Sarah Tye Clyfford Still Paper

SourceURL:file://localhost/Users/sarah/Documents/Clyfford%20Still.doc

 

Sarah Tye

ARTH 3539

Clyfford Still Paper

 

            Clyfford Still is known as one of the iconic members of the abstract expressionist artistic movement. His most notorious works are impressive representations of the color-field painting style. However, the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver highlights not just the highs of his career but rather the process of development in Clyfford Still’s work. Beginning in the 1920’s and ending in the early 80’s, the sixty-year path of his artistic development from traditional compositions to highly stylized abstract art is illuminated over the vast collection of works.

            Clyfford Still began his artistic career in the 1920’s surrounded by agricultural landscape and a culture centralized on farming. It was in this environment that he taught himself to paint. His earliest works reflect more of formal study than stylistic developments. The earliest of his works on display at the museum is his still life entitled Field Rocks. Created in 1925, the piece is reflective of traditional compositions utilized in this period of skill development.

It wasn’t until the early 1930’s that Still began to show an increased depth to his work. He began to utilize the agricultural setting that surrounded him as a subject for his art. As a result, he began to develop an expressionistic style of his own. His works were reflective of the pains of manual labor found and the love-hate relationship between man and machine in the farming community. Generally these pieces are grim scenes depicting angst and frustration of laborers and the exhaustion of their world. Figures wear dreary, worn expressions and are slightly abstracted as Still makes his first major developments in stylistic advancement.

The scene depicted in his work PH-77 made in 1936 demonstrates the concept of strain present in many of his works created at this time. The scene is two figures working in a field, bent over arms stretched to the ground, collecting the crops that lay atop of the soil. Their arms have been elongated, abstracted so much vertically that the viewer can feel the strain felt by the workers as they reach towards the ground. Vertical lines and brushstrokes encompass most of the page and enhance the workers’ downward movement, as well as contrast the horizontal lines created by their bent over backs. Still uses bright blocks of color to illuminate the intensity of the sun beating down on their bent over backs, increasing the sense of strain affiliated with their movement. In a similar way, the figures faces are composed of darker blurred shapes of color. No prominent facial features are present, yet the viewer is able to easily decipher their expressions to be dismal, miserable even and an empathy for the figures at work is easily established. This piece is monumental for the artist because of the way he successfully emotes the strain of exhaustion of laborers through stylized figures. This was the beginning of Clyfford Still’s use of abstraction as a form of expression.

In the later 1930’s, Still began to further develop his elongated, dreary figures. Utilizing the same sorts of subjects, he increasingly developed as an abstract artist, entering a transition period aimed toward complete abstraction. His figures lost all obvious traits, and became more implied by inside features, or shapes and lines conveying a human energy. His main interest during this time was the relationship between man and machine, represented by contrasting shapes that posses a certain tension, yet are diligently working together. The best example of this stage is PH-343 created in 1937 in which Still divides the canvas in half, a side for man and a side for machine. The shapes and lines that inhabit either side of the canvas contrast one another representing the tension in the relationship. The viewer is aware of the presence of both man and machine, although they are merely implied by methodically shaped blocks of color. Still’s ability to convey the approximation of a human form through the use of abstracted shapes and color proved successful. He was then able to move passed this period of transition and into complete abstraction, entering the art world as an abstract expressionist.

In the 1940’s, Still finally integrated the techniques he had been developing throughout the years and entered the realm of complete abstraction. The shapes and lines that had once been utilized as representations for figures or landscapes were liberated from their symbolic meanings. Still had reached a point in his artistic career in which expression was best emoted through utter abstraction. He entered the world of abstract expressionism, a movement of which he would be one of the most significant members. In accordance to the movement, Stills work at this time was less about suggestion, and more about feeling. His massive artwork from this period was increasingly elusive, large fields of color with big blobs and small fiery shapes of color scattered across the canvas. The change in scale is significant in that it demanded the viewer to step back, away from the painting in order to view it as a whole. However, the most influential factor to his painting is his use of color. During this time, he used many contrasting colors in exploding shapes that pop from the single tone, flat space of the background. The painting as a whole is meant to be the subject, with color as the defining feature.

At the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, walking into the room dedicated to the period of his painting in the 1940’s is a bit of a shock. The viewer leaves a rather dark room crowded with many relatively small-scale paintings of intricately abstracted figures. It is almost startling to enter the large, bright open room with only four or five massive canvases. The contrast between his previous work and the work of this era is truly jaw dropping. On the wall opposite to the entrance hangs a startlingly incredible, massive painting, Still’s No. 1 created in 1944. The viewer immediately takes it in, as it is the first thing that can be completely absorbed upon entering the room. The entire canvas is essentially black. Four outbursts of color decorate the background. The eye is initially drawn to the bright yellow lightening bolt-shaped explosion that strikes from the top edge of the page. Adjacent to the strike of yellow is a smaller splash of white, the most contrasting features to the black background. The white is bisected by a jagged red line beginning on the left edge of the page and curving up and black down to fall off the bottom edge of the page. Where the jagged red has ended, a splurge of darker green is barely noticeable, as it is dark enough against the black background to be missed.

The shapes that cut across the field of color are what Still refers to as “lifelines” and are representative of the verticality of living. If one is standing upright, then he is alive. This ties into his previous work where the presence of figures was more obvious, and their elongated forms seemed to also emphasize verticality. The shapes and fields of color would continue to be significant factors in later creations as well.

In the later 1940’s and early 1950’s, Still persisted to develop his style of abstract expressionism. The movement in and of itself had gained momentum, and became increasingly popular in the art world, as well as the world of pop culture. It was during this period of time that Still further developed his jagged, explosions of color, utilizing thick application of paint by a palette knife. He further embraced the idea of “allover” painting in which the painting possesses no one subject but is to be viewed in its entirety. It was also during this time period that Still welcomed the bare canvas as an expressive tool, leaving large unpainted areas as seen in PH-118 from 1947. The idea of including unpainted, bare areas into his composition would be a technique used frequently in later work.

In the decade lying between 1950 and 1960 Still decided to increase the already immense scale of his work even more. He wanted his pieces to be viewed more as environments that almost overwhelm the viewer, as opposed to a large painting laid before them. The color fields that are characteristic of this period of work are larger, closed in solid shapes of color, with less of the random spurts of energy present in previous work. The influence of other abstract expressionists seems to be present as well. PH-247 from 1951 in particular consists of solid blue, flat background with one thick black and one thin orange line slicing vertically from the top edge to the bottom edge of the canvas. It is very similar to the color-field painting of Mark Rothko, another significant figure in the abstract expressionist movement.

The final period of works displayed at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver take place in the latest part of his life between 1961 and 1980. It is in this period that Still worked in seclusion, cutting him self off from the art world almost entirely, revealing only select works to select institutions. The pieces of this time period are composted of a lighter touch, with smaller spurts of color as opposed to large intense color fields. This is where he also masters the use of blank canvas. Leaving the entire background unpainted as opposed to the thickly applied fields of background of previous work. Colors are less bold and are not forced into the viewers face. Still’s final pieces seem to reflect, more than anything, peace of mind.

At the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, the viewer is invited to travel through the development of one of the most influential American contemporary artists. A man who claimed, “the figure stands behind all of my work,” Still’s advancements from traditional studies of still life, to early abstractions of the human form, to the shocking beauty of abstract expressionism are all on display, illuminating the many achievements of a truly great artist. 

 

One Response

  1. Sarah,
    I think you did a particularly good job at describing the paintings that you used as examples. I was drawn in and wrote about the same paintings as you did and had a very similar experience with them. I like the organization of your paper.

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: