Nelson Clyfford Still Paper

Heather Nelson

Prof. Kira van Lil

Contemporary Art

31 January 2012

A New Experience of Art

            Clyfford Still often said, “If you look my paintings with unfettered eyes you may find forces within yourself that you didn’t know existed” (Still, 2011). Still is one of the most influential painters who not only transformed American art into Abstract Expressionist but also is an important figure in the history of all modern art. After experiencing the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, I understood the transitions of his art. Throughout his career, the major transitions that occurred through Still’s work included a transition from realistic American paintings, to slightly distorted realistic images, to extremely distorted with no ground or focal point, and finally to pure abstract expressionism. Regardless of what he was painting, his work was extremely influential and a privilege to be able to see in person.

Clyfford Still began painting at a very young age, painting his first piece in 1920 at around 15 years of age. Still had taught himself to paint and used his rural surroundings of Alberta, Canada to inspire him. He created images of the grasslands and of trains coming into Alberta from, what were to him, as far away lands. These trains were brining the magic into his town that had minimal citizens and very little culture. His paintings were realistic and simple. They depicted the true American lifestyle of agrarian work (Still, 2011). It was in the mid 1930s, however, that Stills way of painting took a huge turn. His work became a lot darker and filled with more emotion. It appeared that Still was slowly becoming more eager about expressing the inner human rather than the figures themselves. The great depression was occurring at this time and the country was starting to sink. Those living the agrarian lifestyle as those around them were in extremely bad economic situations and their sadness appeared to him in the most vivid manor (Still, 2011). This emotion and pain is quite vivid in Still’s painting of the four labor workers. The faces of these workers are completely distorted and almost drooping with tiredness. There bodies are extremely skinny to the point where there bones are showing. The part about this painting that struck me the most in the Clyfford Still Museum was seeing the giants drooping hands up close. Viewing these hands up close made me realize the true red color to them and that they are almost dripping in blood. At this time, Still was clearly “becoming interested in the psychological realm of work and people and how those two things intersect” (Still, 2011, 13:30).  I believe that the way he was using the colors was to try and express the emotions of these people. The faces of these individuals don’t appear even as faces but as a sense of mask. This could represent that they are not their true selves in this disparity (Still, 2011). The dark blues and the reds were the horrible pain that they were in and the yellow represents the sun or any minimal sense of hope that they may be feeling. This was only the beginning of Still’s changes and his technique transformed for rapidly over time.

It was in the late 1930s, specifically 1937 and 1938, that Clyfford Still’s work started to alter more and his figures began to become more distorted and less human-like. This can be seen through one of the paintings in the museum that struck me the most (Still, 2011). This 1937 painting, labeled PH-343, appeared as an extremely distorted and head-less body. The right side of the painting was a mixture of browns and white, appeared as a skeleton like shape. However, there is no true sense of body here. You almost only seen the bones and the hands, which seem stretched our and elongated. The right side is black and white and appears as some sort of machine or weaponry. The information at the museum next to this extravagant piece said, “Still divided this composition into the realms of ‘man’ and ‘machine.’ Note also the snaking, vertical black lines he used to form the figure’s contours” (Clyfford Still Museum). These distorted images are further representations of the inner body and where Clyfford Still’s use of abstraction and verticality became evident. As said by one of the researchers in the Still movie, this use of verticality was used to express a sense of living over a sense of death. When I saw this painting up close, I felt like I was missing something of my own body. It was a strange feeling that I had never felt before from looking at a painting. If this was not a feeling towards my own self it was a sense of sympathy I was feeling for whoever has felt such pain as portrayed. These individuals may be in pain but they are still living. When something or someone is vertical it is growing and is alive. It is only when someone or something is horizontal that it or they are dead (Still, 2011). People interpreted this method to show that Still was more concerned with the ethics of painting rather than the methods or techniques that painters used. It was more about the feelings a painter was expressing in his or her work because that in itself was representative of their emotion to their work and that they were passionate about something (Still, 2011). Towards the mid-1940s these ideas became more vivid as his work became darker and more mysterious.

During this time Still’s work not only became darker, but the amount of actual shapes started to decrease significantly and there was no longer a sense of ground or focal point. It was in the late 1940’s that Still have finally reached what is now considered abstract expressionism. This sense of abstraction was admired by the public and by other artists when his work was displayed at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in New York City. This was where he and his fellow painters, such as Rothko and Pollock, would gather to paint together and discuss their work (Still, 2011). The characteristics of Still’s work at this time consisted of large scale painting that were considered “all-over.” These paintings were so massive that you could actually walk into them (Van Lil Lecture, 2012). Seeing these paintings in the Clyfford Still Museum amazed me. As a petite girl who is only 5-feet one-inch, on the days I am feeling tall, I felt very small. Some of these paintings over two times my height. The painting that caught my attention the most was the gigantic blue one with black stripes going down. The painting covered an entire wall and was most likely the length of four or five vertical people. Standing in front of this painting I felt like I was in some sort of ocean. This ocean was being disrupted however by these lines, as some sort of wave of some sort. When I took a picture of this masterpiece, there were two people standing in front of the painting and all I could imagine was them getting sucked into this world. What I was feeling from this piece depicts the idea of tensions in a painting but also that the paintings need to survive on their own without any direction. In his work, it is said that Still wanted his work to open up to the audience. It did not want to tell them what to think but to help them experience something personal within themselves (Still, 2011). When looking at such paintings, you are not always sure what you are looking at, but it is supposed to bring out ones emotions. This was something that Clyfford Still wanted all Americans to experience this from his life. He finally wanted to escape all European art influence and create something brand new. After Pearl Harbor the country needed patriotism and art that was purely American. Still’s work is thought of at “The American Project;” the art that brought people back to life or to be born again (Still, 2011).

Clyfford Still is an artist that has not only inspired me but has inspired the entire art world. He left behind all European influences and created a “Still-ian” technique that we now consider abstract expressionism (Still, 2011). Clyfford Still work seemed pure and effortless but was meant to guide people through their own emotions and allow them to find themselves in the art.

Works Cited

Clyfford Still Museum | Denver, Colorado. Clyfford Still Museum, 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2012. <;.


Still. Dir. Amie Knox and Chad Herschberger. Bark K Productions, 2011. DVD.


Van Lil, Kira. 2012. Unpublished lecture material. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado.


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