Katie Hitch’s Clyfford Still essay

Katie Hitch

Contemporary Art 3539

Clyfford Still Museum

            Clyfford Still was the first out of his New York colleagues to break through to a new radical style of painting devoid of obvious subject matter. This movement that he spearheaded became known as abstract expressionism, and it developed after the Second World War.  Still diverged from representational painting during 1938 and 1942, while Pollock, Rothko, and Motherwell still painted “figurative-surrealist styles” into the late 40’s.  This style of painting can also be called Colorfield painting, and it emerged in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s. These artists created abstract colorful paintings that were meant to absorb the viewers into a field of breathing color, lines, and shapes. Action painting, another term used to describe the art blossoming during this movement, consisted of dripping lines, rhythmic brush strokes, and painting as part of a performance. Artists like Still, tried to separate their art from the European artists by creating a movement that was their very own, abstract expressionism.

The Clyfford Still museum is organized in a chronological order from his earliest work to his latest and most abstract art works. His earliest oils focus on farms, nature/landscapes, and self-portraits. Still grew up on a farm in Grandin, North Dakota and taught himself how to paint. He grew up drawing pictures that he found in magazines and books to practice his budding skill. The first painting displayed in the museum, a pile of colorful stones in grass, was also Still’s first painting and was made in 1925 when Still was twenty one.  Still’s early farm inspired works are reminiscent of American scene painting (Regionalism), which took place during the early 1930’s. Regionalist artists were more intrigued in depicting the rural American lifestyle than the rapidly developing technological advances.  Still took this movement to the next level by creating a distinct approach and style to his figures. He did this by emphasizing the fatigue and exhaustion that he felt about the farm world in his paintings, as well as life in general.  This was a significant theme of Still’s early paintings. A brilliant example of this style can be seen in the painting shown above. The exaggerated faces, disproportionate hands, and exposed ribcages of the figures further demonstrates the expressionist tone of Still’s early work. The oversized hands of the worker men are a stark red, probably bloody from severe labor. This further emphasizes the grueling hardships of farm work. The faces of the figures are incredibly distorted and monstrous, completely lacking human definition.  Even the girl in the corner of the painting has an emaciated, almost skeletal looking face, which screams sorrow and emotion. One cannot gaze into this painting without feeling the pain and extreme fatigue of the farmers.  Still succeeded in exploring the physical and psychological effects of hard labor. Even in his earliest works the use of dramatic/vivid colors, vertical shapes, and the preference for large canvases is evident.

In 1937 Clyfford Still began to deviate from recognizable figures and landscapes to a more abstract aesthetic. With this transition, his work became darker and the figures started to loose their human-like form. There is a type of rawness and violence, recognized through dark rushed brushstrokes and primitive figures, which reminds me of paintings by outsider artist. His art of this period has been described as being a more somber and complex approach. Still progressively began to deconstruct his figures until there was nothing left but separate parts. Still’s themes during this transitional period consisted of “totems, bone fragments and quasi figures.” The painting PH-343 1937 is a perfect example of Still’s transition from complete figures and landscapes to a primitive abstraction. The canvas shows a loosely put together, yet recognizable image of a man, whose hand is grasping a farming tool.  The farming tool, with thick black lines against a white background, stands out significantly and shows the division between the farmer and his work.  The farmer is depicted with oversized hands, long vertical arms, and exposed ribs that are reminiscent of Still’s earlier work. Along with this, the head of the figure seems like it is melting and dripping down the body. PH-343, 1937 emphasizes Still’s use and continuing interest in the theme of vertical lines, “which he saw as man’s attempt to survive in an unforgiving environment.” One can also point out during this period Still’s commonly used color scheme, which typically consists of dark earthy tones merging with bright colors. “By 1942, Still’s art embodied many of the characteristics of abstract expressionism.”

The artwork shown directly above is an example of Clyfford Still’s transformation to complete abstraction. Still’s mature period, from the mid 40’s to late 50’s, contains some of his most famous and influential works. His paintings during this time were composed of jagged, textured forms that dance around the canvas. He utilizes the combinations of cool and warm colors and spreads them across the canvas with a palette knife. One can really see the application of paint and the thick texture when they gaze at the painting up close. Massive scale also became a defining factor of Still’s later work. The purpose of using gigantic canvases was so that it could create its own environment, one that grabs the viewer and immerses them in the colorful world. The painting posted above (which I cannot find the title of) displays non-representational shapes and heavy impasto texture that is common in Still’s mature period. Along with this, Still’s use of vertical and flame-like forms adds an expressionistic quality to the artwork that reminds me of what mountains would look like on a map. I also couldn’t help but imagine if this is what the terrain of some alien world would look like. With these massive paintings, Still wanted the colors and shapes to fuse into a spirit. Still chose to leave the top left and right sections free of paint, which is a technique he mastered as an expressive device in 1947. He left these parts ungessoed and raw in order to create a sense of emptiness.

Even though Clyfford Still was not widely recognized during his lifetime, he is still regarded as the prominent figure that pioneered abstract expressionism. I feel that its imperative to see his work as a collection without any other artist displays. In order to really understand Still as an artist it is also necessary to see his stages of art in order. This is because although each period is greatly different many of his themes are repeated but just altered slightly in the later works. Personally, I do not enjoy his later abstract works. I tried to stand in front of each one long enough to obtain Still’s desired results, but I couldn’t loose myself in the colors and shapes in the same way I was able to loose myself in his earlier paintings.  I feel that he created this beautifully haunting and expressive style early on in his career, but lost a certain visionary and emotional quality with his later works.

3 Responses

  1. Katie,

    I was also drawn to the painting you mention of the farmer on the right half of the painting and his work implements on the opposite section. I am inclined to think that through his segmentation of the canvas, he is trying to provide a brief respite for the work-mangled character he depicts. Also, on another note, would you say that the art directors/ make-up artists of the Harry Potter movies referenced Clyfford Still paintings for the design of Voldemort’s face? I couldn’t get over the similarity (not that I am into Harry potter movies). Good paper!

  2. Katie- I really enjoyed this paper. I was happy that you included the paintings while describing them. I agreed with your thoughts about his earlier work and the elongated, red hands. While I was at the museum that was the first thing I noticed and it definitely made me feel sympathetic for the farmers, ect. I also agree that it was important to see his works of art alone. It made the progression of his career obvious and more intriguing to observe.

  3. I think your description of Still’s earliest works are really nice. I could have kind of figured that you were drawn to these more before I read you conclusion from the detail and reflection you added about them. I am a fan of the later works, so it was interesting to hear a different perspective.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: