Clyfford Still Paper – Speare

Clyfford Still’s journey through art and painting is one that is characterized by the actual or the narrative transforming into the abstract. At the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, CO, you are able to follow Still’s work through each of theses stages. Still’s earliest works had a more somber, literal approach to human beings or figures in general. This approach was prevalent in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. His human figures, while it is obvious they are human beings, have actually been replaced by ominous, almost nightmarish figures.

One gallery piece, labeled PH-448 (1934-1935) shows two coupled figures: one male and one female. The image to the left has warmer tones with the figures standing in water. The second image to the right has much colder tones and the figures standing on land. The female characters are typically rounded with sagging skin while the men are more bony and fragile. Both pieces show the beings in complete nudity, completely exposed. These pieces show Clyfford Still’s more complex approach to painting. Composed extremely close to the war and the Great Depression, the pieces also contain remnants of farm tools and vegetation. His literal approach to art in this period reveals the physical and emotional effects of work and labor during this hard time. While many other artists were trying to portray the “Upbeat American” during the depression, Still portrayed a weathered and hurt individual who was struggling during this time. Although theses earlier works were highly expressionistic and literal, his art began to morph into abstraction, and his subjects were simplified.


This second piece was created in 1942 in Oakland California and demonstrates this simplification of the human form. While not as abstract as Still’s most famous work, it rides the fine line between abstract expressionism and figure painting. In this painting the human figures are detectable by the upright white and black shapes. As stated in the gallery in Denver, the red and black lines at the top are representative of machine handles that carry over from his earlier works that deal with farm life and the working American.

At this point in his life, Still’s techniques show his growing interest in expressive subjects meshing with abstract color-fields. At this point the surfaces of his paintings is also becoming a bigger part of the piece. Since the subject matter is growing more abstract, the color and texture of the piece start to work hand in hand, complimenting each other when the subjects of the piece aren’t as literal. The rugged structure in the back of this piece, however takes a higher significance over the rest of the piece, as it can be seen replicated in some of Still’s later work.

The last piece observed at the Clifford Still Museum came from Still’s abstract expressionism collection. At this point in his life, Still was working in seclusion, focusing solely on his art. His works were now characterized by lighter touches of color and expressive qualities of empty space. This piece, made with a variety of vivid, intense colors, shows some of the same rugged characteristics as his earlier works, but draws the focus to the change in color and the organic qualities of the paint.

Since there is no apparent figure represented in his later work, implied movement became more vivid. His painted forms were no longer people or representations of people, but rather forms that are set in motion by the color and rugged strokes of the brush. I learned from this visit to the Clyfford Still Museum that Still often made his own paints. He had done so by mixing dry pigments with linseed oil and turpentine. It was also said that sometimes coating were applied selectively to create expressive surface variations. His use of intense colors, such as in this painting, were highly unique and are part of the reason why Still became such a well known artist during this time. Still cautioned however, “I never wanted color to be color, texture to be texture, images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit.”

This is true more so with his later works, when colors, textures, and shapes were all necessary to make the piece come to life. The painting would be one unique to Clyfford Still unless the paint popped off the page and had a unique texture from the use of trowels and palette knives. His figures were purely expressive and no longer literal, and played off the specific colors and textures he chose for each piece.

In addition to the artwork within, the museum, which holds Still’s paintings, was conceived in a similar fashion. The Architecture looks to the natural forms of the earth to take its unique structure. It is build as a solid, continuous form, opened my natural light. The walls are textured concrete, mimicking the textured paintings by Still. Overhead the gallery on the top floor, an opening in the concrete unites the body of the building and allows for natural light to enter the space. This comments on the evolving character of Still and his artwork, which change not only in scale and proportion, but vary in terms of color and intensity of light.

Still’s works truly transformed with time. First, creating pieces with aspects of nature and landscape, and the working American, then focusing on form and movement of the figure. Still remarked, the figure stands behind all my work”. While the figure is most prevalent in his earlier works, it remains important even in his most abstract work.

He is a man of many talents but was able to capture the attention of his audiences with the use of color, texture and form. Leaving room for interpretation of these abstract pieces, it is hard to address these pieces without first focusing on his earlier work, and realizing that each piece has a form within that is similar to the one before it. Although each piece is different, it is obvious that they come from none other than Clyfford Still himself.

3 Responses

  1. I had pictures of the pieces I was describing but couldn’t upload them for some reason… I changed my mind on which pieces I wanted to write about so some of the labels were inaccurate. I’ll keep trying to upload them since the not all of my labels were in there.

  2. I think you have some excellent points in here. In the future I would suggest proofreading your paper a few more times as you do have some grammatical errors. I wish you would have gone into more detail on the three paintings you chose to describe, the first one is good but the second and third ones get a little short. I do like the way that you chose to arrange your paper though by talking about the pieces and then going into more detail on his life.

  3. Your paper is very informing. You included a lot of the facts associated with the works and periods of work you described. This is great knowing the context of a piece is always useful. With that said, I wish you had gone a little further in the descriptions of the work itself, use more analogies, just go a little deeper in describing content–whats going on in the painting. But overall I think your paper is very interesting.

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