Clyfford Still Paper; Rachel Olguin

Clyfford Still: A Life Expressed

Rachel Olguin

ARTH 3539 Contemporary Art

Kira van Lil

30 January 2012

Clyfford Still: A Life Expressed

            It is not an incredibly common practice to come across an artist that stirs amongst its audience a great sense of emotion upon viewing each and every piece of work formed from their hands. Clyfford Still’s paintings do just that. Each piece of art evokes and stimulates new feeling from the last; feeling that moves powerfully enough within the viewer that they sit and stare for long periods of time, fixated on the sentiments springing up inside of them. Still is consistently quoted about the life and death that is themed throughout his work. After visiting the Clyfford Still Museum, however, one leaves with the feeling that life and death were not just themes amongst his paintings; over time, the ideas of existence became the soul of his work. Although many would argue that Clyfford’s work changes dramatically from his earlier years to his later years, the essence of his themes and objectives remain similar through his use of color, verticality and figures.

Still’s earlier work typically holds true to traditional figure-ground compositions. There is an identifiable character within the imagery presented and the viewer is told a narrative about their life. The way in which the museum exhibits his works begins with these figural paintings and slowly transports the viewer through a transformation of the abstract. It is interesting to notice that his earlier works, such as PP-7, 1935, where a morose and long-faced man hangs his hand over his pitchfork, become abstract in the narrative that they present. This piece, for instance, uses such somber tones, darker blue and gray-brown pastel, that the emotions represented are what the viewer is meant to see. The emotions change from something one would feel to a captured moment of vision in the drawing. This is also a good example of Still’s use of color for feeling. The texture and thickness of the lines that contour the man’s sagging face really emphasize and bring out the heaviness with which the man is pouring into the viewer. As his work evolves over time, the idea of a central figure composition transitions into an all-over composition; one where any one part of the painting is as central a figure as another. This not only marks the growing abstracted qualities of Still’s style but changes the way the audience interprets the narratives that Still is telling. The emotions that he has always captured in his figural paintings are still there, if not stronger. By casting them onto a larger portion of the canvas (really just all of it) Still is emphasizing the importance and significance of the life that each painting represents. In this way I believe he is still using a sense of figure for each work; every image becomes a “spiritual autobiography” that is as unique as an actual being.

Clyfford Still’s use of verticality is extremely powerful and imposing, particularly in regard to the scale on which he paints. His lithographs from the 1940’s were a response to growing industrialism and all possess a machine-like attitude through abstract shapes and lines. The interesting thing about them is that each image grows off of the page. The power of the machine is translated by the upward lines that Still imposes on the figures; just as the machine era is growing, so is the viewer’s categorization of each object’s power. In his more abstract pieces Still is painting on a much larger scale of frame. His ability to enliven the idea of verticality is not limited by these canvas giantesses however. Each color that shoots off represents an emotional movement and rhythm only comparable to actual living beings. Still even spoke of these shots of color as “lifelines”. Painting PH-950 (1950) offered to me the most interesting conversation of Clyfford’s infusion of being into paint. The arrangement of colored streaks and strokes of paint spoke of a struggle and determination to figure out the meaning of life before it was too late to actually live. Only this spirit, this being captured by the strokes of Still’s palette knives, was lost amidst the struggle; he reached up only to be cut off by the force of death, never to know what heavens lay beyond in the dark of his imagination. These are the kinds of autobiographies that Still’s paintings inspire within their viewers. A life that grows up, up and up onto the canvas; a life that may sometimes die a horizontally contrasting death; a life that battles and fights to be heard; a life that speaks differently to every person that sits down to hear its story.

The scales of Still’s paintings also dramatically affect the transformative qualities of his art. The large and ever-increasing sizes of his paintings envelop and create new environments for the viewer to be consumed by. From my own experience at the museum, I had entirely different reactions to a painting when standing further away versus in a position that prevented the escape of my eyes from canvas. By allowing a painting to devour all of one’s senses, the feeling behind the painting can overcome any expectations it was previously held accountable for. The large scales of Still’s work allow a new dimension of feeling to spill from the imagery and onto the viewer.

Color is significant in each and every painting made by Clyfford Still. Even the absence of color is a binding element of emotion. It is just one more component that emphasizes Still’s eagerness to create in art emotionally living creatures.  Still, “never wanted color to be color, texture to be texture, images to become shapes. [He] wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit.” When viewing these paintings in the flesh, one cannot deny that the colors that come alive on each canvas are every bit purposeful as they are necessary. Each color can evoke different things; from a simple agreement to a multiplicity of emotions, thoughts and memories. There are some pieces in which parts of the canvas lay untouched. Still was a painter who had mastered the ability to give color a voice. If nothing needed to be said, no color was added. If something monumental was clawing its way out of the painting, Still let vibrant and rich tones emerge from the canvas.

One of the most important things that visiting the Clyfford Still Museum taught me about this most influential man was that to truly express yourself through art is to truly understand and cultivate a relationship between yourself and the materials you are bringing to life. Every piece of art can become its own being but it takes a unique eye to transform the numb into sensation. Clyfford Still took simple methods such as figure, color, size and theme and renovated our ideas on their limitations so that we too could conjure life into the mundane routines that we constantly overlook and forget to challenge.

One Response

  1. First of all, I enjoy the word choice you use to describe Still’s paintings. You are able to accurately define Clyfford’s ideas very clearly in that way. Also, your emphasis on life or a living spirit in the painting is very evident when you see the paintings up close and in person. Well organized paper and great job of conveying critical thoughts!

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