Lucas Grund — Clyfford Still paper


Clyfford Still

Clyfford still, whose bodies of works are most likely unknown to most people, myself included, was truly a master of the abstract expressionist movement. The lack of exposure was because of his views towards art and the art world that he developed over his life within it. He withdrew himself from the world and the institution of art as he grew older and only very sparsely gave his works to museums and galleries. He even gifted his works upon his death to an American city rather than allowing his estate to sell them. This left much of his life’s works within his personal collection and allowed the Clyfford Still museum to have the means to show a perfect timeline of his works. From his humblest beginnings to his dramatic ends Clyfford Still captivates a viewer with his unique view of first: human forms, then shapes and colors, then his ambiguous objects that cannot really be compared to anything in the natural world, and eventually his incredibly airy and bright swirling shapes that seem to dance lightly across the canvas.

Each period of Still’s artistic career instills some kind of emotion into the viewer. Early in his life Still’s images of farmhands and field workers in the act of working or at home after a hard day’s work, creates a sense of weariness of people, run down, broken, battered and beaten. The shapes, especially the hands, and the rather grotesque forms of the bodies exaggerate this sense of the broken and worn down.  The color pallet for these paintings is quite dark for the most part; most of the backgrounds are black or a very dark blue color and the bodies look relatively sickly in shade, being a bright white or a burnt umber color. Gradually his depictions of humans transforms into an abstract, more inward appearance. His painting, PH-343, is a perfect example of this new, more abstract form. It still deals with the working man or farmer, as indicated by the barely distinguishable shapes on the left that appear to be farming implements, a thresher of some sort. The figure in this painting appears to almost be eroded away as a sculpture made of sand allowing you to see the innards of the figure. Also the exaggerated hands and arms seem to be pulling the figure down with an unbearable weight, yet it is still standing upright despite the weight, still holding its tool, kicking and screaming.  The scale of the piece also factors into this sort of notion, it is claustrophobic, the forms and shapes are squeezed into the small frame and barely seem to fit, it is getting pushed on from all sides. Even the rough quality of the paint, around the edges of shapes lend to this idea, nothing is defined in perfect clarity. It is blurred from exhaustion and the mottled shading that he employs in each of his works.

Moving on from figures, he begins to work with increasingly abstract shapes and objects. Some objects in his paintings are still identifiable such as farm tools and implements. He begins to use vertical lines of color across the majority of the canvas, something he will become known for later. And finally he arrives at purely abstract shapes and objects in his paintings. His painting, Ph-272 exemplifies this new stage in his artwork. Nothing appears to be a real life object that is trying to be rendered; it is the pure interplay between colors and textures. These paintings begin to cause new emotions different from his previous paintings to swell up within the viewer. The jagged and crazy lines where the colors meet create an unbearable tension and anxiety, even anger. The strokes and lines are swift and long. They appear as though they have been made furiously, creating all the jagged edges with each stroke. Bits of the bare canvas show through between his strokes and often are disturbing. Unlike his previous paintings, much of his compositions run off the edges of the canvas. Splotches of color fly off the edge and extend beyond the boundaries of it. This sense of extension is even more disturbing, it is like a close of up view of something massive and it just makes it a mystery, waiting to be solved. The thickness of the paint in this piece is something else that begins to come through in Still’s work. It is so visibly thick; each brush strokes create valleys and canyons of paint from each bristle of the brush. It is quite the spectacle to behold. But they emulate the wild confrontation of the shapes of color, crossing, clashing and bouncing off of each other in a wild dance.

Still was far from done however. He began to get more careful with his paint and strokes. His massive paintings shifted from paint on the majority to about half and half or even paint on the minority. This conservative approach made his paintings seem to be more optimistic for the future or accepting of the inevitable fate that we all face. The very last painting in the gallery is a perfect example of this concept. (I don’t have the “Title”) The paint only covers a mere thirty percent of the total canvas, yet it is still an incredibly effective piece. The scale is massive, as with many of Still’s last paintings. The painting contains rather wispy shapes of yellow and red paint that spread out from the middle of the canvas. The entire painting is quite lofty and seems to move very slowly and gracefully across the surface. It is almost as if a deep breath of air has been released as that sort of euphoric relaxation spreads through a body.  The painting is quite light in comparison to many of his earlier works, so bright that it almost appears to be the works of another artist, if it were not for the characteristic areas of color. But even these changed slightly, earlier in Still’s life these areas seemed to be heavy and dense. In these new final paintings, especially the previously named painting, the areas seem incredibly light and uplifting. It is almost as if they are floating right in front of the canvas just in midair. This is also caused by the slight halo effect he puts around the paint with a slightly darkened white color. It works almost like a light drop shadow just below the flowing airy forms.

Stills works seemed to be a reflection of his attitudes towards the most important influences in his life. In the beginning he was focused on the hardships he had endured through his childhood working with his parents on their farm in Canada. Later in life his angst and anger come through against the art institution and the lack of integrity his counterparts had shown in selling out to it. And after he retreated from the art world his works began to grow in brightness and color and gradually became uplifting and eventually airy. With this airiness his works were reigned in and controlled, they began to flow and swerve more gently, less abruptly. As they morphed into these airy, lofty works it appears as though his mood changed one last time. Optimism, realization and acceptance became the defining moods of his very last paintings.

One Response

  1. I enjoyed your the description of Still’s art: “It is almost as if a deep breath of air has been released as that sort of euphoric relaxation spreads through a body.” I think that is a very understandable and relatable approach to defining abstract expressionism. I wish you would have incorporated the three images you described just so I could parallel your words to the paintings. Otherwise, well done.

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