Clyfford Still paper by Ryan Baker

Clyfford Still paper by ryan baker

Ryan Baker

ARTH 3539

Clyfford Still

“My painting is a life statement, not an autobiography.”  This passage resonated within me as I sat in the museum reading these profound quotes by Clyfford Still.  I have spent a lot of my life traveling to many different countries and cities where art has been greatly influenced.  Through these travels I have visited many different museums and witnessed works from some of the greatest artist in the world.  Never have I been impacted so much from looking at a painting than from the works of Clyfford Still.  First walking into the museum, certain structural aspects seemed to have calmed me as I was buying my ticket.  The grey concrete walls and the crisscrossed ceiling with shattered light being filtered through really set the right vibes for the paintings.  Clyfford Still was a very deep and opinionated man who found art at an early age to be his own unique way of expressing his feelings and how he saw the world around him.

Clyfford Still was apart of a revolutionary era of painting, the abstract expressionism and colorfield movement.  Abstract expressionism emerged in the late 1940’s, and was the first dominant movement and style for that generation in America.  This movement was centered out of New York City, which is known for being the center for emerging artists and art movements.   Clyfford still was revolutionary in this art movement, and expressed the hardships and devastating times that he experienced through his art.  As a child, he grew up in hard labor working on his family’s farm, and the only way he could express his pain and feelings was through his artwork.  This was what abstract expressionism was mainly about, the devastating experience of an event or just about life, and how an artist could accurately portray their feelings and doubts about what is good and evil, right and wrong.  This style appears in Still’s early paintings from the 1920’s to the early 1930’s.  This was the first collection of paintings I saw as I walked up the stairs, seeing a beautiful self-portrait if Still.  The painting that followed from this period were very striking and conveyed such deep emotion.  All of these painting depicted scenes from the rural agriculture region that Still grew up in.  They showed the actual pain and reality of working in the fields and factories of agriculture.  The way Still painted these gigantic factories against serene landscapes showing depression-era living and making something ugly very beautiful.

One specific piece really caught my eye as I examined his works.  The painting was titled PH-77, 1936, and showed two farmers “shucking wheat” in a field.  I spent 30 minutes trying to figure out and put together all of the messages and feelings I was receiving from this painting.  What struck me first were the very dominant colors of red, yellow, and blue.  The shirt of the first farmer was painted a very deep blood red, and both of them are hunched over the field working.  Their arms are very long and have hints of red lines trickling down, which show the fatigue and exhaustion the farmer’s experience in the fields.  Still painted this from memories of farmers bloodied from working the fields, and wanted to show how farming wasn’t a glorious job.  The farmers faces are elongated, not really showing much emotion at fist glance, but you can see deep sorrow and exhaustion in their faces.  I love how you can see the texture and every stroke of the paintbrush.  The texture of blue and purple sky presented the ominous feeling of hardship and unrest.  Most of the emotion in the painting is derived from the texture Still creates.  He uses very strong colors, which create emotion and evoke feelings in the viewer.    Still has a very unique way of transferring his emotions and feelings from the painting to the viewer.  As I was standing there, I could really feel the hardship that these farmers endured.  The farmers are hunched over in a very fatigued and burnt out posture.   I can understand what Still was trying to say about his former life and the life of the farmers.  He really respects them and their lifestyle, all of his paintings of farm life is his way of paying homage to farmers and the work they do.

As I walked further through the museum, his paintings continued from later in his life.  After the abstract-expressionism paintings of farming, his paintings became very bold and assertive with color.  This is when Still joined the colorfield movement, which was more of a school of thought than a movement.  It was designed to incorporate the viewer into the artwork, to give them the ultimate experience in really feeling and understanding a piece of artwork.  Still used these ideas to create works that form dynamic interactions with the viewer, so that they feel the art encompass their entire person.  He did this with very large canvases with deep colors and textures.  When I came to his paintings from 1946 to the mid 1950s, during his time working at the San Francisco art institute, I really noticed his style engulfing in the colorfield movement.  His canvases became very large, filled with vibrant colors, and serrated, uneven shapes.  One piece that I loved was titled 1949-No.1, (PH-385), 1949.  It really caught my eye because of the immense texture that would crust the surface of the painting.  It had a base layer if red which was slightly washed out at the top, but conveys a serine feeling until your eyes scan over the gashes of thick black paint layered with red.  The canvas was around nine feet tall, which made me really stand back and observe every inch of the painting.  He made theses large painting to incorporate the viewer so they feel the emotions he put into the painting.  The gashes of black and red seemed to be like black holes sucking out everything that I have been feeling.  I couldn’t understand what it was about this painting that made me feel like I was pouring out my heart and soul in the middle of the museum.  The texture of the gashes was unbelievable because it added that extra emotion that Still was feeling, because you can see the rough layered strokes of his palate knife.  Along with these gashes of red and black, there are random splices of bright color that seemed like light piercing through darkness.

As I took my time through the museum, I very much enjoyed seeing all of his drawings, and how his style changed throughout his life.  They showed how he was not only an abstract painter, but that he was skilled in portraitures and landscapes.  There were drawings I saw that were exact sketches and practices of some of his actual colorfield paintings.  The paintings that I really think are his masterpieces, and is the work that most accurately encompasses his full potential are the painting he did in the early 60s up until his death in 1980.  During this time, he lived in rural Maryland with his family and painted in seclusion in an old barn.  These painting became larger and held much more vibrant color and harsh jagged forms than his previous paintings.  The one painting that I found myself really staring at and trying to understand was titled PH-1007, 1976.  It was filled with such a deep texture of the paint, and was very crusty and hard with blemishes. It gave me feelings of life and death, a sense of hopelessness then realization.  The different shades of reds, bluish greens, and yellows drew you in and flowed through the painting as if they were moving constantly off the painting.  His paintings are filled with movement so that your eye never rests on a certain point in the painting, but it flows through it.  It never ends, and the paint just flows off along with your eye and keeps moving throughout the painting.  While looking at these colors and shapes I could just imagine the image going beyond the painting.  That is the magic that Clyfford Still has brought to his paintings with the colorfield movement.  The painting completely incorporates the viewer in ways that not many other artists have been able to do.

After visiting this museum, and experiencing Clyfford Still’s work up close for the first time, I can easily say that he is one of the most influential and intellectually profound artist I have ever experienced.  Even though I am a photographer, his paintings have inspired me to put more depth and thought into my work, and to incorporate the viewer so that they get more out of the experience.  The museum was insane and really showed Stills vision of having his art be for the people, and to be owned by the city, not private collectors.  I really gained a lot from this collection of paintings, and am definitely impacted greatly by Still’s ideas and philosophies, to where I am without doubt visiting the museum plenty more times this year.

2 Responses

  1. Overall i like the points that you make about your personal experience with the work, that is truly a unique way of conveying your appreciation for Still and the artistic transfiguration of his career. However just as a bit of constructive criticism i feel your word choice is a tad informal and that you could utilize artistic analysis a tad more strongly, you tell me about the paintings, but what do they mean? I feel this is a fantastic basis but that you could definitely push the analysis further.

  2. I really like the way that you talk about the emotional experience that paintings were having on you, the colorfield paintings in particular. The feelings you were describing were feelings that I found myself feeling. One thing that could be improved upon is conveying the timeline of his work in a more cohesive manner.

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