Tony McKendry – Clyfford Still Paper

Tony McKendry


January 30th, 2012


Clyfford Still

Abstract Expressionism is a prolific movement in both the history of Art and of the United States of America. Never before had an American art movement attracted the attention of the entire world, and at the forefront of this revolution stood Clyfford Still. Never before had emotion and ideas been conveyed through such a abstract and surreal medium; Still, along with other Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock realized their visions through shapes, colors and other artistic elements, shying away from the traditional methods and interpretations of the art community during that time. Still’s work is very interesting, especially when viewed as one complete collection, due to the fact that the evolution of his style can be seen very clearly.

Still’s early work is a polar opposite of the paintings he made before his death. His first paintings depict real life scenes, painted in a fairly traditional manner. Drawing from his own, real life experiences as inspiration, Still illustrated beautiful recreations of the world around him, as he saw it. One early work that stuck out to me was called Row of Elevators, which, at the museum, I thought was a picture of some skyscrapers and people in a city; but, after doing some research a home, I have learned that it depicts grain elevators at a farm. The painting is not done in any sort of abstract or surreal style, it shows the elevators exactly as Still would have seen them through his own eyes; the human figures are proportionally normal and the technique seems traditional for the most part. At this point in his painting career, Still had yet to fully realize his final artistic vision, and the abstraction and expressive style that he became famous for; but he had managed to seemingly master traditional painting techniques, which was surely the cornerstone of his epic career.

Clyfford Still is best known for his extremely abstract work from his later career, between this early period of traditional painting and the later abstract expressionist time. The transition can clearly be seen as Still began taking traditional elements in his paintings and abstracting them. Human forms and real-world objects are still present, but sometimes vague; bodies appear distorted and warped, their surroundings as twisted and surreal as their disturbing appearances. A good example of this transition period came in the form of a piece titled PH-343; this untitled piece portrays a dark, conceptual human form against an abstract background. The body is comprised mainly of a torso with arms, but with its head and legs missing. The shape is still recognizable as a human body, with nipples, a partially visible ribcage and even genetalia, but the form as a whole is abstracted, with lines from the chest merging into the arm, half of the chest appears as a supple breast, while the other half looks like the exposed ribcage of an emaciated drug addict. Still maintains certain traditional elements even in depicting such an abstract form; light and shadow are still portrayed, which allow Still to make this figure’s stomach and chest sunken in, as if they are completely concave from starvation. This dismembered and decapitated figure could barely pass as a human form in a traditional art sense, but by combining both traditional and abstract elements, Still manages to communicate his purpose to the viewer.

By the time World War II was over, Still had completely transitioned from being a traditional artist and painter into the period that is referred to as Abstract Expressionism. Gone were the landscapes, portraits and depictions of real life that dominated Still’s work in the earlier part of his life; replaced by vast expanses of color and shapes, devoid of anything “real” in the traditional sense of the word. Still’s style is called “color-field” painting, which focuses on contrasting large areas of color against one another, using different shapes and textures to add to the complexity of the piece. One of these late pieces that I liked is cataloged as 1955-H, it is highly representative of Still’s main body of work, and that which he is most famous for. This painting is huge, on a canvas taller than any person in the room, and the size really gives the splotchy fields of color a sense of grandeur. The plain canvas, and flat, neutrally colored shapes seem very three dimensional, almost as they are the walls of a long, tall hallway or canyon; the canvas is mainly a flat eggshell white, with the solid black and burnt orange monolithic forms towards the left and right sides. These dark colors juxtapose against the stark background, and are outlined roughly in grey, which adds much more depth to their appearance in my opinion; without this grey outline, the shapes would be too contrasting and the piece would not be nearly as meaningful. Still’s hand-mixed paints and interesting application techniques give the entire canvas a very interesting texture. Still’s hand can be seen in every aspect of each piece; every brushstroke, paint drip and rub is readily apparent, which allows the viewer to connect with the works on a deeper level, it allows them to view the work and think to themselves “Clyfford Still painted this with his own two hands” and being able to get close enough to such prolific work to see that with your own eyes is something really special.

3 Responses

  1. I think that you have a keen sense for what Clyfford Still’s later work entailed as far as feeling and application of paint to get an emotion across. Although for his earlier works, the emphasis on some key aspects is missing. The “Row of Elevators” piece is yes, traditional and representational, but I also believe that it is a part of the roots into what his vision grew into. Forget not the verticality of these early pieces, something we all know carried all the way through to his death. And on a smaller note even the inspiration he was gathering from Cezanne at this time to make his application of the paint less traditional.

  2. Comment from (Franklin) Perry Martin

    I would agree with your interpretation of Still’s later stylistic evolution as having moved away from anything traditionally ‘real.’ However although Still’s work does indeed move away from the traditional conventions of artistic realism relative to ‘painted object’ I feel that this fact also in turn makes the works of Clyfford Still all the more realistic in terms of lasting impression. From the documentary we watched in class Still explained that his goal was to create an environment that the viewer could fully become part of. It is this aspect of his personal mantra that makes his later works even more realistic to me, but on the level of emotional expression depicted within a ‘living space’ and therefore available to the viewer. This energy, which i found prevalent in Still’s work, created a much more profound, ‘real,’ and energetic manifestation within myself, as opposed to viewing the work of other artists with higher adherence to societal convention.

  3. You definitely know your stuff! I like how you went beyond the museum information and incorporated information from the class. I think it is really interesting how huge his transformation was after WWII…not only for Still, but for ANY artist during that time. I agree with the idea of Abstract Expressionism being one of the major art movements. It is a time in art history that I wish I was alive for!

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