Clyfford Still Paper (Nicole Avant)

Nicole Avant

ARTH 3539

Clyfford Still Paper

Clyfford Still was born on November 30, 1904. Over the course of his 76-year life his painting style changed drastically. As the roaring 1920’s turned into the Great Depression and then into World War II Still’s paintings changed. Like many painters of his time he turned to the traditions of Abstract Expressionism, which included large scale painting and all over composition. In reality, Still and the others were simply reacting to the volatile and catastrophic landscape that they were living in.

Still came from a hard background in North Dakota. From there his family moved to Alberta, Canada. It was in Canada that his painting began. Still taught himself how to paint and depict the pioneer conditions that he was living in. Still read many books and magazines, he believed that this was his education. From a young age Still knew that he was not going to be a farmer like his father. This is evident when he begins to travel thousands of miles to go see art exhibitions among other things.

Still shows his early art style in the painting Ph- 782 done in 1927. This painting is done in the way that most pre depression works are executed. The painting is in a frame and goes to the edges of the canvas. Although there are no humans in this picture, there are buildings, which show the viewer that humans do exist. In this painting we see Still’s early use of what he calls “lifelines”, or the lines that wander into his paintings and resemble a lightening bolt. In this piece the lifeline is next to what appears to be a lighthouse of some sort. Still’s choice to put the vertical lifeline next to the vertical building gives the painting a high level of verticality. To Still, verticality is a sign that a person is still alive, he equates it to the fact that things are vertical while living and become horizontal when they die. Verticality is one of the few things that remained constant throughout all of Still’s paintings. This particular piece is interesting because there is a limited use of color. The only vibrant colors can be seen in the lifeline and in the buildings. This use of color makes the viewer think that Still mainly sees vibrancy in the hard work of the people. This could reflect his relationship with his father, who viewed Still as simply free labor.

The use of color only on things related to people is seen again in Still’s work during the depression. In his paintings of people at work they are usually wearing vibrant clothes, for example the painting of the two men working in red and yellow shirts. Although what he is depicting is grim, the color is vibrant, as though Still found a certain kind of beauty and appreciation in these people’s hard work. In these depression like paintings Still usually depicted things like labor and machinery in the typical American Scene style. When people are in the nude, or not present in paintings at all, the color palette is very limited. In his paintings Still chose to enlarge the hands and the feet of the people. The hands and feet are crucial to being able to perform labor functions, by enlarging them Still is highlighting their necessity. Towards the end of the 1930’s and beginning of the 1940’s Still begins to disfigure the human figure to an extreme level. Humans are slowly being replaced by creature like things that can be misconstrued as vertical elements against a dark background.

The painting Ph- 211 is an excellent example of the abstraction of the human image. The humans are highly disfigured; the only clear part of their silhouette is the feet and the hands. This reflects the fact that Still placed so much importance on the hands and feet in the earlier paintings. On the other hand, the machinery in the painting is detailed and can clearly be set out against the dark background. In this painting it seems as though the machinery is part of the humans. This integration of the human and the machine shows that as per the hard times people could not lead their lives without working hard. As the turn of the decade approached, the people in Still’s paintings became more and more geometric. The painting became dark and frightening, but remnants of vegetation and farm tools continued to carry over.

In the 1940’s Still begin to paint true abstraction with no trace of the human figure. At this time Still was using true all-over painting with little to no blank canvas. Even if the canvas was brown in many cases Still would paint brown over the canvas. Also in the 40’s Still develops real color field paintings, with the lack of a human figure he is now able to look into solely using color. In these painting he uses a variety of shades for each color, giving the paintings dimension although there is no object. In nearly all of Still’s color field paintings there is the color black or a near black color. Is Still wanting the viewer to see the black as taking over the image in an allusion to the deaths and catastrophe after the war? Or would he rather the viewer see the hope in the lighter colors conquering the darkness, like the vibrant colors that Still used on clothing in the Depression? Although there is no longer a human figure in the painting, there is always something vertical in the paintings, which as mentioned before was in fact still a reference to humans. This was a dark time, the art of this time was in revolt to the stress of the Cold War and the destruction of the second World War. Even with all these factors, Still’s artwork still contains a majority of vibrant colors, unlike the Depression where Still limited vibrancy in his work. It was in 1940 that Still finished his self portrait, this is interesting because he chose to do a very self centered painting in a time when people were more concentrated on the events across seas than on themselves.

In the 1950’s Still’s paintings reached their largest size. On these paintings it seemed as though at times Still had simply squeezed the oil on to the canvas then left it as it was. In these paintings the overarching theme of verticality can still be seen. In this decade, like the 40’s, Still chose to leave very little bare canvas. The painting Ph- 972 was competed in 1952. This painting is one of the peak pieces to show knowledge and understanding of the color field paintings. While there is still an element of black in the lower right hand corner of the painting on the whole it is a highly vibrant piece. As the red merges into the orange it gets darker. This adds a level of dimension to the piece, as though a shadow is being cast. This shadow effect is enhanced due to Still’s decision to make the red stronger as it goes down, and as it moves up the painting it slowly becomes lighter. The orange background is also lighter toward the upper right hand corner. This to me is interesting because although Still does not want to represent a central object in his painting he still gives the sense of a light source which is a very Classical painting technique. A mere decade after completing this piece Still decided to drop out of the art world due to his displeasure with the Madison square scene.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s Still went to Maryland to work on his art alone. When Still left New York the Abstract Expressionistic movement was beginning to dwindle down as the Pop Art era took hold. Around 1965 Still’s art begins to open up, there is less paint on the canvas the pieces seem to breathe and move easier. An excellent example of the change in his style is Ph- 1049, completed in 1977 this is basically a large blank canvas with a few spots of color that all imply a sense of movement and lightness to the piece.

Every ten years Still would return to the art world to show that he was still painting. He made large gifts of his painting to institutions; he had a great desire for his work to be displayed solely in serious places. In the late 1970’s the Met put on a large show of Still’s work, this was the last exhibition he was alive for, but due to the large crowd Still was assured that he had accomplished something with his work. On the 28th of June 1980, Clyfford Still passed; his work would remain under wraps for the next 30 years.

One Response

  1. I liked how you mentioned that Still’s style was a reaction to a “volatile and catastrophic landscape”, I think thats a smart comment, considering everything that was going on in his time; world war II had just ended and times were changing. Ironic also, because Still took his traditional landscape painting and transformed it into the dark, abstract work that we see today, essentially translating his emotions into the way he viewed the subjects of his paintings

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