Clyfford Still Response: (Franklin) Perry Martin

Clyfford Still: A Response to Expressionistic Evolution

Upon visiting the Clyfford Still exhibition in Denver perhaps the most captivating aspect of these works as a whole, for me personally, is the stark progression of Still’s expressionistic style over time.  It is evident from this visit that from the 1930’s onward, Clyfford Still has continued to create works of art brimming with an emotional ferocity that far outreaches the limits of two-dimensional imaging.  Now, in this case the word ferocious might seem slightly over-zealous, as Still does not and has not ever appeared as an artist attempting to express his anger and/or emotional instabilities through his work.  However, I use the word ferocious in this context in order to depict my personal representation of Still’s creations within myself, as they instilled in me the recognition of the idea that ‘artistic’ expression in any medium is not and cannot be fully truncated by the literal or metaphorical canvas.  This vigorous realization took place after having witnessed the full exhibition, and it allowed me, when passing Still’s earlier works on the way out, to begin to appreciate not only the later installments of Clyfford Still but also the earlier ones as an all-encompassing tribute to the internal evolution Still obviously experienced over his lifetime.

Of all of the pieces available for viewing at the exhibition, the most memorable presentation (for myself) turned out to take the shape of written information meant to augment the visual experience.  Ironically it partially contradicts the idea of complete artistic evolution over time by identifying one of the more prevalent themes of Still’s artwork, but in my opinion this statement, a quote from Still himself, best describes the essence of Clyfford Still.  The quote: “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.”* Prior to reading this statement I had noticed the vertical orientation of almost all of Still’s works, and this quote not only reaffirmed that idea but also made evident the artistic aspiration to portray the liveliness and emotional intensity intrinsic to passion and life.

From the earlier works of Clyfford Still, many of which seem to be presented in mediums other than paint, my personal favorite is a pastel drawing named PP-7, which was created in 1935.  For me this drawing incorporates Still’s tendency to pull away from conventional styles of any given time period.  Still was quoted saying “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.”*  The image, a drawing of what appears to be a farm hand leaning forward towards the viewer with his hand resting through the upright tines of his pitchfork, is dominated by the long and haggard facial expression of the subject.  In a word, this image is overwhelmingly gaunt.   Although PP-7 is most definitely an image with boundaries and separate colors, the subject’s face, shoulders, and visible hand are elongated, appear desolate, and show the beginnings of Still’s characteristic combination of color, texture, and focal point.  This image also gives the viewer a good indication of the overall deprivation of comfort experienced by the hard-working farmer in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, and this drawing spoke to me is for precisely that reason, it communicates the corrosive power of exhaustion.

The next image that resonated with me is PH-118, completed in 1947.  This image, created 12 years after the pastel mentioned above, is not only a fantastic image but perfectly exemplifies Still’s stylistic progression over the years.  “This painting shows how in the late 1940’s Still mastered the use of bare canvas as an expressive device.”*  In this piece Still uses blank canvas as both a background and an active agent in the image itself.  The sharp jagged edges of shapes painted in this installment interact with the blank space to the extent that the canvas becomes a color itself, and one must wonder before scrutinizing the image up close whether or not the canvas is actually painted a light earthy sand-color.

Aside from the use of space in this painting as a representation of equal importance, the most beautiful aspect of this image and many of Still’s other works is the theme of spiritual flight and/or enlightenment.  In PH-118, there is a white shape in the bottom left corner of the image that appears as if something with close to human form is reaching upward, almost as if the figure is dancing.  This white entity appears to be communicating with the black, bird-shaped silhouette finding itself in the right side center at the top of the painting.  This theme of avian-esque lightheartedness was easily recognizable for myself in many of Still’s works from the late 1940’s on, and began to foster a feeling of excitement within me similar to that feeling of weightlessness.  This weightlessness was (and is) accompanied with a desire to break the necessary conventions to express myself artistically a la Clyfford Still.  Regardless of the medium chosen for this experiment, the emotional accompaniment takes the shape of a refusal to couple any artistic expression with current societal conventions in order to produce a work of art that is as closely representative of my inner mantra as possible.

Lastly, a painting called PH-1049, created in 1977 just three years before Still’s death, definitely stood out.  This image, huge in size and the ultimate testimony to Still’s evolution as an artist, was accompanied by this description: “Though Still began to explore the expressive qualities of empty space in the late 1940’s, his use of bare canvas reached its zenith in these late paintings.  Implied movement also became more vivid, as if painted forms are being set in motion by invisible forces.”*  This image is largely void of paint, and the shapes presented consist of mainly yellows, with a small amount of orange and red.  However aside from the lack of paint in this image, there is a strong energy emanating from within.  As the quote directs our attention, the overall lack of color in this image does allow for the viewer to imagine some sort of un-seeable force guiding the actions of the paint itself.  Also, with the color orientation beginning at the bottom of the painting with red, and then evolving upwards to orange and eventually yellow, there is a chaotic indicator of fire intrinsic to this image.  This left me with the impression that Still himself, although aging, still possessed the unassailable passion for his work that allowed him to become so unique initially.

The freedom depicted by Still’s lack of coverage and the once-again semi-avian shapes in this painting gave me the impression he had reached a period of spiritual complacency in these later years of his life.  More so, a feeling of stylistic graduation was portrayed.  Meaning in this case that Clyfford Still, after decades of artistic creation, had finally reached the crescendo of his journey through Abstract Expressionism.  Although this isn’t necessarily what the artist intended or felt when creating this image, I believe any individual viewer’s interpretation is what makes an image complete, as the artists cannot be present to guide each person’s experience of their work.  I also get the feeling this is why Still himself disavowed the original names of his creations.  In the case of abstract expressionism, a name potentially limits the audience interpretation of an image, and given Still’s intention was to depict life and energy, I see why he would drop any factors that may slight an otherwise genuinely emotional manifestation in his viewer.

As someone with little experience in the art world, this exhibition was the perfect introduction into the spheres of abstract and contemporary art.  And although Clyfford Still doesn’t necessarily fall into the category of Contemporary given the years he was alive, his work absolutely represents a contemporary perspective relative to shattering current conventional ideas of expression regardless of temporal limitation.   Subsequently setting the idealistic groundwork for artists producing works defined truly by themselves rather than society, so characteristic of more recent movements.


* All factual statements and quotes with asterisks afterwards were gathered from the exhibition itself, and therefore I was unsure how to cite them in-text.  For this purpose, none of the information accompanied by an asterisk should be considered my own input.

Images referred to in my paper, in order of appearance:

PP-7, 1935                                      PH-118, 1947                                    PH-1049, 1977









2 Responses

  1. I also was fascinated by Still’s 1977 painting and how much negative space he left on the canvas, almost like his painting was fading away along with him. I really like how you saw it, as though there are hidden parts in the empty space if you look carefully enough.

  2. I enjoyed your incorporation of quotations found in the museum itself. I thought it was particularly appropriate how you used the quotation about the vertical forms. Obviously, vertically oriented shapes resonate deeply with Still, as evident in the body of his work.

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