Clyfford Still: Life on Canvas – Anna Cook

The artistic career of Clyfford Still was exceptionally evolutionary. Like many artists from the post World War II era, Still’s work underwent a series of developmental and tactical changes, which we can see as his art progresses. We see Still’s style change from primarily realistic to surrealist to abstract expressionist, and in each of those changes we also see elements from macabre to lighthearted elegance. His work is as versatile and capable to change as his life, and while all of his pieces are unique, each one is common in the most basic sense. The evolution of Still’s work transcends the emotional boundaries of art, while also still being attached to the human essence. Like many of his contemporaries, Still used color, shape, form and space; however he especially used movement, verticality, and expression to indicate the complexity of human expression and form.

The 1933 piece made by Still is perhaps one of the most anatomically accurate he has created. Made with charcoal on paper, this piece contains classical elements of art. The female nude, positioned gracefully in a sitting pose, possesses a classical simple elegance. Elegance in life and death are common in Still’s work, even his later abstract expressionist pieces. Regardless of how accurate this piece is compared to Still’s later works, we can still see the beginnings of Still’s cubistic and abstract tendencies. The female’s breasts are less soft, and perhaps even drooped and uneven. Her stomach seems to be engorged for the position she sits in, as though she is leaning far forward instead of backwards. Perhaps the most notable part of this particular piece is her lack of facial features. It appears as though Still sketches the beginning of a face, but his general focus is on the details in the body, from her shoulders to her ankles. This lack of facial expression in of itself is expressive. Without a face we are forced to direct our eyes to the body and notice its details. Her expression is purely physical to the viewer, the back of her hand on her hip as if to make a statement, while her feet dangle. Notice the way she is sitting. Though the “classic” variation of human form disappears in Still’s work, the human form in general remain prevalent.

Only a year later, Still created a completely different style of work. So began Still’s movement into abstracticism. Many pieces displayed at the Clifford Still museum of this particular era of Still’s art were conducted in oil paint. From this era, I mention two sister paintings made in 1934 to 1935. Both are of a man and woman, who appear completely different in color, shape, and form of the prior woman in charcoal. The first, on the right, shows the female standing closest to us, holding something blanket-like in her hand. She appears almost stoic as she stares straight ahead, unfazed as the man next to her cleans himself. He does not acknowledge the viewer as she does, but rather, he appears distracted, consumed in himself. Yet, he is skin and bones, while she is unnaturally large. Similarly to the 1933 charcoal, her center of weight is entirely focused at her midsection, while the male is nearly completely even in shape.

The sister piece on the left is similar, except for a few details. In this image, the man and woman stand in a dim fire. Both figures are a blue hue, rather than a warm orange as in the prior picture. Notably, the male stands alert in this image, watchful and almost proud as he holds the hand of the female. She appears to be folding into herself, looking somewhat empty and sunken, as if to say she is defeated. These two images are so very different from the first picture; however, the most noticeable similarity lies in the expressive nature of the figures, which is contained in the body more than the face. While the faces appear more expressive and complete, they also seem worn down as if filed to diminish their features. Their expression is shown in the way they stand, and furthermore, their figures begin to communicate on the basic human levels rather than relying on the subtle complexities of facial expression to indicate mood.

According to, Still’s human body during this time is “reduced to almost completely abstract forms.” I recount those subtle expressions because they are essential to communicating Still’s piece. Furthermore, Still’s work no longer takes a simple and classic tone, but instead it is dark and gloomy, unsettling for the viewer. Color composition is based around a mix of grays, browns, and blacks opposing reds, or pastel colors. These opposing color forces create a sense of struggle and urgency. Still uses this to recount mans need to survive in this world, and was essentially inspired by the Depression. Other pieces in this era often show people working, or exhausted from working. Regardless, the most relevant technique in these works is Still’s ability to let go of expression in form, while still embracing expression of body and movement.

When I refer to Still’s work as “evolutionary,” I mean that each era of his works seems to lead to the next and this form of expressive art soon transcended form and became abstract in the purest sense. In the 1950s work, we see an image seemingly void of all human figure. Instead, it appears as if primary blue, yellow, red, white and black dance upwards on the page. While this is true, this still is expressive and human. Verticality in Still’s work has always been a relevant element, but in this piece, we see the movement of the objects seemingly floating upwards. And in that vertically, in that color, shape, and texture, Still attempts to “fuse” his art into “a living spirit.” The use of mainly primary colors for this piece seems to indicate a complexity of mood. The movement in this work is particularly vivacious, moving upwards and to the right in a breeze-like fashion. This is a work from what many consider Still’s prime, and while others prefer his earlier works, I referred to this style as a form of transcendence because Still conquers the hurdle of emotion in his art and explores a style that is meant to be expression in it’s purest form. This image is one of complexity, but its behavior is enlightening for the viewer, we do not analyze the piece for what the figures and expressions of objects mean as much as we analyze the feeling the movement, color, and space cause us to possess. It is not an issue of what it means to society, or what it means to Clyfford Still, but rather an issue of staring into your own thoughts and emotions on a wall. While there is no tangible human form, the verticality of this piece in of itself is meant to show life and emotion in its purest forms, and in abstract expressionist art, this is a human figure.  I describe this piece almost romantically, and to clarify, I simply do this because this is abstract expressionist, and not tangible enough to describe in a concrete fashion. I do not mean to over-romanticize, but simply to clarify and extend from the basics of the image.

While Clyfford Still’s work is by all means evolutionary, and debatably revolutionary, all of the images I have described today have a commonality. Clyfford Still once described his work as “life and death merging in a fearful union,” and this is true. While some of his pieces are macabre, dark, and unsettling, others are almost classical, and later works are light, moving, and expresses the purest of emotions. I suggest that all of these pieces I have discussed today are completely common, and also completely different. All of these pieces have human form in common, and while each of these figures are completely different, they are the same in the emotions they could evoke in the viewer; furthermore, throughout his work, Still was able to use movement to suggest the living form. In his work, Stills opposition of horizontal of vertical is representative of life and death. The charcoal piece, combining these two elements, is expressive and yet lacking a certain spark of life as she sits. The sister paintings have the figures stand to face us, while surrounded by the opposing forces of water or fire. Those figures seem to be filled with complex emotion, while struggling with the world they are forced to live in. With the final piece, the pieces of color glide up the white page, almost free from that fearful union, but still pulled right on the canvas, forced to exist in a harsh reality.

While Clyfford Still was able to transcend figurative art, he always expressed mood, he expressed matters of life and death in reality. Stills use of Colorfield painting was revolutionary to the American art world, and the International Art world. While each era of Still’s work had its own personality, all of the works were similar in human interest, a basic interest. The evolution of Still’s work transcends the emotional boundaries of art, while also still being attached to the human essence in art. The use of color, shape, forms and space and especially movement verticality, and expression, indicate the complexity of human expression and form.

Madoff, Steven H. “The Art Story: Artist – Clyfford Still.” The Art Story: Modern Art Movements, Artists, Ideas and Topics. The Art Story Foundation, 2012. Web. 20 Jan. 2012. <;.

Clyfford Still Museum | Denver, Colorado. Clyfford Still Museum, 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2012. <;.

6 Responses

  1. In the first paragraph, your phrase “lighthearted elegance” caught my attention. I looked for reference to this phrase in the remainder of your paper and believe found it defined/discussed later when you felt you might be romanticizing Still’s expressions. Perhaps, the ability to romanticize is part of the artist’s magic. Humans want romance, no?

    One thing that might strengthen your writing here is the reduction of hyperbole (completely, totally, purest) as these words rarely actually apply. Risk adding hyperbole to hyperbole, I would say that nothing is “totally” or “completely” or “purest,” etc. Simply take these out or decline use of superlative.

    Nice job. Insightful.

  2. I really like how you commented on the sketches. I found the room of sketches to be really engaging. Everything was on a smaller scale so it was easier to get up close and notice more minuet details than on the larger paintings.
    I also agreed with the progression of Still’s work. It is so obvious how Still transforms his work beginning with leaving out the faces.
    I also really like the voice that you wrote in. It was formal but at the same time easy to understand and relate to. I thought the writing had a nice flow and structure.

  3. I completely forgot about the room full of sketches! I like how you wrote about them in your paper, it shows Still’s shift in style clearer.

  4. I completely agree with how you described the human figure in Still’s art. I like how you phrased it and completely agree that it is meant to show life and emotions in its purist form.

  5. It is interesting that you use the word “evolutionary” to describe Still’s artistic progression, since, especially beginning in the 1940’s, Still seems to move from primitive lines and textures to a more developed mature use of paint in the later works.

  6. “When I refer to Still’s work as “evolutionary,” I mean that each era of his works seems to lead to the next and this form of expressive art soon transcended form and became abstract in the purest sense.” This sentence is a little extensive and confusing. I understand what your trying to emphasize on how Still’s masterpieces altered and define abstract expressionism. I would try to make this sentence approachable through simplification. Other than that I thought it was a beautifully written essay. Nice job!

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