Clyfford Still Essay

Shelby Simpson

ARTH 3539

Clyfford Still Paper

Due January 31, 2012


Clyfford Still: The Rediscovered Artist of Abstract Expressionism


Clyfford Still was one of the most influential artists during the period of abstract expressionism.  Still, like many others have lived through the devastation of World World II.  After the war, artists wanted to create something that was entirely different from European art, something that show no reference or inspiration to their work, and would determine the “American Movement.”  This movement changed modern art as a whole.  Jackson Pollock, a well-known abstract expressionist  said, “Still’s work makes the rest of us look academic.”  Although Still is best known for his work as an abstract expressionist, he did not start out his career painting large scale, colorful paintings.  His works from the 1920’s were influenced by the farm life during the Great Depression and soon evolved to paintings with more color variation and abstracted forms in his later work.  Clyfford Still grew tired from the art world, and began to create paintings for private viewings.  He believed that artwork was meant to been seen by one artist, not a series of artists in an exhibit.  Because of this, Still is not as well-known as most artists during his period.  Due to the recent opening of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado, Clyfford Still’s work is being resurfaced and publicized to the world.

Still was born November 30, 1904, in North Dakota, but spend his childhood years working on a farm in Spokane Washington.  Still was an only child who did not have good relations with his father.  He thought that his father saw him as free labor and not as a son.  Still taught himself through reading and studying works from the Stoddard Lectures. Most of his works from the early 1930’s were influenced from the depressed life of farm workers after the market crashed.  “PH-77” created in 1936 shows two men  bent over shucking wheat.  The men’s faces express over exhaustion and agony from long days of work.  Still also evokes emotion through the abstraction in the males elongated and enlarged muscular arms.  Their arms are painted the high contrasts of red, suggesting the sweat, blood, and tears of an over-worked laborer.  Painting labors were not  uncommon during the time of the Great Depression, but Still’s were different. He used of vibrant reds, yellows, and blues.  In “PH-77,” Still creates a eye attracting composition with a balanced contrast of lights and darks, that separate the foreground from the background.  The viewer is able to move their eyes around the painting, yet are still drawn back to the center focus.  Still allows the viewer to feel the physical and emotional hardships of people from this era.

In the late 1930‘s to early 1940’s, Still’s work continues to have a sense of darkness. But his work progresses into abstraction.  The viewer can recognize the form but still questions what it might be. His painting begin to have an “all-over” composition, in which the viewer is not drawn to a particular area.  Still achieves this effect by painting images flat and not setting them back with a deep set back. The viewer can see the interior of the human figure instead of the exterior.  “PH-343” painted in 1937 is a  semi abstracted painting with a Surrealist influence.  The painting references  a man holding onto a black form, possibly representing machinery.  The left-hand -side represents the machinery of the farming industry, and the right-hand-side represents the man controlling the machinery.  The white within the male figure, is representational of bones and other anatomy. The figure’s facial features are not define, which takes away from his identity. The figure’s connection to the machinery seems to be against his will.  This painting draws from previous labor paintings, which makes me draw the conclusion that the machine is inflicting pain onto the male figure.

During the late 1950’s, Still’s paintings drastically changed. His work was no longer representational, but a combination of blurred color fields and irregular jagged shapes.  His paintings increase considerably, and allowed the viewer to feel they are in one of his paintings.  As the viewer walks closer to the painting, their field of vision is distorted, and they become part of the environment.  Walking closer to a Clyfford Still, you can see the differences between clear soft lines that have no brush strokes, to heavy uncontrolled brush strokes, and even parts of the canvas that he deliberately choose not to paint at all. Still purposely left unpainted canvas to let complicated parts of the painting breath.  The canvases also are unframed causing an illusion of infinity.

Some forms appear to be trapped within the painting, yet are randomly punctuated by subtle touches of color.  These faint colors interrupt the physiological contemplation that is presented in Still’s paintings.  He introduces this idea of verticality to the art world.  An idea that is commonly expressed in his later works.  Still paints vertical lines with the intension of representing life forces, and paints horizontal lines as death forces.  Vertical lines are which keep the living up and standing, horizontal that allow the dead to rest. It is interesting to see a collaboration of both forces represented in painting “PH 401.”  I interpret this painting as a struggle between life and death. It seems that this life is dying, yet something within the painting is not allowing it to rest.  The friction between the two forces is overwhelming and confusing, yet the forces are balanced, making the composition neutral. Still also paints this piece with high intensity colors of black, white, red, suggesting mix emotions. But small tints of blues, oranges, and yellows, chime into the painting and gives their advance to which force is necessary to keep the nature of forces in-order.  The painting conveys a lot of energy that can be interpreted several different ways, but keeps the audience in-touch with the sublime.

Clyfford Still passed away in 1980, after a long successful career.  He was considered one of the most influential living artists of his time.  Still was part of the first generation of abstract expressionist, who developed the “American Movement” during the twentieth century.  After his death, his work was excluded from the public and scholarly art historians.  This created an untold secret which for years no one had ever looked, read, or wrote about his work.  Finally, with the opening of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver Colorado, people can publicly see Still’s work and experience the missing piece that influenced most of the artwork during the period of abstract expressionism.

2 Responses

  1. The paintings you chose to discuss are great examples of Still’s various styles. You also give a nice, detailed background on Still that is relevant to your paper. I especially like your interpretation of PH-401 by comparing it to life and death.
    Nice descriptions of the paintings. Your analysis of PH-77 is insightful and creative as you describe the workers in agony.

  2. I have seen that many people chose the 2 workers shucking wheat to analyze, you analysis of that piece seems on point with what everyone else is saying, so good job. I find the third piece you chose interesting as well, due to the fact that it is the one that was vandalized when the museum was first opened by the drunk girl haha

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