Joe Wilkinson Clyfford Still Paper

The first half of the twentieth century was a hard world to live in. Fifty years in which two world wars raged across Europe and the Pacific, and a Great Depression throughout many nations around the globe which brought entire populations to their knees, provided many strong feelings ranging from anger, hate and sorrow to joy and nationalistic pride. These moments of adversity reshaped the landscape of power and changed human perception in many ways. The art world as part of that population, suffering with the world around them, reflected those changes through their paintings. Following the transition in power from Europe to the United States, so to did art, culminating in abstract expressionism, an American movement that painted those feelings that were so tangible all around them. Clyfford Still, as one of those abstract expressionists, was a prime example of an artist that wore those feelings on his sleeves, living through the tumult and painting the movement and color that best fit the heartbeat of what was occurring around him and in the larger world.

Still was born in 1904 in North Dakota. He moved around as a child spending most of it between Spokane, Washington and Alberta, Canada, both places being barren, rural industry and farmland. Looking for things to do in such places as a child, and without others his age around to play, he found a pleasure in painting. Oils and brushes were his toys, but very rapidly Still switched to palette knives, which inevitably ended up being his tools of choice for the remainder of this career. Early paintings from the twenties reflect his time spent there showing a still life of a found pile of rocks and barren horizons with lone industrial smokestacks (possibly in reference to studies of impressionist images of the past), and soon figures start to show up in his paintings depicting the rural working class. This interest of the working class that surrounded him soon became even more prominent and important as the Great Depression here in the United States started to take its toll on working families. His painting PH-77 done in 1936 shows Still’s empathy and intrigue (and study of historic paintings), and works to bring the viewer to those same feelings. Two male figures harvesting wheat by hand dominate the canvas. One wears a bright red shirt, the other a bright yellow one, bringing them to the forefront of the image. The darkening sky of the background looms behind, suggesting they have been at it for a while. Both men’s arms hang down, ape like, elongated in abstraction as if they became so from all of the laborious hours of collecting the wheat. The elongation of limbs becomes prominent in his work at this time, reflecting the stress on the body that time at labor has brought. The dark colors and the further abstraction of faces and bodies became more and more his style and soon figures started to deconstruct to a point of non-recognition.

In the 1940’s Still’s deconstruction of the figure and landscape progressed, mixing and mingling them together into unrecognizable form. World War II is a huge part of the conscious landscape as large numbers of men head off to war to fight against formidable enemies that have committed yet unknown crimes against humanity. The scope of such a war of necessity though brings with it a feeling of national pride and with the military needs has aided in bringing the country out of economic depression. Still’s painting PH-751, done in 1944, his largest painting to date at six feet by eight feet, is very dark in tone, like his previous work, with browns and blacks dominating and small bits of red white and orange helping to give some resemblance of form. Without any discernable representation of figure the viewer is left to decipher meaning to the dark landscape. One single longer form of white off to the right of the canvas almost looks like a bone protruding in the foreground. Bits of red and key like contrasted forms give a feel that there is something to be seen, but that nothing good can be happening to those forms. It is dark and twisted just as the war that is raging in Europe and the Pacific.

As the war ended and the atrocities of Hitler and the Nazis became apparent a new feeling came to Still and other abstract expressionist work. Any sense of form went away, replaced by such abstraction that was harder than ever to identify. How could human beings in such large numbers commit such evil? These were very personal questions, and they couldn’t be explored in painting in a figurative sense. Everybody by that time had seen so many images of death and pain and suffering in such horrific detail. These painters could not not feel the immensity of that new reality though.  It seems logical then, that those investigations were answered on a personal level by those abstract expressionist that were all about hiding those forms and realities inside of color and marks that they themselves felt to their cores. Still’s use of color became overwhelming as it dominated his paintings at this time, and his canvases became even larger in scale. PH-385 done in 1949 is an example of Stills evolved style. This painting in its bright red largess, arrestingly commands the eye of the viewer. His now established impasto technique layered red after red over the entirety of the canvas, building up slight hued differences. Black shadowed forms without reference dab the canvas leaving the eye to wander, while other dulled down forms of the same technique fall beneath the red, giving a sense of depth. It feels as though a red screen is covering those other black objects in the background. So much blood had spotted the world at that moment in time, possibly this overtly red, in your face painting is symbolic of that blood that has covered the world. If I was seeing it for the first time in 1949 while all of that was occurring, it might make me feel something even more than it does standing in front of it today.

Clyfford Still continued to paint in his large and vivid methods for the next twenty-five years, enjoying much success along the way in New York and beyond. In 1961 though he made a huge decision to leave the art world behind, moving to Maryland, returning to his roots on a farm. He set up painting in his barn working more on his Color Fields. Late in his career he moved to a point of leaving most of the canvas untouched, making his abstract marks of varying colors in calculation and precision that are just as effective and beautiful as his previous work. He made a decision to hold onto the vast majority of his paintings, leaving them to a trust to be displayed all together in a way rarely if ever seen. I feel lucky, inspired and moved by this collection just as those abstract expressionists wanted through their works. Clyfford Still’s legacy is one of immense feeling and beauty.

3 Responses

  1. I really liked how you not only started with historical references but included them throughout the piece. It helped me to get a really good sense of how current events affected his work. It’s so easy when you’re doing research on a specific person to forget about the large-scale events that would have played a role in their life.

  2. I also like the fact that you were consistent with the historical references throughout your paper. It really helps to put his work in context; I also think that you hit the nail on the head when you said his work commands viewing. “Commands”…it definitely does.

  3. I like that you started the paragraphs with historical facts and then talked about the paintings. I also like the fact that you arranged your paper in a linear fashion following the events of not only Still’s life but also history. At times I wished you had gone a little deeper into the paintings though, for example talking about the vibrance of color in the first painting that you chose.

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