Clyfford Still: Color Dramas

Clyfford Still is considered to be one of the leaders of the Abstract Expressionist art movement.  Among his AbEx contemporaries, which include the likes of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko,  Still’s work remains distinct.  While other artists experimented with many different styles and techniques, Clyfford Still remained true to his jagged aesthetic throughout his career.  Still’s early representational paintings can be found to have the same types of form, line, and rhythm, as do his later abstract works.  Though the most obvious development in Clyfford Still’s style is from the representational to the abstract, the progression of his Abstract Expressionist style is far more nuanced.  Considering that Still became known for his distinct AbEx style, it is interesting to see how his work morphed into the icons that his career is now defined by.

By the late 1930s to early 1940s, Clyfford Still began to paint abstract works.  The farm and labor scenes that were inspired by the frontier of his youth had been left behind in favor of a looser approach.  Still’s first abstract works still retained the feeling of prairie life, but during the mid 1940s, the artist painted his first completely non-referential work.  Instead of editing a scene to the point of non-recognition, Still decided to paint works that were environments of their own.

Still’s work simply titled 1944: No. 1 PH 235 is one example of the artist’s first foray into what would become his distinct style.  This painting was completed just before Clyfford Still moved from the northwest coast to New York in order to be closer to the art scene.  The artist’s struggle with complete abstraction is evident in this work.  In attempting to let go of any sort of representational inspiration, what viewers get is a bleak story.  Most of the work is covered in obscurity: the dark black-indigo paint is piled on layer after layer, in what seems to be a compilation of many attempts at the work.  The black is dominant over the other colored bands in this painting.  One thin red line quivers as it forms an outline within the black.  Strikes of yellow and white slash through the red line, and the size of both of them is similar in comparison to the small teal figure on the lower right-hand side of the painting.  The relative size, as well as the fact that they are placed over the red line, gives these figures the quality of being characters because they can relate to one another.  Compared to later works, these colors play a more timid role in the black abyss of the canvas.

By the late 1940s, Clyfford Still was clearly more confident in his depictions of what one might refer to as color scenarios.  Thinking of Still’s forms as characters provides the viewer a lens through which to decipher his work.  1949: No. 1 PH 385 demonstrates the violence of colors clashing together.  Again, Still has covered the canvas with a thick layer of colored paint, but now the color choice ranges around red.  The red makes this piece highly confrontational, as does its larger size.  Viewers are forced to regard the work as a dominant entity, and by standing closer, they can even lose themselves within the plane of the work.  Though from far away the brighter red paint seems to be one color, closer inspection reveals the variety of slightly unmixed colors it took to achieve the effect of the red-orange.  As a result, the red-orange hums with activity.  Shadowy figures of a rusty maroon fight their way into the bottom half of the painting, oozing into cracks in the red-orange.  The most maleficent character in PH 385 is the black, with its tendrils stealthily creeping onto the scene.  While the maroon fights over dominance with the red-orange, the black sneaks in during the chaos in a couple different places.  The jagged edges between colors are frantic and deliberate border skirmishes.  Instead of the clear assertion of PH 235, Clyfford Still captured all the action of a full-fledged battle in PH 385.

By the 1950s, Clyfford Still took up permanent residence in New York and began to paint very large-scale works.  Though he still painted color dramas, his style seems to be more assured.  In 1954: PH 1123, a smoother brush technique becomes apparent.  Gone are the frenzied color transitions, and in their place are solid forms of color that almost appear to be put together like a collage.  Still’s lighter touch with paint leaves behind evidence of an unprimed canvas, as some areas remain unpainted.  This acknowledgement of the canvas demonstrates Clyfford Still’s mastery of the negative space.  Clearly, Still understood that what viewers do not see is just as powerful as what is apparent—and he took it a step further by leaving bits of the canvas blank.  Large black washes of color coexist in alternating bands of pale gray and white. One bright yellow lighting slice stands out against the black and white landscape.  The vertically linear organization of the painted bands helps to put the viewer’s mind a bit more at ease.  All together, the audience experiences a more controlled and less frantic encounter with Clyfford Still’s work by the 1950s.

Still created many more works, as he painted up until his death in 1980.  Though his style kept evolving, Clyfford still never lost his bold, jagged approach.  Today’s viewers may find Still’s work less radical than his original audience, but the artist’s work remains timeless because stayed true to his own aesthetic.

3 Responses

  1. I really like how the descriptive wording in this paper takes the reader into the museum. The reader understands how much emotion and movement are in Still’s works. I get the impression that the works are in front of my eyes, even while I’m sitting at my computer. This is definitely enhanced by the photographs of Still’s works that are presented with the writing. I think the combination of clear, descriptive, moving writing and powerful images of the works being described is very effective.

  2. I definitely agree with your comments on Still’s (PH-235) as a strong example of the figures that remain in Clyfford Still’s most abstracted works. The small, yet significant strokes of color in this painting represent characters in his canvas. I was curious about the term AbEx – I have never seen it written like that before.

  3. I have to say, I love your description of his work, especially with “PH 235” because when I saw that piece it was as you put it a “bleak story” and was obscured to the point where it seemed difficult to get anything out of it. I love how you related it to his own struggle as an artist though, and now looking at that piece again I can understand where you’re coming from when you describe it as such.
    I also thought your description of “PH 382” was interesting as well. I analyzed this piece too, but I did not really think of it as a fight for dominance between the colors as you did. However, I like how you seem to recognize the somewhat “violent” element of this work in the jagged edges of the forms in it and it really reinforces you interpretation of this as a fight for dominance. I also thought the description of this as a “battle” was a really fantastic way of describing it as well.
    Overall, your description painted a very clear image of the pieces in my mind (regardless of the fact that you had images) and I really think that your ability to graphically describe the paintings is where your paper was the strongest.

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