Clyfford Still’s effects on my psyche

Adjacent to the Denver Art Museum, assertive like the artist whose work it represents, the Clyfford Still museum presents the vast majority of the lifetime output of American Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still. Though Still is regarded as one of the most important painters of the 20th century (Museum), his works’ prominence in the art world declined after his death in 1980, when his life’s work was sealed off by his wishes, inaccessible to public or scholarly view until a museum dedicated solely to his work could preserve and properly present the extensive oeuvre.

The works on display for the inaugural exhibition provide a chronologically and geographically oriented presentation of Still’s development. Depending on whether the viewer navigates the rooms correctly (Not having taken the stairs immediately, I worked my way through the spaces backwards), the development of Still’s work changes in scale from small though finished works to colossal room filling canvasses. Still’s displayed works move from pastel and ink drawings to lithographs and melancholy caricatured figures in oil paint before breaking through to his large color field canvasses. The tangible development of his style and interests from life drawings and pseudo abstract landscape form prints, which look as though they could also be portraits, was particularly interesting to me. These works, which represent the period in Still’s career from the 1920s through the 1930s, present key insights into how his ideas of representation were changing from more American Scene to formal abstraction to abstract expressionism.

The subtle playfulness of these drawings and prints, though still pre-abstract expressionist, shed light on the source of Still’s playful and gestural application of paint that would develop in his later color field canvasses. The difference is that in his representation of loose and suggestive forms, Still imbues his surface with personified allusions to communicate his ethos for the over-worked farmers of Washington, or the relationship between workers and the machine. However, his later color field paintings boil these representations down to purely formal and visual elements.

PH-455 is a lithograph of Stills from his time in Virginia in the 1940s. Looking at it and thinking about the similar works from the same room, the compositional structure conflicted with my initial interpretation of what was being represented. Was it a large rock formation illuminated by the moon? It seemed so, except that the outline of the central form was undeniably human. I recognized the droopy, elongated characteristics of Still’s Voldemort-esque men and women in the curve of the butte-like form (On a side note, I wonder if anyone else perceived the striking similarities between Still’s forlorn people and Voldemort from the Harry Potter movies? I question the source of the facial structure’s sunken eyes, prominent brow ridge, hairless head, almost absent nose and pale complexion). A shoulder and head shape positioned above what could be either spindles, or if considered inversely, a human hand resting on a knee. The duality of the representation is a visual cue of the dramatic stylistic changes taking place in Still’s career at the time.

Additionally, the print is marked in Still’s handwriting, which identifies the print as a study from a painting (which one I could not discern). This tendency of Still’s to re-think and re-appropriate previous works created a dialogue between pieces and rooms that I could not help but listen to. It was in the same time period, the late 1940s, that Still was focusing on surrealism and loose representation that his oil pastel and inks on paper were becoming blue prints for future color field paintings. It is unwise to think of the drawings as blueprints though, for as the museum information panels were so sure to convey, Still considered each piece finished in its own right, individual and complete.

The influences of Regionalism and American Scene painting pervaded his works of the 1930s while by the early 1940s he was helping to blaze the trail for American Abstract Painting. The works which stood out to me as important aesthetic and ideological cues of development were Still’s Regionalist lithographs, specifically PH-455 and PH-456. These representational works featured example after example of intertextual relations between his smaller and larger pieces as well. Their similarity to his elongated, knobby characters indicated to me a strong inter-disciplinary unity of style and compassion. From the long room of farming-related portraits and landscapes, the relation to previous figural works was strong—the thick fingers and rounded bellies, and the all-encompassing noseless faces remained throughout his time in Washington. The strongest theme in Still’s works from his time in Pullman, Washington was the relationship of man and machine. Having seen so many workers bloodied from shucking wheat, Still’s canvasses became the outlet and translation of his feelings for people who had displayed such tireless effort.

While some canvasses were very busy, like PH-353’s dichotomous division of red and white space overlayed by twisted metallic and fleshy forms, I found his isolated figures, standing fixedly in darkness, to be the most emotionally evocative. The suffering of the men and women was made obvious by their long faces, thickly applied paint, dreary surroundings and beaten posture and expressions. Yet, in the midst of their exasperation, these characters achieve a great hight. Depraved and exposed, they remain standing. They have reached such a place in their near humanity as to be beyond surrender. They do not despair. They stand together unified and unflinching, lost but searching, left without the answers but exercising their remaining ability simply to be.

In his color fields, it is not a sunken eyed, bloodied figure staring resolutely onward that communicates Still’s ethos, but the simple voracity contained in the diving, swirling edges of his deep red and black canvas PH-385. Still’s switch to abstract expressionism in large scale works is as forceful as a creative explosion can be. It is as though all of the emotion contained in his previous subjects, from the Nespelem tribal portraits of his early career to the famous monumentality contained within PH 77 (the two bent men collecting wheat) was brought to new, completely unhindered worlds. Where before we considered the expressive and imaginative methods Still used within the bounds of the human figure, the colossal color field paintings that sustained the remainder of Still’s creation are bound by nothing.

That was the best part of the abstract expressionist movement, if you ask me. The highest achievement being the unshackling of the artist from his subject. Abstract expressionism was freedom of expression in its truest form. It did not answer to concerns of miscommunication because no words could adequately express its aura. It did not exist within the bounds of any previous genre of art, except in its complete difference from them. This is where Clyfford Still excelled especially, already having been on the forefront of the abstract expressionist movement in his exploration of purely abstract drawings early in the 1940s (and notably, as the museum information proved, well ahead of his contemporaries Jackson Pollock, Willem Dekooning, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell).

As I walked along and through the rooms which held the gigantic fields of color, a different sensation reached me with each new piece. Some created a frenzied, cataclysmic sensation by way of sharply contrasting and violently contested shapes in unruly relationships (although, again, I am breaking Still’s wish to have his works considered not by their formal ingredients, but by the emotional responses they insight—but then, how is it that anyone can write anything about the paintings they viewed at the museum?). The aspect of the works as a collection that I found the most tantalizing was the incredible variety of feelings that could be conveyed in such a cohesive style. Though the works were predominantly vertical, and at varying degrees of massiveness, each one drew on the same style of shapes and color matrices that I had seen in smaller versions in the introductory room of the exhibition. For instance, PH-385 (predominantly red with a recoiling, twisting area of black in the bottom left-hand corner) and 1950-A (predominantly red but without the suggested torque on the black shapes, and with a large section of orange containing a small black splotch) use almost the exact same color palette but achieve totally different effects.

To briefly paraphrase Clyfford Still, he wanted me, when enjoying his canvasses, to consider the paintings not as combinations of shapes, textures and colors (though it becomes necessary to classify them this way in writing of them), but to consider them as a living spirit (Museum wall information). With this in mind, I considered the similarities and differences of the two paintings, and came up with my reasoning for the differing emotions communicated by their spirits.

The colors utilized were the first contributors to my reaction in the case of PH-385 (also called 1949 No. 1) and 1950-A, because in these works, Still did not put emphasis on bare areas of canvas or imply motion to the degree that he did within his later works out of Maryland. Also, unlike the numerous paintings on display in which Still included “lighter” colors like bright yellows, pinks or whites, these two paintings share the characteristic of heaviness. They are crimson, dark, blood red and weighty, significant groupings of pitch black. 1950-A, however, becomes a radically different tale with the addition of a singular adjustment in color palette—orange.

Whereas PH-385 has a grouping of black that attracts attention at the bottom left-hand corner of the canvas and suggests a union forced by circumstance, 1950-A boasts a focal point which forces our attention onto the solitary black spot in a sea of orange, not torqued or distressed but present, in a completely different environment. The connotation of the figure-background relationship should not apply here, except that my natural inclination is to perceive the color field of lesser size as the positive shape. Since that is the case for me, I perceived a solitary dark mark in the near-center of a new circumstance, while other similar areas remain outside the island of orange.

Also contributing to my feeling of haste in the near union of blacks in PH-385 is the more elongated, vertical nature of the canvas. In being less square than 1950-A, the weight of the writhing fields of color is forced downward, rather than center. All the weight of the brighter and darker reds presses more directly on the black shapes, bending and sinking to the limits of existence (outside the frame of the painting). Yet through all of the revelations contained in each viewing experience, I am reminded of the origins of the color field works of Clyfford Still. Earlier in his career, in Alberta and Maryland, Still was hard at work injecting all of the passions and concerns of human cognizance into the portraits and landscapes he represented. In the end, the difference between his abstract works and his earlier representation seems not to be so significant (except for the significance of art historical development). While he exploded into a new, colossal, and engulfing body of work, I still feel a similar response to these as I did for his smaller figural paintings. The difference for me, is that the actors who transmit these emotions became the very essence of the medium itself—shapes, color fields, implied motion and texture (sorry Clyfford), rather than the reliance on preconceptions of the real world.

3 Responses

  1. Andrew – I enjoyed reading your paper. It was very concise, and I was able to understand the points you were trying to make even though the topics they cover are intrinsically complex. Your organization is spot on, even though you entered the collection backwards, It feels as if I am walking with you through the museum, I know exactly what you are describing even though I cant see it. I love how you equate “the unshackling of the artist from his subject” to still’s own movement, and subsequent “explosion” into color-field paintings. My only gripe is that I was unable to experience the intensity of emotion you seemed to undergo while observing Still’s work. Great Job!

  2. First of all, I like the title of the post. It is why I chose to read it. I did not think of Voldemort in his works, but some of them scared me. I agree that the curator of the exhibit created a wonderful dialogue between the works in the room. It was never boring. I also agree that Still was able to convey an incredible amount of emotions in his works. I found myself battling my mind when looking at them. Stylistically, the transition between paragraphs caught me a little off guard. BUT I LOVED IT. You analyzation in the final paragraph was on point.

  3. Your title really drew me in! I found this to be a very well organized paper and your descriptions of your own feelings while seeing certain paintings were both interesting and similar to feelings I experienced. Your descriptions are very vivid and beautifully tied into the points you are trying to make. Great job!

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