Still Yet Moving

Clyfford Still has come to be known as one of the titans of the art world. His work spans near the entirety of the 20th century. Just like America, Still’s work changed drastically throughout the century. Still’s personal challenges and struggles can be observed in his overall body of work. In addition the political and emotional strife of the American people during this century resonates strongly in his work. Still’s personal metamorphosis during this time not only mirrors that of the United States but also foils it in a sense. Highlighting the rejection of European ideals and the manifestation of the United States as a super power; as the nation militarily and artistically replaced Europe as the center of the world.

To further understand still’s work one must have a solid understanding of both his life as well as the geo-political situation of America during the time he produced work. In order to appreciate his work one must analyze the mindset of the art world at this time as well as the mindset of America as a nation. During the 20th century, America, much like Still, transformed, redefining itself and discovering its niche in the world late in the 20th century. Through two world wars, and dramatic social change America transfigured from the agrarian, inward looking nation that it once was, into a thriving civilization that would come to rule the world in terms of political might and artistic resonance. Events such as the Great Wars, the Great Depression, and the Dustbowl heavily influenced Still’s life and work. The impact of these events as well as Still’s internal artistic journey can be observed through the progression of his work.

Still’s early work was highly representational as with most young artists; however even in his early work one can observe the subtle stylization that would become the very definition of abstract expressionism. Still spent much of his early life in North Dakota, Washington, and Alberta. His family work as farmers, and as a result he developed a very innate relationship with the land and landscapes of this region. Due to his isolation from cities and the urban exposure to art, Still was forced to teach himself philosophy, classical music, and painting. He possessed a love of art that was innate and served as a quintessential part of his being. During his teens still would travel hundreds of miles to listen to classical music concerts, and view exhibitions in museums. His thirst for art was insatiable, at one point he viewed the works of Rembrandt and Goya; he viewed the works of these masters as below his personal expectations and sought to take what he observed back into his own work. His first real works date around 1920, during this time he did many studies of landscapes and portraits, his subject matter was fairly bland as per custom of the region he lived in. However even in his early portraits and landscapes Still was able to generate an emotional resonance within his work that truly captured the essence of his subjects and their sentiments at the time of his observation. Around this time, but particularly during the Great Depression and the Dustbowl, Still began to tentatively explore the relationship between man and nature, as well as the struggle man faces when having to cope with nature.

During this explorational period Still generated work that delved intrinsically into the psychological aspects of work, as well as the concept of labor and work in general. Accentuated by feelings that his father saw him as merely free labor, Still began to project these feelings as well as feelings of fatigue and exhaustion in his paintings. This perhaps is best observed in PH77, the work is oil on canvass and was painted in 1936. PH77 depicts two men working the fields, harvesting crops under the midday sun. The work is innately interesting as Still utilizes a heavy amount of layering within the work generating a sensation of depth and texture to the work through both implied texture as well as impastiche. Still’s utilization of layering and textural elements is further accentuated by the somewhat muted color pallet that is employed; his subjects posses a somewhat earthy tone highlighting the grime and dirt that would come with working in a field. In addition Still somewhat elongates and obscures the hands and the faces. This serves as a duality of sorts by representing man’s dominance over nature as well as eliciting the sensation of work and evoking the sensation of fatigue and exhaustion that comes from a hard day’s labor. Through this subtle manipulation of his subjects Still is able to infuse this piece with emotion and elicit sensations in a unique way. In addition this subtle note of abstraction serves as a premonition of his later work and unique style that developed decades later.

Following this representational phase his work begins to approach abstraction. He begins to break away from the representational, and identifiable into a realm of implied figure and somewhat primal manifestation. Still’s work begins to take on a somewhat sculptural effect as his forms begin to carry a uniquely implied weight and solidity. During this phase of his career Still’s subjects take on a near ritualistic quality, which entice the onlooker, and become reminiscent of the relationship between primal man and the cosmos. In many ways this phase of his career is best personified in the piece PH343, which is composed of oil on canvass, and was painted in 1937. This work is intrinsically enticing, as the use of obscurity in the subject and landscape generates a sense of tension in the work. The figure possesses a somewhat human-esque quality, foiled by animalistic and organic qualities which work to elicit the sensation of movement and life within the piece. This work is unique as once again layering plays a key role in the sensation evoked in the onlooker. The many layers of paint infuse the work with a sense of depth and motion; as the more transparent layers of paint accentuate the form, and slowly bleed into the background of the work. In addition one can begin to observe components of Still’s previous work as well as new elements that bleed through to still’s later works in this piece. An example of which are the vertical lifelines that subdivide the work. The lifelines are a reoccurring motif in Still’s work, they represent how man walks through life, vertical, where as in death man lies horizontal. In this way Still’s work begins to take on a new manifestation and significance as it explores the duality between life and death. In this particular work the implied meaning of the lifelines is more blatant, as the figure holds onto one of these lifelines, both reiterating their significance, and reflecting the sensation of stability and vigor in the figure and background of the work. Overall this phase of Still’s work serves as an intermediary between Sill’s early work and the iconic style he would come into several years after this.

Following this “approaching abstraction” phase of his career Still begins to move away from representational, and figurative work by dissecting art and breaking art down to its core. Still begins to work with color fields, he removes the need for a representational component in his work and begins to utilize impastiche and raw color to elicit emotion in his work. Heavily influenced by the Second Great War his work takes on a more ethereal quality, blazing past the need for representationalism and entering the world of abstract expressionism. During this final phase of his career Still becomes fully realized as an artist and comes into his own iconic style that securely places his name among the founders of Abstract expressionism. Still’s work takes on yet another facet as his work rejects the European hierarchy and standards of art, and becomes the embodiment of the beginning of the American art tradition. It is during this phase of his career that he becomes well aquatinted with contemporaries such as Pollock, Rothko, and Newman. This time period serves as the beginning of the Abstract Expressionist movement and the end of Europe’s reign as both a world super power and as the center of art in the Western world. The work that perhaps best personifies this new era of art, and Still’s iconic style is PH401. This work like the previous is composed of oil on ungessoed canvass, and was generated in 1957. The work is stunning, as Still deconstructs art down to the quintessential basics. He utilizes layering to generate saturation to his colors and depth within the color field. The organic lines and forms utilized in these color fields infuse the work with a sensation of movement and life, the eye is drawn to every corner of the work, and in each location the eye focuses on the raw emotional value of the work. The sensations this work elicits are profound as simple blotches of color are able to fuse into an abstract yet natural-esque landscape of sorts. This is further reinforced and accentuated by the use of vertical lifelines within the piece. These lifelines are heavily layered and actually emerge from the work far more than any other single level of impastiche in the painting. In this way Still highlights their importance and furthers the work’s examination of duality between life and death. This examination is achieved by Still’s use of color within the work, Still employs colors with charged values such as red, black, white, and blue-ish gray. These colors have come to represent love, hate, life, death, peace and pain. In this way Still generates a near perfect artwork as the raw components of a traditional work are so precisely composed that they no longer are bound to form, rather the color takes on the role of subject and the emotional spectrum to which it is tied bleeds through and leaves an enchantment of sorts or resonance within the work.

Overall Still’s work is both beautiful and enchanting. His work is iconic, and his talent is undoubted as he made even other abstract expressionists appear academic in comparison. Still’s understanding and love of art allowed him to become a master artist. Not merely in the sense that he was well accredited and his work was known, but rather in the sense that this man had such a firm understanding of the subtle nuances and components of art that he was able to deconstruct traditional art and utilize only color as a means of capturing and projecting emotions. Truly he is deserving of his titan-like status as one of the founders of Abstract Expressionism.

3 Responses

  1. Your paper is fantastic! The analysis of Still’s work has a unique perspective and I loved reading what you thought of his progression from representation to abstraction. All of it is extremely well-written and planned out. Nice work! In the beginning though, I noticed that the biography portion, though informative, was a bit too detailed. Since all of us in this class watched the same movie, and attended the same lecture, my assumption would be that a detailed biography is unnecessary, though helpful for someone not in our class.

  2. I like how you mentioned that Still obscured the faces and hands of subjects in his earlier works. It really shows how he tries to de-humanize these subjects so the viewers connects more with their spiritual presence rather than their physical presence. I also liked how you mentioned that his later works can generate “love, hate, life, death, peace and pain”. I found this to be the most attractive part of his work. The feelings conjured by the painting seems to occur in waves, and seem to each contrast each other. This animates the painting, making the colorfield seem like a psychological voyage into some alternate realm of truth.

  3. After reading your paper I was remind of the fact that Still’s style was one of completely his own. I really appreciated you bringing that back to my attention. Still was breaking free from European influences and making his own mark on the art world. I think when you have that in mind while you look at his art it makes his paintings seem so much bigger than they already are. I also found your vocabulary very descriptive and thought provoking.

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