Clyfford Still Paper- Danielle Austin

Danielle Austin

Clyfford Still Paper

Clyfford Still is considered by many to be one of the most significant and influential painters of the 21st century. 

Although many of his paintings have never been seen by the public before the opening of the Clyfford Still Museum earlier this year, his work that was shown in galleries and gifted to museums was essential to the Abstract Expressionist movement after World War II. Artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell were all artists that looked up to Still as a major figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement.

Clyfford Still was born in North Dakota in 1904 but he spent the majority of his childhood in other places such as Washington and Canada. His father was a farmer and according to the Clyfford Still movie we watched in class, Still and his father clashed quite badly due to their views on the importance of such things as art versus farming. Many of Still’s earlier works focus around farming as a way of life and how manual labor can take a toll on the human body. An example of this is Still’s PH-448, 1934-35. This particular painting portrays one male and one female figure that appear to be washing themselves in a river. They stand roughly knee deep in murky water. The male figure is shown cleaning himself and looking away from the viewer while the female figure is depicted staring directly at the viewer, holding a towel, as if asking for help or a way out of her current living situation. Both figures are depicted with long, abstracted faces and aged-looking bodies. The male figure appears to be almost emaciated while the woman is quite plump, perhaps from many children. From the emotion on the figures’ faces and their physical state, the viewer can eventually come to the idea that farm life and child bearing take a toll on not only a person’s physical state but their emotional state as well.

As Still got older, he left his home and moved to the West coast at what was considered the very beginning of the Abstract Expressionist movement. It was on the West coast where Still created many of his first Abstract Expressionist works while he was in and out of multiple teaching jobs. During the 1950’s Still moved to New York, still creating and distributing many of his works to galleries and museums. In 1951, Still produced one of my personal favorites: 1951-B (PH-247), 1951. This particular painting is of monumental size. It spans a nine by thirteen foot area of wall space. The majority of the painting is a deep, ultramarine blue that was smeared on in large swaths by a pallet knife. In the center of the painting, a large black stripe runs vertically down the full length of the canvas. The stripe’s edges are uneven which cause it to have a more organic shape. To the left of the larger stripe, a skinnier black stripe also runs down the length of the canvas and superimposed over this stripe is a brilliant orange stripe that looks as though a thin pallet knife just barely scraped it on.

At the time Clyfford Still created this gigantic painting, he was at a point in his career where he wanted to viewer to become completely engulfed by his work. Still wanted his viewers to stand in front of his paintings and have the work itself take up their entire field of vision. The painting was supposed to become its own environment essentially which would take in the viewer and evoke a specific emotion. Although Still’s work was become more and more abstracted compared to his earlier works, according to the video in class, Still had always intended on incorporating the human figure into his work. In his earlier work this was quite literal while in his later works, from about the 1940’s to the 1970’s, vertical and horizontal lines represented the figure, as well as life and death. A horizontal line was meant to represent death while a vertical line was meant to represent life and the living form.

Around the 1960’s, Clyfford Still had become so critical of the art world that he decided to separate himself from it entirely. He moved to Maryland in 1961 with his second wife where he stayed until his death. While living there, Still would periodically produce work and gift it to certain museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Clyfford Still’s work in the 1970’s became even more abstracted and, for many, reached a new level of consciousness. His work became more “spaced out” meaning there was less paint on the canvas compared to his earlier works in the 1950’s and 60’s. Still’s painting PH-1049, 1977 is a good example of this. This particular painting is on a canvas only slightly smaller than the 1951-B (PH-247) canvas yet the amount of paint of the canvas is significantly less in the PH-1049 painting. PH-1049 consists of three warm colors that are immediately seen: red, orange, and yellow. These three colors are placed strategically on a very large canvas and if the viewer looks closely, there are small areas of the canvas covered by a slightly off-white color as well. The yellow paint is the color Still chose to use the most while the other three are used a majority of four times each. The colors seem to float up and out across the canvas as if each individual stroke was intended to be a feather. This new type of painting for Still abstracts his vertical and horizontal lines even farther because they have now become disconnected and can be seen as more of a suggestion. Clyfford Still’s later works, like PH-1049, have successfully transformed his work into an entity that seems to have no boundaries and can spring off his canvases.

Clyfford Still may have indeed been one of the most incredible artists to take part in the Abstract Expressionist movement during the 20th century. He was most certainly ahead of his time, which comes through in all of his work in terms of representing the figure and “the human condition”. In short, not only did I truly enjoy the Clyfford Still Museum and learn much from it, I believe that without Clyfford Still’s work, the art world, as we know it, would be miles behind from where it stands today.

Sources:

http://clyffordstillmuseum.org/clyfford-still

http://www.buffalonews.com/entertainment/gusto/art/more-stories/article698768.ece

Clyfford Still video from class

One Response

  1. Nice paper overall. I did notice a few grammar errors so make sure you proofread. I like how you outlined his life, and his works. I vividly remember each work you described, which means you did a great job of describing. Its interesting how people take different approaches to works – your approach to the one with the two figures, male and female, in the water was very different than mine. I actually wrote about the piece to the left of that one with two figures as well. Interesting how you chose the vivid colored bodies one and I chose the grayish bodies. Great job explaining them tho!

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