Clyfford Still Paper- Samantha Gault

Samantha Gault

January 30, 2012

ARTH 3539

Clyfford Still Paper

 Clyfford Still

A great gift was given to the city of Denver when it was chosen to be the location of the final resting place of the phenomenal works of Clyfford Still.  The proliferation and progression of his Abstract Expressionism is a sight to behold.  His paintings, as a whole, envelop a sense of spirituality and sublime worth in a non-objective, non-representational manner .  Some have defined Clyfford Still as the genius behind the Abstract Expressionism movement and, with emphasis taken away from specific figures in the painting, the observer can feel the personal emotion that Still intended to display across his canvases.  

Clyfford Still is recognized as one of the most substantial artists of the 20th century.  Still was born in 1904 in the state of North Dakota into a modest home with farming origins.  Moving often in his childhood, through Spokane, Washington and eventually into Alberta, Canada, he then settled into the Canadian wheat fields.  Art historians note that this was when Still began to sketch landscapes that he observed on the prairie, noting that the beauty of art allowed a cluster of trees to appear as an “oasis in the desert”.  In his teenage years, Still began to travel across the Canadian-American border to view artistic exhibitions and performances and, in turn, decided that the life of a farmer was not for him.  After witnessing an exposition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and deducing that the particular artwork shown did not live up to his expectations, Clyfford Still found yet another spark to ignite his career in this unique field of art.  The importance of the still figure did not resonate with Still, and he promptly decided to let his own art be a living force in which to demonstrate the power of expression.

The first of Clyfford Still’s prominent works appeared in the 1920s, where he worked diligently on developing his own style outside of a large city—the typical artistic destination at the time.  His work began in a modern fashion, while continuing to stress the color and the sense of touch that grew in the painting.  Still’s origins in art were more defined than pieces found later, and exemplified a pure, virtuous, and ultimately personal feeling.  In 1934, Still introduced his paintings that depicted the life and hard times of the American working class.  Focused primarily on the farming community during the Great Depression, these were darkly expressive. These paintings are statements of the mentality of production and people and the intricate interactions that they have with one another.  The figures in the paintings lacked precise detail and emphasis was placed less on the process of the art and more on the expression and feeling of it.  Through this artwork, Still was able to eliminate the emphasis on the mechanics of a painting and reinforce the communication of a feeling from artist to audience.  In the late 1930s, Clyfford Still progressed his personal abstraction into a more gruesome form, incorporating colors of a darker nature to portray an expression of a more sullen nature.  His figures began to take on more animalistic forms, losing even more definition and detail then previously observed.

The year in between 1943 and 1944 is the time period that is characterized by Clyfford Still’s artwork fully moving into the abstractionism movement.  Throughout the rest of the 1940s and beyond, his contributions to Abstract Expressionism blossomed.  He used a traditional method of grinding his own pigment that starkly contrasted his revolutionary methods of painting.  He used his all-over compositions to reinforce undefined shapes and colors that only highlighted the absence of a figure and of a distinct purpose.  Still became a participant in the Betty Parsons Gallery, heralded as the prime location of the beginnings of the Abstract Expressionism movement.  He felt as though he could reach the full potential of his expression in this gallery, rather than in museums like the Museum of Modern Art, of which he referred to as, “that gas chamber”.  In the 1970s, pop art began its natural progression into American culture, and Abstract Expressionists began to realize that they had been replaced.  Still moved to the country in Maryland, outside of the spotlight to continue his artistic endeavors.  As he aged, his paintings were looser and less crowded, perhaps signifying a calmer state of being.

Clyfford Still held on to his integrity through many obstacles, and both positive and negative feedback did not seem to affect him in any way.  He was not a conformist and preferred to remain true to himself and his emotions, rather than blend in with existing or up-and-coming forms of art.  Due to this, it seemed he was destined to be an outsider of sorts, and the lack of recognition for his artistic contributions stands in defense of that.  In the 1970s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art finally gave him the recognition he deserved, awarding him the largest exhibition given to any previous artist.  He visited his collection at the Met regularly until his death in 1980.

While visiting the Clyfford Still Museum last weekend, I found three pieces of artwork to significantly stand out.  The first was entitled, “PH-414”, and was painted in the year between 1934-35.  Two naked, somber figures stood in the center of the painting—one male to the left, one female on his right.  The black backdrop enhanced the bluish hue that filled the figures and the yellowing wheat grass at their feet.  The male figure was tall, while the female maintained a short, stout appearance.  Pointed ribs protruded out of their bloated bellies, indicating an emaciated, malnourished nature.  Although the two characters are holding hands, the man is looking into the distance, only intensifying their sullen, grim expressions.  They had long, rectangular faces that drew out their fatigued state.  The woman’s sagging breasts again emphasized the angst and exhaustion that she seemed to be feelings.  After further research, I found that this particular painting belonged to Still’s abstract collection of farming communities and exhibits their struggles and strife in a working class America.

The second piece that caught my attention was titled, “PH-210”, and was composed in 1942.  After reading up on this particular painting, I found out that it was one of Clyfford Still’s first abstractions in the 1940s.  It was completely free of representation and was a combination of lines and shapes scattered over the large canvas.  A light brown background served as a home for a jagged black line adorned with a round, gold band.  Adjacent to this, there was a large, rectangular black shape, encircled by an orange halo.  In this dark form there lay a large white linear pattern, with a thin, line of an intense red mimicking it in its center.  The texture of the paint on the canvas displayed the uncontrolled manner in which Still composed his work.  The dispersion of the colors across the canvas in an almost nonsensical manner helped to develop the overall feeling in his piece.  In addition, the strokes of paint created interesting layers that could be viewed both individually and wholly, and each stroke served as an agent for helping the piece come together as a unit of expression.  Coming from a personal background of which I have not had much exposure to abstract art, I found it to be a truly captivating piece.

Still’s painting entitled “PH-247” was the one that stood out most prominently for me, both literally and figuratively.  There was an entire wall in the museum dedicated to this massive canvas, which was made up of an intermingling of blue and black undefined figures.  The vibrant colors were messily sloshed across the fabric.  A long, thick black line was painted down the center, segmenting the painting into two complimentary and individual sections.  Again, the brushstrokes were jagged and unclean, further characterizing an expressionist standpoint.  Another thin, orange line was found on the left side; this bold contrast of color protruded onto the darker hues of the rest of the painting.  The canvas contained huge fields of intense color accented by a small quantity of bright color.  The authentic atmosphere of the room and the interest of my fellow occupants contributed to the impact that the Clyfford Still museum had on my prior knowledge of abstract art.

Clyfford Still is acknowledged as one of the extraordinary founding fathers of Abstract Expressionism, and deeply influenced the artists of his time and thereafter.  The permanent and cryptic collection of work that was given to the city of Denver is comprised of 825 paintings.  Most of it had never been seen by the public eye; 94% of the artist’s work had been kept in hiding until now.  Still possessed the drive to devote his entire life to creating a previously unknown form of abstraction and paved a unique pathway for artists to express themselves.

(Used: Clyfford Still articles located on the research blog, the documentary shown in class on Thursday, January, 26th, and information provided by the Clyfford Still Museum)

3 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed reading your paper. While you did not include pictures in your post, through your describing of the pieces I was able to visualize them in my head clearly. I also enjoyed PH-247 and I liked your description of the paint as being “messily sloshed”.

  2. Excellent paper! You did a great job of explaining Still’s life and the evolution of his art. You also did a great job of explaining the pieces you saw at the museum. I dont really have any critiques! Good job.

  3. Your paper is very well written, and very informative. I also was drawn to the PH-247. The layers in the blue were an energy of their own greatness. The thick black line to me was an entrance of sorts, whether it be into the energies of the painting or back into myself. I pondered quite a while here only wondering where to go and feeling in the darkness the life from the thin orange light.

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