Clyfford Still Paper, Wesley Grover

At first glance Clyfford Still’s Colorfield paintings look like nothing more than paint smeared across a canvas with little rhyme or reason. My first reaction to many of his works was simply, “I could have done that”. Yet after viewing Still’s progression throughout his prolific career from his earliest paintings to his later Abstract Expressionist works, it becomes apparent that there was a method to his madness. When viewing the vast body of Still’s work in chronological order it is clear that he has not simply applied the paint carelessly; the composition of each piece has been carefully thought out and chosen for a specific reason.  Even the size of his paintings are quite significant as one can notice that the scale of Still’s work increased over time. Though his earlier works display a greater skill of depicting reality, Still’s Colorfield paintings exhibit the unique style that made the artist an iconic member of Abstract Expressionism. By the end of his career one can observe that Still was not trying to illustrate reality, but express his emotions.

Having only been familiar with Still’s Colorfield works before visiting the museum, I was greatly surprised by the artist’s talent at the beginning of his career. From an early age Still displayed an uncanny ability to paint the world around him. These paintings bare no resemblance to the iconic style that would make Still famous. Rather, the artist seems more concerned with developing his skills to imitate reality. An example of this is PH 45 (1925); this painting is a magnificently colored image of a rock pile. The subject matter is easily discernible because it is painted in a very traditional manner. PH 45 looks almost like Academic Art, especially when compared to his later work, however Still’s attention to lighting and sketchy brushwork make it appear Impressionist. Furthermore, the subject matter is much more traditional than his later style that would gain him recognition. The image is as close a depiction of reality as any of Still’s work would ever come. The size of this painting is also significant because of its conventional scale, which Still would later deviate from. In this painting one can observe the work of a young artist trying to find himself while imitating his predecessors. This is an important part of artistic development and must not be overlooked in order to fully understand how Still became an Abstract Expressionist.

By the mid 1930’s one can witness Still’s progression as he begins to formulate his own technique. It was around this time that figuration in Still’s work deteriorates and it starts to take on an Abstract aesthetic. The subject matter also begins to evolve from traditional imagery and becomes more concerned with expressing Still’s own world. These changes can be seen in Still’s 1937 painting, PH 344. This painting displays his liberation from traditional artistic style as Still moves toward expressing his own thoughts. PH 344 depicts two figures standing side by side yet they bear little resemblance to any human form. The figures’ bodies are emaciated and fleeting; they appear to be collapsing on themselves. Still has clearly overcome the constraints of traditional art and is no longer attempting to imitate reality. This painting suggests that he is more focused on expressing emotion. The figures would not be recognizable if it were not for their tired, droopy hands and weary ribcages. Still also demonstrates a free use of color as the figures range from white to orange, red, and brown. He is no longer stressing over imitation, but rather creation of a new environment that exists within the painting. His work from this time period indicates that Still is attempting to express the physical demands of farm life. This type of subject matter was first witnessed in the works of Realists, specifically Gustave Courbet’s early paintings. However, the style in which Still portrays farm life is quite unique because of the lack of figuration. Unlike Courbet, Still expresses the physical demands of this type of work through the disparity between the painting and reality. The literal size of his paintings also starts to increase during this time, as Still departs from traditional scale. PH 344 does not imitate a tired worker as seen in the real world, but rather expresses the worker’s physical deterioration and exaggerates it beyond what can be observed in reality. This painting also demonstrates Still’s concern with verticality, which would emanate throughout his career. The two figures appear as if they are attempting to stand upright but are being weighed down and their bodies’ are folding. Still believed that vertical figures represented life and horizontal figures represented death; the reason for this was verticality suggests growth while horizontality connotes death, such as lying in the ground. Perhaps this was best described in the artist’s own words when he said, “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. And so born and became intrinsic this elemental characteristic of my life and work” (Plaque, Clyfford Still Museum). This becomes an increasingly important component of Still’s work as figuration continued to decline.

As his style progressed one can start to observe early elements of Abstract Expressionism in Still’s work by the 1940’s. Around this time he begins to ignore figuration altogether and his paintings bear no resemblance to the physical world. Rather, as Still developed Colorfield painting he became entirely concerned with expressing inner emotions. This would remain consistent throughout the rest of his career; although he first started to investigate the expressive force of “color fields” in the 1940’s, Still did not perfect this style until much later. As his work took on anti-compositional qualities one can observe Surrealist influences, such as exploration of the subconscious. This is seen in his 1959 painting PH 972. This painting exhibits many of the integral qualities of Abstract Expressionism, which emerged as a solidified art movement at this time. When viewing this piece the first thing that stands out is its massive size. The painting is so large that when standing in front of it it becomes its own environment. Still, along with other Abstract Expressionists, was heavily influenced by the scale of Mexican murals. It was a crucial characteristic of the movement, which would serve to draw the viewer in and affect his or her experience. PH 972 engrosses its audience and brings them into the world of the painting, thrusting itself upon them. The lack of structure in this painting indicates that every bit of the canvas is equally important, even where there is an absence of paint. Still has not merely smeared paint randomly across the canvas, but has applied it so as to evoke certain emotions within his audience. PH 972 also maintains the importance of verticality in Still’s work, as one can observe “lifelines” running up and down the painting. Dull earth tones are outlined by an absence of paint and appear to be rising up against a vibrant orange background. The orange is dominating and almost violent as it envelops the muted colors’ ascension. PH 972 makes it clear that Still has been liberated from traditional composition; he explained this quality within his work, stating, “I never wanted color to be color, texture to be texture, images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit” (Plaque, Clyfford Still Museum). This clarifies why Still’s Colorfields can be viewed as their own unique environment. They embody an emotion or spirit that cannot be found in the real world. PH 972 demonstrates the essence of Abstract Expressionism for all of these reasons. It is a non-objective painting, which seeks to express and evoke emotion.

Prior to my visit to the Clyfford Still Museum it was hard to comprehend why Still’s Colorfield paintings are so revered. They appear as if there was little thought put in to the composition of these works. However, visiting the museum offers Still’s audience the experience to observe how he arrived at Abstract Expressionism. His earliest works exhibit the development of traditional artistic skill and thought. As Still became liberated from the confines of his predecessors it is apparent that he forged the way for contemporary art. Still’s ability to break free from the past solidified his position as a prominent member of artistic development. Today artists attempt to imitate his style but are unable to achieve such prominence because Still has already broken the shackles of traditional art.

One Response

  1. This is an excellent analysis of Clyfford Still’s career, utilizing paintings in a sophisticated manner to illustrate a full understanding of the evolution of Still’s works. I also really enjoyed the personal touches in the introduction and the conclusion.

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