thought out ideas and concepts developed and influenced from his own experience (he said many times that his work was largely autobiographical) and his desire to move beyond the reaches of his lifetime and historical genre and touch viewers from all eras.  Still’s body of work is large, varied, and the total collection spans five decades of prolific painting and growth.  The goal of the Clyfford Still Museum is to show the gradual development of an artist and the underlying motifs and themes that remain constant throughout his work, which all become very apparent as one wanders through the galleries.
One of the first pieces that caught my eye at the museum was PH-448 from 1934. This is one of Still’s very early paintings, and at the time he painted it his subject matter focused primarily on the scenes of abject poverty and hopelessness he saw around him in the farming communities where his family lived.  The figures he paints are long faced, forlorn, and often shown emaciated and bleeding.  These paintings are different from the more idealized and even glamorized images of the working class that were popular during the depression, and through his brutal honesty Still shows true understanding and empathy with the situation of the farmers and their land, an environment where “men and machines ripped a meager living from the topsoil” (Anfam, pg. 21).  This particular painting has two central figures, a man and a woman, who are shown standing up and bathing in a river or pond.  The figures are both distorted in a tortured and almost grotesque representation of hardship and need.  The scene is dark and the colors that Still chose, along with his painterly and somewhat dry looking brushstrokes, make the painting itself appear dirty and visually represent the drought like conditions of the Canadian plains where he grew up.  Still’s earthy palette also demonstrates the close ties to and the dependancy on the land that these farmers experienced, and therefore the constant battle with life and death that they lived everyday.  This struggle and tension between life force and human mortality would become a constant and prominant theme in his paintings for the rest of his life, as would the harsh and violent realities of life that first appeared in his earliest paintings.  Another of Still’s most important and sustained concepts in his art, that of verticality, began to surface at this time.  He saw in the landscape and people around him the importance of man standing upright and of crops growing tall towards the sky as the most clear and definite representation of what it means to stay alive, and of falling down or becoming horizontal as the ultimate symbol of death or absense of life force. In his early works, such as PH-448, the composition is almost entirely vertical, emphasizing the fact that the figures are still standing and therefore still alive.  Although his paintings later lose the figural aspects and move towards complete abstraction, he continues to use verticality as a representation of life.
The 1940’s were a time of great transformation and growth in Still’s painting, as he further developed both his style and his purpose.  The painting PH-286 from 1943 is a good visual example of the changing times and Still’s changing motivation and aesthetic, as it shows his early forays into abstraction. The painting still has slight reference to objects and/or figures, but has definitely become much more abstracted than his paintings from the 1930’s.  Visually, PH-286 looks almost like an inkblot test, where the viewer knows there is something representational within the spashes of color, but cannot exactly say what it is.  The colors are brighter and more vibrant than in many of Still’s early works, but the painting still retains the violence and tension of the impoverished farm scenes, where the bright colors and the white space struggle for canvas space against swaths of jagged black.  Like his earlier pieces, this painting too has an entirely vertical composition that moves upward and “grows.” Still’s work from this time period, mostly while he lived in San Francisco, shifts focus from Regionlism to a kind of abstracted Spiritualism (Anfam, pg. 29).  This shift came from Still’s developing desire to escape the boundaries of his own era, and make art that transcended time, history, and place, instead creating pieces that appealed to the universiality of raw emotion and spirit.  This need for separation from his time and the desire to create representation of pure feeling was something that only grew stronger throughout his career.
By the 1970’s, Still had completely removed himself from the art world and even from the group of like minded artists and the movement he associated with, that had by then become known as Abstract Expressionism.  During the 1950’s, many artists like Rothko, Pollock, Kline, and de Kooning started to move in a more abstracted and expressive direction with their paintings, similar to what Still was doing at the time.  Still’s art from that time, and later, uses many of the same techniques and visuals as those artists, such as large scale, non-representational compositions made with sweeping expressive gestures and thick or uneven application of paint.  The pieces I saw from the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s show an artist fully developed and concentrated on his style and themes, which still focused on verticality, violence, and a struggle between light and dark (life and death).  The painting PH-1034 from 1973 is an example of the classic Still style that is known today, and a good representation of the themes Still had been developing for his whole career.  PH-1034 is a huge canvas, taking up a large portion of the wall at the museum, and it is covered in thick fields of blood red, black, and orange.  Although the colors do not have much variation or depth, they are highly textured and hold a lot of visual interest.  Much of this interest comes from the tension and violence that Still is able to convey in his paintings, even with just abstract shapes.  The black and red and orange appear to be fighting for space and life on the canvas with sharp, clawlike edges and angry jagged shapes.  Although PH-1034 is a departure in every obvious way from his early paintings of poverty stricken farmers, but once there has been close study of Still’s beliefs and themes, there are many qualities that carry through the decades of his career.
The Museum itself is a juxtaposition of natural wood and poured concrete that perfectly displays and highlights both the qualities of earth and man-made that Still’s paintings evoke.  The galleries gently lead the visitors around in an almost chronological tour of Still’s art, and the skylights and large simple rooms bring out the intense emotion and savagery of the paintings, both large and small scale.  Personally, I thought the Museum did well as an institution for learning about an individual artist’s journey, and the space itself was an impressive, but not overwhelming, complement to the art.

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