Clyfford Still (Lauren Anderson)

“I never wanted color to be color, texture to be texture, images to become shapes.  I wanted them to all fuse into a living spirit.” -Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still came from humble beginnings.  Despite being born in North Dakota, he spent most of his early years on a farm in Canada and in Washington.  His first works of art depict these rural scenes of agriculture.  They often show humans busily laboring, machines, and buildings, but on with a backdrop of a landscape that was mostly desolate. This type of art that was a representation of daily life was referred to as American Scene painting and was typical of Depression Era in which it was painted.  However, for Still’s art it was just the beginning of his use of “chiseled planes of intense color and a desire for monumental grandeur.”  The work that sums up this period the best is PH-77.  Painted in 1936, this image shows two men working in a field, as many had to do in the Depression.  The pain from the back-breaking labor can be seen in their faces and is emphasized by their un-proportionally large hands that reach downward. The artist knew their pain and that understand can be seen in the way he painted the men. Despite being a figurative painting, Still creates areas of intense color.  The primary colors dominate the painting and this simplistic color scheme helps to emphasize the expressive nature of the application of paint.  They also help to focus more on the shapes of the figures and how those shapes interlock. He was starting to move more towards abstraction.  From 1937 through the early1940s he continued to develop a more abstract approach. He no longer represented humans in realistic ways. Instead, he replaced them with vertical elements that could only be inferred to represent a human presence.  The background for these images is nocturnal, giving them a sinister quality.  He still used some imagery from the farm as in his earlier paintings, but they are not complete representations.  There seems to be some sort of dialogue between man and machine going on at this time, however, neither one really looks like what it is and they some time it is not clear which is which.  This can be seen in PH-343, 1937.  On the right side of the composition, man is represented by warm earth tones and is clearly a human but not realistic by any means.  The humans hand reaches over to the left side which is painted in all black and white and shows elements of industry and machines.  In this piece it is clear that man and machine are being compared, but neither one looks like a realistic representation of itself.  By 1942, representation was almost gone from Still’s work.   In PH-313, 1942, the only sign of human figures is the vertical black and white forms.  He starts to experiment with jagged lines and cliff-like forms that can be seen in his later work.  Lines of color and dots remind the viewer of machines or industry, but only because they look like earlier paintings.  Without seeing earlier paintings or knowing anything about the painting, this seems almost entirely abstract.

However, Still’s work was not truly abstract until about 1943 when he moved to Virginia to teach at the University of Richmond.  It was then that he was able to combine several of his ideas that he had developed up to that point. He no longer felt the need to force lines and shapes to represent something that we see in the real world.  This liberation from the need to be representative allowed Still to start developing truly abstract compositions that would eventually become the style he is known for today.  He moved toward a flattened plane that was invaded by bursts of color. In 1945, he moved to New York City for a brief time and made connections with other artists and people in the art world.  However, in 1946 he moved back to the west coast.  This time in the San Francisco Bay area from 1946 to mid 1950 was extremely productive for Clyfford Still.  His unique style, characterized by jagged forms, vibrant colors, and heavily encrusted surfaces, really began to develop here.  He really started to master his use of the flat plane that he started to develop in the early 1940s during this time.  This can be seen in 1949-No. 1   (PH-385), 1949.  This painting, instead of focusing on a central subject like paintings of the past, has a flat allover composition that forces the viewer’s eye to be constantly moving all over the canvas, and even off of it.  This sense of movement is emphasized by the dramatic and heavy application of paint that creates an extremely textured surface.  The black jagged forms seem to jump out from the rich red background and are punctuated by small bursts of yellow.  It was during this time that the Abstract Expressionism movement really began to take off, and Still was a key figure in that movement.  In fact, he was one of the first of his contemporaries to become completely abstract with his painting. In mid-1950, Still moved back to New York City and would stay there for 11 years.  This was where Still took his paintings to a monumental size.  The purpose of  this was make the viewer experience his paintings as environments by making them so large that when standing in front of them, the viewer could look at nothing else. At this time, Still works are identified by his use of large areas of bold color that create serrated shapes. He also starts to utilize areas of bare canvas more frequently because he thought that lack of color could say just as much as lots of it.  After more than a decade in New York City, Still moved to Maryland and lived there until 1980 when he died.  Still had grown tired of the commercialism of the city and wanted to move to rural area like where he had grown up to focus on his art in a more secluded environment.   These paintings are not a heavy handed and the shapes are much more minimal than his earlier work.  He continued his study of empty space that started in the 1950s and took it to an extreme.  This later painting have a lightness to them that seems to imply movement.    This can be seen in his painting from 1973, PH-1034.  In this massive painting, reds, oranges and yellows, swirl together and are penetrated by jagged intrusions of fields of black.  Between these burst of color are areas of blank canvas that use their color to define the different fields they enclose.  In his work PH-1007, 1976, even more blank canvas is used.  The top right corner is almost completely bare, and a blue and green intrusion comes in below it.  The majority of the canvas is taken up by a red intrusion that is slightly off center.  Areas of yellow and brown, and black shapes also move through the canvas.  However, none of these colors, despite just being color, are flat. They have many different shades and they amount of paint applied creates different texture.  The use of bare canvas creates some depth to the canvas and also reveals how much paint was applied and makes it that much more expressive.

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