Georgescu-Clyfford Still

Dora Georgescu


Clyfford Still Essay

Clyfford Still: From Representation to Liberation


Described as the most anti-traditional of the Abstract Expressionists, Clyfford Still is credited with laying the groundwork for this art movement that emerged in the years following World War II (Sandler).  His work is characterized by a shift from representational art to abstraction and ultimately strives for the expression of freedom and the liberation of the viewer.

Still was born in 1904 on a farm in North Dakota. Soon after, his Canadian immigrant parents moved to Spokane, Washington and later to a wheat ranch in southern Alberta in Canada. These early influences helped shape a core theme in his early works: the land and “its protagonists” (Anfam). His early works focused on farm scenes and the relationship between man and the machine. He went beyond the upbeat depictions of the Great Depression of the time, to capture the physical and emotional pain of the farmer’s labor. Beginning in the 1940’s, Still transitioned from the representational to the abstract, a change that makes his earlier works difficult to identify as related to his later works. While the early Great Depression paintings consist of strong blues, reds, and yellows, a darker, more nightmarish feel dominates later works.

The paintings in Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum seem to be made for the interpretation of the viewer more so than other artists’ works due to the lack of titles for the majority of pieces.  I found this to be an effective tool for making me, as a viewer, really think about what was being represented, while realizing how many possible interpretations existed for each piece. The first pieces I saw were those from the 1930’s depicting the hardships of farm life. While there were several grotesquely over-emphasized, drooping nudes that seemed to represent man in all his vulnerability, the ones that I found most interesting were the ones that represented internal functioning. One painting in particular depicts man and the machine: man, in earthy tones on the right hand side, and the machine in black and white tones on the left hand side. Vertical lines create sharp contours, while twisting shapes give the impression of flowing energy in both figures.  In comparison to his earlier nudes, the man portrayed in this painting is less obviously a man, and shares abstract characteristics of the machine he juxtaposes.

Moving into the next rooms I saw a piece, which I titled Arabian Nights. Black figures wisp across a yellow canvas, with what appears to be a red cloud hovering above the top and a beam of red light diagonally breaking across the two black figures. When I saw this painting, the colors along with the shapes immediately made me think of Aladdin’s evil Jafar and black stallion racing against the desert’s fast approaching sunset.  Although I came to discover that many of Still’s paintings are characterized by heavily layered paint, this particular piece had a smoky, wispy feel to it. While the figures were boldly placed, their edges faded into the canvas giving them a less corporal, and more spiritual feel.

Two more paintings in the same room as Arabian Nights actually reminded me of impressionist art. The first, which I titled Lost Fawn had a vertical stack of three blended colors: brown, purple, and teal, with one isolated black figure floating between the purple and the blue.  I found the way in which the three colors flowed into each other to be quite interesting. At first glance, they appear to be blended, almost as if rain had streaked them and ran them into each other. It was this impression that reminded me of impressionism. Yet, upon closer evaluation, the colors are actually divided by small white space, or distinct lines, calling upon the strict precision that is later seen in Still’s large scale paintings.  The second painting, which I called Deliberate Chaos is a medley of three dominant colors swirled and scribbled together in what appears to be a chaotic fashion, yet is actually clearly divided by color. A sea-foam green is bordered by a u-shaped blue with hints of red, trapping a long black figure at the bottom of the canvas.  Just as with Lost Fawn, although the initial impression of blended colors are reminiscent of Monet’s landscapes, the deliberate divisions of color blocks are a distinctive factor of Still’s works.

Still’s monumental pieces are perhaps the most abstract in the museum. The color-field abstractions began around 1947 and although imagery is sparse, paint is very liberally used. His thickly layered paint gives the impression that it could be peeled off in layers and everything rises vertically. The accent of these paintings is on openness and the images “appear to soar, like tongues of flames” (Sandler).  A plaque by one such painting in the museum quotes Still: “My paintings have the rising forms of the vertical necessity of life dominating the horizon. For in such a land a man must stand upright, if he would live. And so born and became intrinsic this elemental characteristic of my life and work”.  Another plaque in the museum describes his large paintings as the creations of “invisible forces”.

While Still’s style changed considerably, certain color schemes and themes underlie all his works.  Red, and yellow dots can be found in almost all his pieces as can contrasted, unblended colors and sharp lines. The dominating colors are black, white, grey, brown, red, yellow, and blue, while there were only some splashes of green in few paintings and only one struck me as standing apart from the rest because of its splash of pink. Still’s use of the palette knife and earth hues offset by interjections of bright colors are also persistent across the majority of his paintings (Anfam).

The theme of liberation of the viewer is evident in all of Still’s works as well. As mentioned previously, vertical shapes exist in his most abstract works as well as his more representational (often in shapes that rise up from the edge of the canvas invading the color fields). Still referred to these as “lifelines” and they can be interpreted as human life (literally, when one is alive one is vertical as opposed to in death) as well as the rising into liberation. Still’s works are specifically disconnected from history as they become more abstract in order to liberate the viewer: “Im not interested in illustrating my time. A man’s time limits him, it does not truly liberate him” (Anfam). Interestingly, although he strove to place his art outside of history, influences of Turner, Goya, Courbet, and van Gogh in terms of tone and coloring are evident throughout his works (Anfam, 10).  No matter, the influences of other artists and no matter the subject matter depicted, Clyfford Still remains one of the leading abstract expressionists of the 20th century, whose bold, contrasting colors, vertical shapes and call for the viewer’s interpretation represent the freedom of man and in doing so, liberate the viewer.



2 Responses

  1. I found your discussion of Lost Fawn and Deliberate Chaos interesting and wonder what you think Still was striving for in what might be his transitional works. In other words, “where” is Still in his evolution at this point? How are these approaching “liberation”? Color that appears to flow but is actually bordered, distinct?

  2. I also thought your interpretation of Lost Fawn and Deliberate Chaos was compelling, because it shows the emotional range of Still’s work. I’m sure that I looked at the same paintings, and felt completely different things. If possible, could you place the works within the chronology of the museum- that is, where he was creating them? This would greatly add to your essay, because then I would be able to compare the pieces to ones that I saw from within that time frame, and it would inform the reader more about Still’s development. I struggled with this because I forgot to write down the work’s titles, but managed to place them based on online research (a lot of it).

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