Paper 1: Clyfford Still – Aly Nack

Aly Nack

Clyfford Still Paper

January 31th, 2012

Clyfford Still, although not as well know as some of his colleagues, –including Jackson Pollack , Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, etc.– was the first to develop this new, radical approach to painting that is now known as Abstract Expressionism. Although he was the first to jump start this movement, he was not always known for his abstract work. His work developed greatly from his more representational work to his classical colorfield paintings, throughout his fifty year long career. “Few artists of this magnitude have left behind such a comprehensive and mysterious collection of work.” Even though Still created 825 paintings and 1575 works on paper, over 94 percent of his life work has never been viewed by the public, until now. At the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver a small portion of this work is shown, but you are still able to see this great progression within his work as it coincides with his life.

In 1904 Still was born in North Dakota, but spent most of his childhood in Washington and Alberta, Canada where his family owned a wheat farm. During this time in his life Still spent most of his days doing hard labor and because of this his early work seems to portray mostly landscapes, farm life, and labor.  For example, Still’s piece known as “Field Rocks (PH-45)” from 1925 is one of his earliest works, and to me seems to be the most realistic piece of his. This piece consists of a pile of rocks, of which that I would assume came from an area surrounding his farm. Each rock consists of a good amount of detail making each of them unique in their own way. His use of shadows allow the audience to feel as though they could almost pick them up off the canvas. Although this painting does have actual objects unlike his later work, you are still able to recognize his style within this painting. His thick painterly brushstrokes and use of intense color are very evident, especially in the foreground of the painting where you can see the many different layers of color used within the ground to really make it pop.  This gave way for his use of the palette knife to build up thick layers of paint and his ability to use bright and dull colors to pull the audience in.

After spending a brief period in New York, Still returned to Washington in 1926 and enrolled in Spokane University. There he studied painting, literature and philosophy soon graduating from Spokane in 1933 and then received a Masters in Fine Arts from Washington State College in 1935. He then stayed in Washington for several years to teach. At this time his paintings made a slight change from his portrayal of figures and morphed into a more abstract form. The figures seemed to almost completely disappear becoming abstract and almost creature like. This is very evident in Stills “PH-343” made in the year 1937. In the piece Still “divided this composition into the realms of ‘man’ and ‘machine’. The right side, rendered in warm earth tones, represents man. The left side, executed in contrasting black and white, depicts farm implements and other machine forms reflective of industry. Compared to works from a year earlier, this composition features a more painterly method to describe things like muscles, rib cages, and hands.” In the painting the figure is still recognizable because of certain features, but it does not scream human. Within this piece there also seems to be a glimpse into his future work with the thick black lines that stretch from one end of the canvas to the other, like the enormous blue painting with the skinny orange line and the thick black line that stretch from one end of the canvas down to the other.

In 1940s still relocated many times, first to California, then Virginia, and finally to New York in 1945. This was the beginning of a very great time for him as well as his paintings. At this time he had become the “chief exponent of Abstract Expressionism” and his work had completely lost this idea of the figure and creature, it had totally lost any representational qualities and had become complete abstract paintings. All of which include a dramatic increase in size and great use of intense color.  At this time Still also wanted his viewers to become lost in his paintings. He wanted them to be engulfed by paintings and experience them as if they were their own environment. Later “Still moved to rural Maryland where he lived until his death in 1980. Working in seclusion dedicated solely to his art, his works of the 1960s and 1970s are marked by a lighter touch and color as well as an economy of imagery. Though still began to explore the expressive qualities of empty space in the late 1940s, his use of bare canvas reached its zenith in these later paintings.” For example, my favorite painting, “PH-960” from 1960 absolutely amazes me. The painting immediately seems to move before your eyes as though it is warped in some way or being moved by and invisible force, but as you move closer to it you become engulfed by the movement and your eye seems to continually trace the colors on the canvas. He also uses an immense amount of bare canvas as well as a cream color that covers a majority of the canvas but then adds large splashes of red, yellow, blue, and black. The yellow line on the right side that runs from the top of the canvas to the bottom is unlike most of the lines used in his earlier abstract paintings; it is far away from the central blocks of color and seems especially thin. As his work has progressed it has seemed to transform into work that is very disconnected within itself and has no boundaries; the images seem to almost continue right off the canvas.

Clyfford Still is definitely one of the most influential and important artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement; he took his entire life and devoted it to art to create work that no one has experienced before. Overall without him, art today would not be the same. Who knows, would we have even had abstraction in present day?


Works Cited:

Wall Text from Clyfford Still Museum

4 Responses

  1. I like the clarity in this paper. The reader is able to easily understand the steps that describe the changes in Still’s style. The descriptions of specific works are simple, but they still give the impression that the writer was moved by the paintings. A little more detail could have been given throughout the paper, but overall, I think the paper is successful and an easy read.

  2. I enjoy how you provided dates throughout the paper and constantly referred to where Still lived at the times, it provides a nice platform to describe his lifestyle on. I do agree with the previous response in saying that the descriptions are lacking a bit of detail and could definitely have been taken farther. The overall paper is simple and clean, which is always a nice thing. The beginning paragraph, especially the first sentence, was an interesting way to start the paper – maybe instead of listing other artists, just focus on Clyfford Still in the first sentence….just a thought.

  3. Your paper is well written and organized. The balance of information about Clyfford Still and his work was very well done. I agree with Ashley. The first sentence is an interesting way to start the paper and may give the reader an idea that you might be making a comparison between all these artists, but obviously you aren’t since the paper is about Still.

  4. After reading your paper I realized that I spelled palette knife wrong in my whole paper. I spelled it palate. But anyway, I really like how your paper includes a description of his life throughout. You have a really good topic paragraph that outlines the whole rest of the paper. I also really like how you say in the beginning that he is not as well known, which is true, but then continue to say that he is one of the most influential and important painters of the movement, which I agree with.

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