Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still was an important figure within the abstract expressionist movement and his career spanned nearly all of the 20th century. The abstract expressionist development was a post World War II art movement that achieved worldwide recognition for American artists. Although the work of Abstract expressionists varied, the style was consistent with a monumental scale that depicted abstract forms with expressionist brush and color work. These compositions conveyed themes in relation to creation, life, struggle, and death in a manner that psychologically invested the viewer.

 Still was born during 1904 in North Dakota, and started painting at an early age. His work displays an evolution of style, beginning with representational compositions and moving into pure abstraction. His early work explored the depiction of western life through the representation of figures, buildings, and machinery in his imagery. His semi-early paintings were particularly interesting to me. Ph-20, painted in 1936, depicts several abstracted forms existing and melding as a single subject in the composition. Human-like forms are contrasted by machine–like shapes and hint at the relationship between man and machine. The limbs are elongated and enlarged and faces are hardly recognizable. “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 Museum) By depicting the figures using rough color, anatomical abstraction and coarse brushwork he taps into a conceptual representation of the effects of hard labor on the body and mind.

“By 1936-37, he began to simplify his subjects as he moved closer to abstraction. Passages that’s once described anatomy or landscape now reappear as carefully executed arrangements of line, color, and interlocking shapes.” (Clyfford Still Museum) By the late 1930’s his figures began to disappear into the background. His paintings became more abstracted with age and I found his sculpture work to be a blend between his representation and abstraction. PS-2, created is 1943, is an abstract wooden sculpture. The composition reminds me of his older paintings depicting juxtapositions of farm life and the human figure. The shape of the wood is similar to the way he abstracted the anatomy of the body. The rectangular head, with a notched out eye, is perched upon a fragile extended neck protruding from a roughly carved body. This abstract representation is complemented by two other wooden sculptures. The other two didn’t evoke the same relationship I saw between PS-2 and Still’s early painting.

By 1943 Still’s work was moving in the direction we now associate with abstract expressionism. 1943 marked a successful point in Still’s career when he landed his first solo exhibition. His paintings were expressing themselves on a deeper level. “Still built up his palpable, evocative surfaces through the use of trowels and palette knifes. His use of intense colors, ranging from blood red and blaze orange to powerful browns, yellows and pinks, is highly unique.” (Clyfford Still Museum) As his abstraction evolved, Clyfford Still began to influence other first generation abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. A very important Legion of Honor exhibition in 1946 made audience and critics alike breathless. First came shock and admiration to the raw vibrancy of his painting. Still had a strong relationship to his work and felt his “…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.” (Clyfford Still Museum) This realization dominated is persisting work and inspired him to create and express the inner concepts of emotion rather than representational compositions.

PH-1049, executed in 1977, is the latest of his work in the gallery, done only 3 years before his death. The 9×13 canvas displays a monumental scale of primarily negative space, occupied by bare canvas. Still’s reserved use of color makes the jagged yellow and red brushwork pop against the unpainted void. “Since the Renaissance, artists usually arranged their compositions to focus attention to central subjects, which were often set against deep space. Still began to favor flat, ‘allover’ compositions in which the viewer’s eye never rests on any single image. This work appears boundless, as if the image extends beyond the canvas. Similarly, it is also filled with movement, both across the surface and between the foreground and background.” (Clyfford Still Museum) I resonated most with this piece because it sparked a curiosity about the artist’s psyche. I am curious if and why Still considered this painting complete? The amount of unpainted surface makes the areas of color tantalizing and valued. I guess abstract expressionism can be infinitely perceived and that is what gives Clyfford Still’s work a life of it’s own. “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.”

Wall Text, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO.

7 Responses

  1. Hey Andrew
    I think you did a nice job on your paper, and feel the exact same way as you do about Clyfford Still’s earlier work. I his earlier works depicting the human form and farm life to be of particular interest as well. I thought that it was interesting to walk through the museum and see the progression of his figures from completely realistic and anatomically correct to slowly evolving into figures with strange faces and eventually turning into amorphous beings. I think I remember the Painting you refer to in your paper. I loved how all the figures began to melt and mesh into one form and thought that the painting had a lot of downward movement and weight to it. I think this could be suggesting how tied down to the earth farm workers are, because they really on the land for their livelihood.

    • Thanks Elissa!
      Although I’m not the biggest fan of Clyfford’s work I definitely enjoyed some of his older paintings. What was your favorite piece and how did you feel about the collection as a whole?

  2. I’m glad that you incorporated the sculpture into your paper. I think as so many people go through the museum we see the sculpture and admire it, but need to stop and take a bigger appreciation to it. Great artists often work in many mediums, even if they have found their nack, to progress their visual abilities and ideas further. The paintings become so much and so overwhelming that the sculptures were another outlet into what is Clyfford Still.

    • Yea I found his sculptures just as interesting if not more than any of his paintings. He definitely incorporated his unique style of abstraction into the sculptures. It was just something about being able to walk around and see multiple angles of the abstracted form that made it so appealing. What was your favorite piece?

      • Oh, to me it’s hard to identify one piece that was my favorite. I was overthrown by the “autobiography” style of the museum. Working through each piece and seeing how it related to the next. It was amazing to see how he had the original ideas of verticality, of his “outline” of the figure from piece to piece. One that really spoke to me though was the blue piece. The multitude of layers in the blue was mesmerizing, along with the thick, black, matte line that seemed to draw me into the painting, an opening for invitation. What were you’re thoughts on this piece?

  3. That multiple mediums thing is very true, I even saw some woodblock prints early on in the museum that were similar to his painting of the rising stone forms. As artists we can follow his example and pursue our ideas through multiple mediums, even if it seems pointless.

  4. I definitely think that Still’s earliest paintings were some of my favorites. His use of color and the subject matter are really interesting. The painting of landscapes and of what I think was a snow-plow-train were some of the best in my opinion. I also like his latest work, the middle stuff interested me less but it was interesting to see the progression from realism to abstract.

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