Painting’s Soul – a paper on Clyfford Still by Alysia Davis

Nude, a beautiful woman without a face confronts voyeurs. Her facial expression can be inferred by her body language – delicate, decisive, and confidant she is anything. Directly addressing the audience with vacant nothingness, she transforms with the emotions of one viewing her visage. Rendered as a sketch, she is timeless; a glimpse into the dynamic soul of the artist. By leaving her face in the imagination of the viewer, Clyfford Still inserts his personality as artist and author. He knows the viewer will in turn insert their own idea of her emotional state based on their personal experiences.

The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver Colorado is visionary not only for the artist collection, but for the history of understanding Contemporary Art. The artistic development from Still’s early works to his classic pieces in Colorfield Painting and Abstract Expressionism reveals a metamorphosis in understanding the communicative power of painting in the art world. Through his progression Still changes his content, form, and scale as he expresses his identity as a painter.

IMAGE: PP-7 1935
Pastel on paper



Clyfford Still’s early art exceeds any expectations of student work. Although the subject matter ranges from still life, figure and landscape, to small color experiments, Still’s abilities are unique and beyond that of a student’s talents. Atmospheric excitement charges each of Still’s early landscape paintings. Texture and subtle nuances of high energy colors create an entrancing tension, turning mundane quotidian life into beauty that only an artist can depict. For example in his 1927 oil painting PH-782 strokes on the canvas dance upward in a push-pull effect of buoyant colors.

Even the sky breathes yellows, greens, pinks, and grays while exploding with vibrant light blue. The erect, electric yellow monument is a symbol of man’s existence in relation to hard work. The balance of the composition attests to the artist’s commitment to capture moments as an artistic experience. In the museum archives Still is quoted as saying, “I never wanted color to be color, or texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse together in a living spirit”. For Clyfford Still, life is not within people, but within the spirit of the artist existing within the layers of paint. Life is in the experience of viewing an artist’s work.

Shifting to darker hues, tone and time move through Clyfford Stills paintings in the 1930s and 1940s. Although his subject matter of human form and hard work remain, the persona of his characters scream out with somber emotion. Recognizable workers toil in fields. Large hands and long faces speak of desperation and defeat. This shift can be seen between the oil paintings “PH-80, 1935” and “PH-77, 1936”. Adjoining text on the museum wall describes Still’s memories of “men and machines ripping a meager living from the thin top soil” during the Great Depression.

During this time a major transition occurred as Still began experimenting more with abstraction. Although figures are continuing in his work, they begin to lose clothes, then skin, and then form is skewed to a vague understanding of figure. Paintings that serve as an example of this journey are “PH-448, 1934–35”; “PH-414, 1934–35”; and “PH-553, 1937”. These paintings are the melting away of reality into the abstract.

Although Still is changing his form in this period he continues to rely on texture and color to imply tone. Rather than simplifying compositions he begins his exploration in complexity. Shapes are not just shapes, they are characters in the drama of his painting. It is arguable that the 1940 oil painting “PH-208” contains more characters and action than his previous work.



 

Each shape is an entity adding equally to the balance of the painting as a whole. Unexpected colors merge together, adding emotion to the composition. This is the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. Representation is faded. According to art historian Erika Doss in her book Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism (1991), Abstract Expressionism is a “free-form aesthetic… focused on the qualities of its particular medium and the ‘feelings’ of its individual makers” (p 125). By taking away easily understood and recognizable forms, the audience can connect with the interior psyche of Clyfford Still as painter; we see through his eyes instead of merely looking at him as a person and artist.

In addition to totally changing the way we comprehend the figure, Still began increasing his scale for his paintings beginning in the 1940s. Distilled, abstracted forms and bright colors paired with black, white, and gray ask the question of meaning in the 1943 oil painting “PH-286”.

In this case, because the narrative of the painting isn’t spelled out step-by-step, one searches for meaning through conversations of formal aspects. What do the colors mean? How does the interplay of shapes make me feel? How does the increased canvas size compare to his previous paintings? During the mid-1940s and 1950s the scale of Still’s work is as important as the stokes of his palette knife.

To truly experience a Clyfford Still painting one must stand up close to the canvas that diminishes the scale of the human body in relation to the work of art. The concept of position and scale is expressed in Still’s “PH-554, 1942” painting.

Reaching toward the ceiling the trilogy of rectangles describes a transition of scale and color. Traditionally, the warm blue hue would recede and the hot red hue would advance, but because of the way Still played with scale and perspective the opposite effect takes place. This painting could be Still’s thoughts on the evolution of his work through formal aspects. The three phases of his art life are like the three rectangles. They increase drastically in scale and the hues shift in emotional intensity from blue, to red, to black.

At this point, Clyfford Still’s scale embarks on epic meaning through epic proportions. Texture and color are more powerful on this enormous scale. The contrast between large and small details create more tension and adds more context for his audience.For example in the painting “PH-369, 1951” the drama between large scale and small detail compose one of his most successful balances in composition. This painting is so large that it can only fit on a museum gallery wall, yet it contains minuscule details that display the exacting intension of the artist. Small wisps of bright color break out of the boundaries of strong color fields. It is through the exclamations of color that the term Colorfield Painting came into existence. Pure painting, pure color and form are made monumental in Still’s use of gigantic canvases.

Even though Clyfford Still’s advancement from his early work to his later Abstract Expressionist work appears to be drastic, he manages to keep his artistic personality. Even though figures went from being human forms to almost familiar forms, Still kept true to his personal style, even if it meant stepping out of the scrutinizing public eye. It is arguable that even his Colorfield paintings contained similes for how he felt as a Contemporary Artist.
In his “PH-1102, 1948” the layered canvas amassed in black can be seen as a poetic version for his interior perspective. On the left edge an almost undetectable streak of yellow hides, marginalized. Is this yellow streak the soul of the artist, holding on to the harsh reality in the world of art critiques? Is the exposed circle of canvas how he feels inside… empty?

Here at the Clyfford Still museum we see not only a journey of a man as an artist, but the journey of an artistic style. Like many great artists Clyfford Still doesn’t see himself as fitting in to the world of Contemporary Art. Luckily he held on to his vision of showing his collection of work in one museum, dedicated to him alone with no distractions of other artists.

Despite discouragement and his retreat from the art world, Still managed to keep all of his work intact while he was waiting. Due to a gracious gift of unparalleled art work, Clyfford Still informed a new generation of his beauty and talents as a contemporary painter. This collection of works created by Still begins the history for how Contemporary Art is understood today.

The true emotions of the artist can be seen in a series of letters to art historians and critics as he defends his work, character, and ideals as an artist. Encased behind glass Still’s letter to his art dealer Betty Parsons indicating his withdrawal from the art world is a sentimental display of the heartache and difficulties Still faced as an artist… “I am withdrawing my work from public exhibition” he wrote in 1951. For Clyfford Still painting isn’t art, it is life, with all of its beautiful and difficult moments captured in time.

9 Responses

  1. Because of your paper, I think I like Clyfford Still more so than before! First off, I really like your first paragraph. It succeeded in drawing me in and making me want to read more. I completely forgot about that sketch until now. The fact that he didn’t draw her facial features brings so much more emotion and genius to the sketch. The viewer is left to decide who she is and how she is feeling that particular moment. I also enjoyed the questions you asked the reader, it helped me understand how you specifically felt about his art and it keep me questioning.

  2. Hi Alysia. I now feel ready to visit the Clyfford Still Museum! I love that you’ve inspired me to do something that would have been low on my list and that you’ve also given me the information I will need to fully enjoy the experience. Your observations about Still’s figures losing their clothes and then their skin revealed something to me that I didn’t understand previously about Abstract Expressionism, and now I see things that I never knew were there. The range of work you’ve presented here is actually like a mini-tour, but I have to say that you’ve generated quite a bit of excitement in me for the prospect of actually seeing for myself the “miniscule details that display the exacting intension of the artist” and the “[s]mall wisps of bright color break[ing] out of the boundaries of strong color fields”, as well as a yearning to gaze upon the grand scale of Still’s later pieces. I really want to see “PH-1102, 1948″ up close. I read your blog on my phone, and when this one scrolled into view, I gasped! I think it has something to say to me — especially now that I am old. :) Thank you for your wonderfully inspiring piece. I look forward to more!

  3. I thought your paper was great! I especially appreciated your description of what the viewer should ask themself as they stand before a Still Painting: “What do they colors mean? How does the interplay of shapes make me feel? How does the increased canvas size compare to his previous paintings?” From my understanding of Still’s vision, this seems to be exactly what the artist intended: to use color, scale and abstraction to create an emotional response in the viewer.

    Your opening paragraph drew me in immediately. You have a knack for describing what you see. I also was happy to be reminded of this figural sketch (PP-7), this was a part of the museum that I spent some serious time in. Your analysis got me thinking, how does this sketch, with its seemingly definitive take on the female form, translate into his other works? How does the woman’s facelessness factor in? Is she an expression of universal beauty? Even though this work was probably not intended to have a great meaning, can we apply it based on our knowledge of his other works? I think that the museum itself was built for just this purpose: to understand the artist as a whole, even down to his early sketches, and find a thread throughout the works.

    One thing: you might want to add captions for each image. It is great that you included them, they really add a lot to the writing and refresh the reader’s memory on his work. But the way that they align with the text is sometimes confusing, so including titles would help the viewer link the image to the paper.

  4. Very strong intro! I also think it is great that you talked about the sketches in the museum. I walked by them not thinking much about them because I was more drawn to the color field paintings. You commenting on it made me realize that most times when I go to an artist’s exhibit, I overlook sketches and other somewhat unfinished looking works, even though they are just as important as the more detailed and finished ones.
    As far as formatting of images, I think the format was fine, (if not interesting, it was great to see his work evolve), but I felt that there were too many images. My attention kept wandering from text to image and back again which made it somewhat difficult to follow the writing. Overall, however, it was very well written and interesting!

    • It’s funny about the amount of photos, I almost added more (close-ups) but there was a limit for file sizes. Next time I should finish my paper early so I can get these suggestions before the deadline. Thanks for your comments!:)

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