Clyfford Still- Kathryn Anderson

Kathryn Anderson

January 30, 2012

Art History 3539-001

Kira van Lil 

Giving Painting’s a Living Spirit

            I invited my roommate to come with me to the Clyfford Still museum.  I thought it would be interesting to ask others what they thought of the work and just compare notes.  As we were looking at 1951 B, great blue one, she asked me, “What does this mean to you?  What was Still trying to say?”  To me, Still’s art isn’t so much about what the pieces are trying to say, but how they make me feel.  This concept started to make more sense to her after reading a quote from Still, “I never wanted color to be color, I never wanted texture to be texture, images to become shapes.  I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit.” The way that he feels about his work, how it needs to speak for its self, emphasis the point that each painting evokes individual feelings.  Each era of Still’s work, from the earlier pieces depicting the hardships of farm life, to the large color field paintings evoke emotions that make me want to lay down in each painting and live in that moment.  Moving through the rooms I just wanted to get right up close to the paintings and see all of the tool marks on the canvas, all the texture from different layers of paint and all of the space in between the colors.

Clyfford Still made his youth, experience of the Great Depression and rural upbringing an inspiring situation when it could have been a darkening one.  The lack of detail and elongation of the faces in earlier paintings was very telling of the melancholy tone of the time.  With out the face to focus on, you were left to look at the rest of the painting, to understand the emotions the people were feeling. The paintings of farm life seem to focus on body expressions such as, the way people are standing, posture and where they are in space.  Theses factors accentuate the figures emotions.   Hunger personifies itself onto the protruding boney ribs, sadness personifies itself onto the blue hue of their skin, and exhaustion throws itself at the backs and joints of the people.  It does not matter if a viewer never stepped foot in a field once in their life, Still allows you to feel that everything they are feeling.  The painting with the two farmers emphasis the work of the men with the red on the arms for blood, and the enlarged hands to symbolize all that relied on the collection of harvest.  The figures choppy almost robotic like position, bent over, creates lines that close off the man’s body to the rest of the world.  When the eye begins to scan the painting in a circular fashion from the head, to the bloodied arms, to the hands, to the buckling knees, and finally the cranked back, the audience feel the frustration that the farmers are too feeling.  Moving away from the definite shapes and towards a more free form Still manages to say a lot about his feelings with out any universal language.

When I rounded the corner to head into the room or drawings and sketches I saw one of my favorite paintings from the whole museum, PH-129. The lavender was so soft in comparison to many of the other works that I had to stop and appreciate its gentleness. The golden, honey yellows with a jump of pale lavender and splash of maroon create harmony.  Approaching the painting closer up accentuates the amount of work and layers of paint. It seems as though every shade change of yellow was intentional. All of the little bits of color that are added into to various parts of the piece seem at first all alone on the page then, after taking a step back the random swipe of color seems to not only fit right in but tie the rest of the painting together.

This piece of work falls the middle of Still’s time.  He was covering the whole canvas with paint and leaving out any recognizable shape or figure from his work.  He had long since alleviated those from his work knowing that there was just no use for them anymore.  Still was traveling from the West Coast to New York, he was really figuring out where he was rooted.  Getting in touch with other artist in New York was a crucial time for Still because it allowed him to really identify what he support and what slowed down his art.  The museums and galleries really appeared to just make Still angry because he believed in making art for himself and wanted all of his art to be displayed in once place.  Not only did he believe this of his art, but he thought that all artists should have all their art displayed together because that’s the best way to understand the artist.

The last painting that really stole my attention was “PH – 972”, the way the color, movement and over all direction of the painting demanded attention was like not finding a face in a crowd that’s calling your name.  Someone could have cut up the painting into twenty different sections and still have a pleasing composition to look at.  Each individual portion of the painting contributes to the overall energy.  The grey up close has a wonderful layering system with the black underneath it.  In conjunction to the cool grey, the bright and energizing orange attacks the viewer leaving them high feeling alerted.  It was so hard to decide which emotional direction the painting took me. The jagged lines in the pieces create a lot of flow and movement throughout the canvas.  The maroon was so rich and decadent that it called the eye to focus there but with so much movement throughout the piece your eye cannot just look there.  The empty parts of the canvas also add depth to the piece.  When there is no paint to reflect the light off of than that dull reflection adds to the dimension sending you deeper into the piece.

Still was known for using less paint later on in life.  He was playing with the idea that less paint was needed to evoke the feelings he wanted to.  The emptiness on the canvas played as much of a role as a completely covered canvas did.  The empty parts of the canvas are also a sign of maturity, in older age Still wasn’t afraid to let things be minimal.

Still grew from a man that had to teach himself art education, to a professor, to a respected artist all over the world.  His reputation as one of the most influential Abstract Expressionists may not have fully hit him until the show at the Metropolitan Museum when no other living artist had received such a large showing of work.  Moving away from the art mecca of New York also allowed Still to be the man he wanted to be, living simply without the constant fuss from media and critics. Still strongly believed in the idea that art should be completed with out the audience in mind, the art should be creative for one’s self.  I think it is very circular and fitting that Still began his life on the plains of the northwest and Canada than ended his life on a farm in Maryland.  He wanted his privacy and he wanted to be able to paint freely with out pressures.

contemp Clyfford Still paper

4 Responses

  1. I enjoyed reading your paper, mainly because I really got to understand the emotions that one can feel while gazing at a more abstract Still work. For me, it is hard to describe these feelings because I did not get the same emotional connection while looking at his later works, but with your descriptions I was able to visualize the beauty in his colors. :)

  2. I thought that your paper was very well put together and thought out. You were really able to capture the emotion that Clyfford Still brings to his paintings. i loved how you had a deep connection with the paintings and how I could tell that by reading you paper. You successfully captured the beauty of his paintings in words which is a very hard thing to do.

  3. I love the opening paragraph because I completely agree. I too brought a buddy along to the museum and he was trying so hard to make something out of the shapes of paints and said what he thought Still was trying to make. I explained to him that in my eyes, and my new knowledge of what Still was trying to do with his painting, was to evoke emotion. After this he would say what he thought Still was feeling when he painted each piece so he began to catch on.
    Otherwise, the rest of your paper is well organized. There is a good amount of background historical facts, as well as an even amount of the art itself.

  4. Hi Kathryn, I love that you took your roommate to the museum! I did the same thing. it made the whole experience much more enjoyable to share the experience with someone. I also enjoyed that you gave a description of the museum to give the reader a sense of walking through the exhibit with you. Great job!

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