Laura Marshall – The Clyfford Still Experience

While not in the limelight when it comes to an everyday knowledge of Abstract Expressionism, Clyfford Still remains one of the most influential artists in the movement. His unique early life and experiences with art make him the perfect example of the progression from representation to abstraction in American art of the 1950’s.

Still’s atelier reflects the experimentation that all artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement undergo. He begins his work with landscape paintings of the countryside on the farm where he lived in Canada. These works are very Impressionistic in method, using quick gestural movements to represent the grassy fields and trains of Still’s childhood. As his style developed, he painted increasingly abstracted portraits of farmers, starting around the Great Depression, when times got desperate. Each artist in the Abstract Expressionist movement started developing their unique styles relatively late in their lives, as a reaction to post World War II malaise.

The most impressive part about seeing an entire body of work housed in one building is the magnitude of artistic expression contained within. Uon entering the second floor galley of the Clyfford Still museum, I was in complete awe of the timeline of one artist’s life catalogued in successive paintings, many of them at least eight feet tall. The best part of the gallery for me was entirely an accident — I walked through it backwards in time, so I saw Still’s latest work, that work indicative of the Abstract Expressionistic style first while slowly rewinding through the surrealist portraits of farmers, then his depictions of farm life in Canada, and finally ending with his first impressionistic landscape paintings. While I do not underestimate the impact that the Abstract Expressionist movement had on American art, I was much more drawn to Still’s surrealist portraits of farmers, and his experiments with abstraction before reverting entirely to color field painting. While Still’s work encompasses a long progression of American art, I could not tear my eyes away from a few of his color field paintings, notably PH-355, painted in 1945. This was the first of Still’s paintings that I noticed had a repeated motif, he calls it a lifeline. The lifeline here I was drawn to because of the dynamic between the red, yellow and green. I love the thick matte quality of his color field paintings. I found it interesting that as his work progressed into the abstract, his paintings became more matte, and the canvas was left ungessoed, which leads to an assumption of a more of a personal paitning as opposed to one that needed an audience. Nevertheless, Still’s paintings continued to speak to me.

The next work that I found intriguing was PH-159, painted in 1944-5. This was one of his works where one can distinguish an object of some sort within the painting. I viewed it as a segway between the large-handed farmers of his past work and the final color field paintings. The most remarkable part of this painting was the figure-like quality of the still life. I thought it resembled a cello, though at such a high level of abstraction it is difficult to describe. The verticality of the object, and its deep, warm, umber color was indiciative of Still’s handle on color and composition, which makes him unique when compared to other Abstract Expressionists, such as Polluck. Still carefully and methodically places his “lifelines” in most of his later works, and even those without the signature motif play with positive and negative space quite effectively by leaving the ungessoed canvas completely blank in places. The effect of this is an overwhelming sense of color — bright, deep, rich color that permeates the senses.

Another notable painting is PH-205, which is an earlier painting, from 1940. This was my favorite displayed in the gallery because of the highly glossed quality of the paint applied to the canvas, as well as the deliberate broad strokes of deep blue across a white field. I found this work beautiful and mysterious, and for me personally, it spoke to the intuitive aspects of the Abstract Expressionist movement more than a color field painting does necessarily. While the color field paintings speak to an abstraction that the art world had not seen previously, I personally find the application of expressionistic lines more intriguing and altogether more indicative of a subconscious type of brushstroke where the artist simply knows in some way to put the paint on the canvas in this line or shape, which makes the positive and negative space contrast more and thus make the meaning that much more elusive.

The progression from his early work into the abstract is what is most interesting about Clyfford Still. I believe that in order for an artist to progress that much in so little time, one must create as many works at Still did, simply to exhaust one vehicle of art making to be able to move onto another without looking back.

2 Responses

  1. I think that it’s very interesting how you entered the museum backwards, and found his earlier art to be more interesting. For me, seeing the early works first seemed to build a base of knowledge on the psyche of Stills. I was constantly reflecting back on the transformation that had occurred when I was observing his enormous colorfield paintings. This reflection seemed to add to my attraction to the later works. Perhaps your backwards journey through the realm of Clyfford Stills influenced your opinions on his art. This is interesting to me.

  2. I went through the museum backwards too!! I was really confused hahaha.

    Good job though, it was clear and written/flowed well. I enjoyed reading it.

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