Camille Breslin

When I think about artists of the abstract expressionist movement, I immediately think of de Kooning, Pollock, and Coates; the “big name” artists. But when this paper assignment was to write about Clyfford Still, I had no idea who he was or what to expect. I remember driving past the Denver Art Museum a couple of times and seeing a huge banner saying “Clyfford Still, opening 11.18.11”, but never being phased by it. Walking towards the opening of the museum, the architecture is modest and boxy. Inside the lobby, immediately, I was consumed with history, cultural references, and information about Still. The interactive slides and preservation of his personal items create this automatic curiosity about Still as an artist, a teacher, and as a person. Once upstairs, I was immediately engaged with the works presented. So many drawings, sketches, larger than life size paintings, sculptures, and works all done by one man. The preservation of the works impressed me. Walking around into the different rooms, I was completely entranced with every work. I couldn’t believe that this whole museum was one man’s work. The scale of the work immediately got my attention.

Born in 1904 in Grandin, ND. Still spent his early life in Spokane, Washington and Alberta Canada ( Still painted what he knew in his early career of the harshness of physical labor on the body, the western landscapes that he was surrounded with. He also painted replica paintings that he saw in magazines and artist journals (PBS video). Being isolated from mainstream artists and museums, Still would travel long distances to see the great painted (PBS video). Still was a driven artist and through his journey and career as an artist, he allowed his work and his creativity to consume his life; it was a priority. He allowed the paint to do the work for him; it was about the paint, the organic nature that it has and a life of its own. Even though Still is an artist that was not widely recognized for his work, he had a definite impact on the movement that we know as Abstract Expressionism.

PH-80 (1935) is one of Still’s painting during his transformation and experimental period with style and interpretation. Three male figures and one female figure look distraught and in extreme agony. All of the character’s faces look shallow and empty. The melting or drooping effects of their faces create the look of torment from an external factor. The figure in the center looks so scarce and defeated. He is looking up towards the sky as if he is exhausted and extremely drained. His hands are tinted with hues of pinks and reds, probably simulating or giving the impression of blood-tainted hands. All the figures look extremely weak and bruised as if they are going to collapse and shatter. The background has a very gloomy and dreary feel to it. Multiple layers of blacks, blues, deep fuchsias, whites, and grays overlap each other creating texture and movement in the background.

In the documentary, Still plays with the shape of the figures that he is focusing on the body form rather then details. Still also focuses on creating figures that are vertical or horizontal representing life and death. These figures are sagging and slowing transforming from standing, vertical figures to wilted horizontal figures. This concept of imagery has to do with life, death, and the hard strenuous work that farm life entails. The farmers are working themselves to death and are suffering. The documentary talks about how these figures are “macabre” and that Still’s paintings are starting to portray “animalistic” and “starting to take on a more organic state”(PBS documentary).

“The subjects in Still’s paintings of this time are mostly farm scenes, now executed in an increasingly expressionistic style. Unlike the many upbeat images of labor made by diverse American artists during the great depression, Still seems committed to revealing the physical, emotional, and even psychological effects of hard work” (Clyfford Still’s Museum). Still’s work at a certain point in time, focused on the extremities of physical labor as a farmer in the American 30’s. He doesn’t try to mask what is happening by making his paintings look whimsical or romantic. Still documents an accurate portrayal of the farm life and the harsh toll it has on the human body.

PH-76 contains six bodies that don’t look like normal bodies. The distortion of figures created a different emotional state within, a sensation of anger and confusion. The figures are consumed by a dark, starkly background. Layered grays, browns and blacks intensify the distorted figures. The rapid strokes create a sense of anxiety and panic. The foreground has a sandy, almost hay like color that is also immensely texture and detailed like the background. The six figures are also very similar in color except the seated woman in the front; she is paler then the rest. They too are extremely textured. The figures take on the shape of phantoms. The bodies are hollow and empty. Exposed ribs, thin arms, and disgruntled forms show a look of tiresome and a sense of defeat. The ominous figures look like they are struggling. The seated figure in front stands out the most because of her paler, lighter skin. The redness of her hand looks as if it’s been worked way too much or is wounded. She has an unidentifiable object clasped close to her form. Her disgruntled and disproportional figure leaves an unsettling feeling to my eye. The non-existent facial creates a burdening feeling within. What looks like eyes, are just empty crevasses. All of the figures have the same look; a secret or a burden that they can’t discuss.

“A more somber and complex approach characterizes many of Still’s works of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Human subjects have been replaced by creature-like protagonists, Totems, bone fragments, quasi-figures, and other vertical elements are set against nocturnal backgrounds, giving these compositions an ominous, even nightmarish quality. Remnants of vegetation (grasses, shafts of wheat) and farm tools, imagery held over from his imagery earlier in the 1930s, are so evident” (Stills Museum wall).

Still focuses on the harsh reality of strenuous labor and the demand of the farm life in the Midwest. I could tell that Still’s figures are starting to veer away from the traditional anatomical figures and more abstract and unrecognizable. The figures that Still creates are more focused on the exterior outline of the figure rather then detail of body and facial features. Regardless of the form, I was still able to read the emotional state of the figures and empathize with the pain that they are depicting. It still is hard to avoid the feeling that I was consumed with, fear and discomfort. When looking at the painting, I became engaged with the figures and wanted to know why they looked the way they did and why they were in that position. I was left with a feeling of remorse and saddened by their disgruntled and distorted bodies.

Still was more widely known for his work in abstraction. His later works embodied his abstraction and they became his more popular work. Walking into a room filled with his abstractions, I gravitated towards one painting in particular. I didn’t know how I was feeling or the emotional state that I was presently embodying at that given point in time. But I knew that with the enormous scale and some unidentifiable sensation, I needed to look more into the work on a personal level.

PH-960 (1960) appears to be empty and bare from a far. The blankness of the off white background with the boldness of the sharp colors really creates a complimentary relationship. Allowing myself to get closer and engulfed with the scale of the painting I was able to pick up on the smaller, less noticeable details. I could see the layers of whites, beiges, and sand like colors layer. Inconceivable from a distant, I was unable to truly appreciate the intricate details and the narrative of the work. The atypical pattern of the background created a wood grain appearance. The aggressive motion from the use of a pallet knife creates an abundance of texture and life to the painting. The shapes presented on the canvas almost looks as if it was melting downwards. I don’t know what it is about that painting but I gravitated to it and became entranced with the simplicity of its character. It was not like any other the other Still works that I’d seen that day and became obsessed with the composition.

Reading the commentary on the sidewall, “Though Still began to explore the expressive qualities of empty space in the later 1940’s, his use of bare canvas reached its zenith in these later paintings. Implied movement also became more vivid, as if painted forms are being set in motion by invisible forces” (Still Museum wall).

Still was an innovator and an important figure in the movement that is called Abstract Expressionism. His visionary pieces that changed with and his progression of an artist is apparent and extremely inspirational. When leaving the museum, it was hard to digest the overwhelming amount of art done by one man alone. But having time to really think about who Still was and how he impacted the art world makes me recognize him as an artistic genius. Even though his art and style isn’t my favorite, I learned to appreciate Abstract Expressionism as a genre of art. Hopefully, overtime and patience, I will be able to read the work for what it is rather than trying to be abrasive and get an answer from it. Even though I am still in the stages of understanding the mental and emotional process behind this particular genre, I feel with the information that I’ve be given, I have a better comprehension for Still and abstract artists in general.

Works Cited

The PBS documentary watched in class

The plaques and information found in the Clyfford Still Museum

2 Responses

  1. I also enjoyed the commentary on the sidewalls, they seemed to be selected carefully and nicely place to not take away from the paintings. Though in your paper I wondered if this quote had significance to how you viewed the painting. You talk of the shapes melting downwards but I think the movement was related to this motion set by invisible forces. For such a great quote I wish it wouldn’t have let me with so many questions for your paper.

  2. Camille,
    your paper is well researched and quite factual. Its great that you provided resources in addition to your quotations. I too, took advantage of viewing each painting from up close. This also allowed me to notice details that were unrecognizable when I had originally spectated.
    Awesome that Clyfford Still allowed you to develop an appreciation for Abstract Expressionism. He really was an “artistic genius”

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