Clyfford Still Paper– Samuel Lane

The development of Clyfford Still’s work is far from subtle as I quickly noticed at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver last weekend.  This incredible museum is not only visually fascinating, architecturally, but houses 94% of Still’s total output.  Unlike the Denver Art Museum, the Still collection is very organized and well curated.  The museum clearly indicates and arranges the collection by Still’s various stylistic movements, allowing the viewer to identify different periods of Still’s works, which span from 1920-1979.  I find that Clyfford Still’s rather rapid development and change in style is admirable and similar to his colleagues’ growth, such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.

I instantly took a liking to Clyfford Still’s work because of his use of color and space.  I anxiously viewed the collection beginning with Still’s more recent, abstract expressionist work.  These large and colorful paintings were very inviting and created quite an intimate feeling, partially because they hang on cold concrete walls, bare and unframed.  I found spectators especially intriguing, as they would often approach a work and thoroughly examine every space, contemplating its metaphorical or symbolic meaning.  The juxtaposition of the painting’s vibrant colors and the industrial and rather ominous concrete walls created somewhat of a surreal feeling, one that I had never experienced at a museum before.  As I continued through the museum, I was introduced to Still’s earlier works.  Unlike his recent abstract paintings, these works vary in size and medium.  Many of Still’s mid-1930s, Surrealist-inspired works, depict farm and industrial workers.  These paintings exemplify Still’s rapid development into abstract expressionism.  The farm worker paintings illustrate grim faced workers; fatigued and depressed.  Their bodies are worn and fragile as their bones protrude from their rather resilient flesh.  Their faces sink into their bodies, creating a dilapidated aesthetic (Figure 1). Not long after farm paintings, Still moves into a more industrial phase.  These paintings become much more surreal and abstract as Still tampers with the human body, distorting its conventional representation (Figure 2).  These bodies appear very complex, internally.  It almost looks as if there are multiple figures in a single body.  There is no doubt that these late 1930s paintings play a pivotal role in Still’s most praised transformation into “high” Abstract Expressionism.

figure 1 ——–>  figure 2

I had a very interesting and unforgettable experience walking through the Clyfford Still Museum.  During my research and contemplation, I was interrupted by an elder woman, grasping her husband’s arm, discussing the composition and meaning of Still’s work, quite loudly.  I quickly realized that her husband was blind and was relying on her interpretation of the work, visually and symbolically.  I was completely blown away and quite moved.

Imagine explaining and interpreting an abstract painting to someone who can’t see at all.

As I have always found other’s interpretations valuable, I listened in and followed the couple around the museum and learned a lot.  During our glacial-paced movement, the couple (and myself) stopped at Still’s earliest abstract paintings. Unlike his later abstract color-field and “all-over-structure” paintings, these have a focal point and I conclude that they have a meaning.  PH-355, PH-350, and No. 2 (PH-85) were situated together and all share a common visual aesthetic.  When we arrived at this trio of paintings, I was eager to hear her interpretation, as these pieces were quite dark and very complex.  In my opinion, she nailed it.  She stood in front of the collection and confidently began explaining every detail to her spouse.  I will discuss these paintings because I find them influential and very challenging.

The latest painting in the collection, PH-355, was produced in 1945 (far left painting).  This painting, at first glance, is quite dark and distorted.  It is evident that there is a dominant figure but the actual meaning of the figure is vague.  “It is an arm, vertically pointing upward.  The hand is grabbing something, or reaching…” the elderly woman said to her husband.  I agree.  The blank, off-white figure resembles an arm, rising from the ground.  This vertical depiction represents life and growth.  Interestingly enough, the vertical figure has three colorful vertical lines through its body.  Perhaps these lines emphasize the figure’s stature and significance or maybe they too resemble life.  I reckon that these slender lines represent adolescence: a product of the larger figure.  The arm towers over the lines, protecting them from the darkness that engulfs their figures.  Regardless of the symbolic meaning, the painting is visually appealing and unlike any of Still’s work.  I find that the trio of paintings are far more dark, dramatic, and expressionistic than any of Still’s paintings on display.

The second painting in the collection, PH-350 was produced in 1943.  This piece, strategically placed in the center of the three, is far more complex than it’s surrounding.  Like the first painting, there is development, as the composition appears vertical, also showing life and growth—development.  “There is a buffalo seated behind a cactus.  He sits in a small field, surrounded by black—darkness, depression,” the woman spoke with her hands this time, becoming more enthusiastic during her spoken interpretation.  Again, I agree with her statement.  Although there is some ambiguity in the top half of the painting, I think its reasonable to assume that Still’s creature in the bottom corner is some sort of beastly animal, perhaps a buffalo.  Although the background presents vertical movement, Still’s brushstrokes indicate a downward movement, specifically seen on the right side of the paintings, where the yellow paint drips.  The drips certainly could have been unintentional, but I believe the drips are there for a purpose.  I think this painting in particular has a very psychological meaning although it looks somewhat juvenile and childish.  Like the painting on the left, Still uses few colors: black, white, green, yellow, brown, and red.  Even though this painting was produced two years before PH-355, it follows the motif and general visual aesthetic.

The final painting in the collection is titled, No. 2 (PH-85), painted in 1942.  The woman speaking to her husband was definitely stumped by this painting, “well…I don’t really know what this could be.  It’s certainly abstract.”  This painting does present a bolder, more dominating figure like the painting on the far left.  This painting, like the other two, shows vertical motion.  There is vertical movement from a white bold figure, a thin red line to the left, and a yellow line within the white figure.  However, this painting is far more basic than its neighbors, but equally expressionistic.  Again, it is safe to say that this image represents development and growth.  Although it’s difficult to determine exactly what the figure represents, it’s almost a phallic-like structure, emphasized by a subtle curve at the base.  Or a less far-fetched interpretation; maybe it’s just a tree? Few colors are visible although there is less black space than the other paintings.  What can be concluded from this collection is that each painting represents some sort of development, whether it be life, growth, or progress.

Clyfford Still is certainly one of the more unique members of the famous abstract expressionist group, The Irascibles.  Although he as not as notorious as Rothko or Pollock, his works are just as insightful and valuable as any American contemporary artist.  Still’s collection, which will remain reserved at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, can certainly be considered one of the most extensive and impressive compilations of any American abstract expressionist.

7 Responses

  1. What an amazing way to experience the collection for the first time, I can’t imagine trying to explain a Clyfford Still painting to a blind person. I also love listening to what people around me are saying in museums, it’s so interesting to see how strangers interpret the same work. As for your paper, I was really impressed by your format. It was really original and gave me a sense of how the experience affected you, personally.

  2. I enjoyed reading your paper and how you experienced the museum, because my experience seems quite opposite from yours. I viewed Stills collection of work from the opposite direction, I began in the room of his early works and made my way around to the rooms filled with his most recent color abstract expression paintings. As you describe Stills’ large paintings as “inviting” and “intimate” I found them a bit daunting. At first the sheer size of the paintings was intimidating to me, but I can see that as you move closer and spend time with a specific painting it can become very intimate and free for interpretation.
    What a great experience to listen to the old woman try to explain Stills work to her blind husband, thats some seriously good timing on your part. Her descriptions and your analytical interpretation of the paintings were fascinating…I would have never took paint in PH-350 to be “juvenile” or “childish” but, taking a second glance at it after reading your opinion it sheds a new light on the piece and I can absolutely see where your coming from.

  3. Sam –
    Your paper is thorough and well written, although I disagree with you on a couple of points. First of all, I don’t think it is fair to call the DAM “disorganized”. Although the new libeskind designed hamilton wing might be called “disorganized” (I personally am not a fan of libeskind or the extension), I think that the art collection contained within it is relatively well organized considering the wide body of works in different mediums it encloses. Any museum would seem disorganized compared to the still museum. Secondly, I am a little confused by what you mean when you describe PH-85. I would like to know exactly what makes it “Far more basic… but equally impressionistic.” Is there a measure of impressionistic quality?

    Anyways, just my 2 cents, and I think you nailed most of your other interpretations. Good paper.

  4. Your paper is well written and creates an inviting atmosphere to keep reading it. When you talked about the women trying to explain the painting to her blind husband it creates a new outlook of Still’s work from your own interpretaion to the painting and I wonder if what you over heard affected the way you viewed it yourself and started looking at it from her point of view? Just a question that came to mind. Otherwise I felt like you did a great job of explaning what you were seeing and related it elequently in your paper.

  5. Your paper is well written and your approach was very interesting. I like that you made an effort to analyze the meaning within each piece from visual representations and from the opinions of another viewer. I think it would have been interesting to include more information from a scholarly source to strengthen your argument. I didn’t have the same reaction to his larger pieces, but I really appreciate that you described your interaction with the piece within the setting of the museum.

  6. Your experience visiting the museum must have been unforgettable. It is interest to me that you found the trio paintings to be most interesting, because viewing the museum myself I feel that I had underestimated their symbolic meaning. Reading your response to these painting with your experience with the elder couple, makes me want to revisit the museum, and partially revisit the three paintings.

  7. Your experience was definitely one of the most unique, and that made for an interesting and valuable read. Having to vocalize visual art to somebody who is unable to visualize anything at all requires a lot of clear interpretation, and that’s a very difficult task when the majority of Still’s art is so intangible and arbitrary. I really appreciate your writing style, your vocabulary is precise and at times even poetic. But if I had to complain about anything at all, you tend to write a bit casually for an essay, even though I think you pull it off in the end.

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