Clyfford Still Paper by Jordan David Dawson

I observed a great deal of conflict in Clyfford Still’s later paintings. Jagged, sprawling spears of bright yellows and oranges piercing straight through desolate, black and blue landscapes, like bolts of lightning penetrating a cold and deathly void. But beyond this theme of conflict, Still’s later paintings were overwhelmingly immersive. Each would envelop its gigantic landscape around me, thrusting me into whatever context it was created in. Whatever Still felt at the moment of each brush stroke, I could also feel. The absurdity of this claim vanishes when one actually experiences a genuine Still painting. For despite how arbitrary or intangible Still’s paintings may seem from a distance, they can be quite relatable and even agonizingly evocative if experienced up close.

However remarkable his later paintings were, Still’s development into a truly original artist was painstakingly gradual. This is an entirely subjective opinion though, since it’s likely that many may actually favor Still’s earlier work. This early work often portrayed desolate landscapes and conveyed the adversity of rural America with discernible figures and landmarks, though the mostly coherent objects were often distorted into disturbing shapes, situated at odd angles and with some disproportion. The single most common distortion that I noticed in Still’s art was the freakishly elongated arms of the farmers, which he depicted in numerous paintings. In one of Still’s many untitled paintings, blood trickles down the arms of two farmer’s, reaching all the way down to their sickle like fingers. The farmer’s faces are also obscured to the point where they’re just generic, emotionless shapes. An early instance of both a figure and a landscape painting by Still is another piece aptly titled, Untitled. Heavily influenced by the Surrealism movement of the mid-1930s, the painting featured what seemed to be totem poles, as well as other references to Native American cultures. It uses a fairly flat color palate (brown, grey and dull blue) and the face is elongated and solemn. These are two common and reoccurring features that I noticed throughout the exhibit.

During the 1940’s, Still radically shifted his style to completely un-representational painting. But the transition was much more significant than just a tendency to paint more abstractive subject matter, given that Still actually began to display conflicting relationships between vertical and horizontal forms in the early 40’s. Often creating dark and foreboding backgrounds with clusters of vibrant color, Still furthered this confrontational style by layering with the use of a palette knife. By painting not a single figure or setting as the center-piece of a work, but rather some abstract action or emotion, Still shattered the conventional structure of what visual art could look like at the time. With a tattered field of color as the foreground, Still was able to thrust theatrical battles of vertical and horizontal colors toward any direction, allowing for more artistic freedom and expression. The idea of two conflicting forces constantly being at war with each other riddled Still’s later painting’s. This trend was Still’s attempt at transposing his interpretation of existence, being “life and death merging into a fearful union,” onto the canvas. The use of medium colors at this stage of Still’s artistic career becomes nonexistent, and is replaced by a palate of extremes: bright and opaque colors almost exclusively.

Even later into Still’s career, his pieces become massive, almost mural-like ballets of color. They rise and then fall, they battle and then make peace; it is a constant exchange of opposing forces. Still’s palate becomes even more contrasting, providing even more dramatic tension than before. Toward the end of Still’s artistic career, a stage wherein he becomes much more reclusive and dedicates his entire existence to painting in his rural Maryland home, he suddenly shifts to a lighter and more delicate style. Still often left large portions of his canvas blank during this time, even though he did still employ dynamic vertical figures in opposition as the central theme.

To me, Still’s paintings ultimately function as a sort of emotional portal, a sort of alternate reality that I can embrace so as to escape from my own. A Clyfford Still painting is in itself a state of consciousness.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting analysis. I feel as though the elongation of the arms of some of the subjects seems to exemplify his attention towards verticality, and the association this has with life. It certainly seems to weigh some of the figures down, as you mentioned. In your fourth paragraph you mention that Still employs figures as a central theme. I disagree. I feel as though a central theme cannot possibly be interpreted within such a piece. It is painted in order to avoid the possibility of being thematic. I do really love your last sentence. It’s hard sometimes to discern what emotions one feels from a later Stills painting, but what can be sure is it seems to take the mind far from the reality of the room in which the painting rests.

  2. This was a very insightful analysis. Although I preferred the earlier Still works it was nice to read about the later color field paintings from your perspective. I agree that they encompass a multitude of conflicting forms and vibrant colors that seemed to portray “life and death merging into a fearful union.” The last portion of the analysis really sums up the way I felt when viewing the works, and it makes me want to take a second look at his later paintings.

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