Clyfford Still Museum Paper

Alicia Baca

05.05.12

ARTH 3539-001

Kira Van Lil

Clyfford Still Museum Paper

My trip to the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver was a fairly interesting one. Other than what we studied and went over in class, I have never really looked at or seriously studied his works. I will be honest however. As important to the history of American art and to the history of abstract expressionism, I just was not terribly impressed with some of Clyfford Still’s works. Regardless of this I still went through the exhibition hoping that something from his later works would catch my fancy. In the end I still left rather unsatisfied regardless how long I sat in front of certain paintings and tried to contemplate them, I just could not get into them. However, this did not entirely take away from my experience because what I found to be most interesting was how Still evolved as an artist over the course of his lifetime.

The first that I would like to discuss comes form his earlier paintings from the time of the Great Depression. The painting “PH-79”, painted in 1935, in my opinion, truly embodies the despair and hopelessness of the people at that period in America’s history. I really just love how skeletal the two figures in the painting are. It makes them look like they have toiled and worked so hard, but they are doing all of this labor for nothing in return. The forms are definitely what caught my eye though. These people look so starved, starved of life, hope, and actual food. It is so beautiful and yet so incredibly depressing to see how well still captured the mindset of the people who worked in the agricultural business during the Great Depression. Again, I really appreciate the forms for their simplicity, but also for the fact that this simplicity conveys such deep emotions. The face of the woman in the painting, while obscured, shows so much wear and exhaustion. She looks like all the life has been drained from her, which can also be seen in her sagging breasts. I am going to assume that most people associate youth and vitality in women in how their breasts might appear. The breasts of this woman also look as if they have been drained of any life they have, and not because she old, because she does not appear to be very old in the least, it just looks as though the wear and tear of the events in her life have drained her of her youth.

One aspects of this painting that I found interesting that I want to touch on is the posture of the two figures. It is fairly obvious that they are a couple of some sort. If one were to assume that they were married, what makes their pose so interesting is that the husband seems as if he is somehow seeking solace and comfort from his wife, as if he want to know from her that everything will be okay and work out in the end. However, when you look at her face, regardless of how obscured the features might be, you just cannot see any life or any hope in it. It’s almost as if she wants to offer her husband comfort, but she is physically and emotionally incapable of being able to offer her husband the type of comfort that he needs. She cannot even bring herself to look him in the face and has her head tilted back in both exhaustion and the lack of desire to lie to her husband. She herself looks as if she has completely lost hope for the future.

I actually want to talk more about the pieces from this period. to be honest, I think they were the only ones that I found to be the most interesting rather then Still’s abstract “colorfield” paintings. With that being said, the next painting I want to discuss is “PH-77”. While this painting is very similar to “PH-79” in composition, I found the faces in this painting to be particularly intriguing.The faces of the two, tall, lanky men working in the field face downwards towards the ground. The one in the yellow shirt on the right looks so worn out and he looks as if he is asking himself “Why am I doing this? What is is the point? There’s hardly anything here to harvest.” when you look at his hands you can also see this emotion of hopelessness. His arms just dangle towards the ground, barely picking up the wheat in front of him as if he is literally unable to pick it, or even himself, up. The man on the left on the other hand seems as though he is having a bit of an easier time with his job and his posture is not quite as stiff his obscured face look as if it is trying to hide the reality of the situation. It almost seems like he is lying to himself in order to keep himself going, even though he knows this situation is not getting any better.

The next painting that I found to be interesting was “PH-343”. This piece certainly showed the beginning of a change in Still’s style. It still incorporates the lanky, malnourished, and skeletal bodies of his earlier works from the Great Depression, but he now included abstract forms and shapes in order to obscure the physical body even more. The aspect of this piece that I thought was interesting was how mechanical the body on the right looks. It has no head, just the stump of a neck, and it has no legs either. It makes the figure look as if it is dead, as if the despair and hopelessness of that time has just killed that person and they have nothing left.

However, one other aspect that I want to touch on is the fact that the left (our left) hand of this figure is holding onto something. While the black abstract form is not entirely clear, to me it almost looks as if it is some sort of rifle. I might be overanalyzing this piece, but with the addition of the blood red background that the human figure is laying on along with the fact that they have no head, it almost looks like Still is depicting a kind of sadness that can drive someone to commit suicide. It is not a piece that heavily depicts a sort of violence, but the shapes and colors all look as if they are telling the story of someone who ended their life out of despair. In this way I think this piece shows the human condition. Still is showing how the struggles of life can end someone or even cause them to end themselves.

Finally, this is where deciphering Still’s work became somewhat difficult for me. The painting “PH-385” was a part of his well known abstract “colorfield” paintings. I understand that Still wanted to convey his own feelings in his colorfield paintings, since they were a part of the abstract expressionist movement. But I think that the fact that in comparison to the works of his contemporaries, in particular Jackson Pollock, his just seemed so slow and still, kind of like a moment frozen in time. They just did not convey that fast moving rush of emotions and feelings like that of the works of other abstract expressionist artists like Pollock and even Vassily Kandinsky. While the shapes of many of the forms of paint were jagged and had an intimidating air about them there was just something about these pieces that made them difficult for me to read and interpret.

Overall “PH-385” was an interesting piece to look at and contemplate. The bright red of the canvas immediately caught my eye as it almost seemed violent and bloody with the different shades bright and scarlet red that covered it. While the description of this piece was not provided at the museum, it made me think of violence. The bright and dark reds were spread around in such a way that created jagged looking edges to their forms. They look as if they had been forcefully but cut into the painting itself. This is one aspect that I did find that I like about Still’s “colorfield” pieces however. I like the roughness of the palette knife that is seen in all these paintings. It looks like such a violent action, but it almost looks like an action that has been committed before the viewer sees it and when they do look at it, all that is left is the aftermath of this action. The black seen within the depths of the dark scarlet red give off this atmosphere of being a sort of hopeless abyss. However, the splashes of white were what I found to be the most interesting. Paired with the black it is as if they act as little glimmers of hope within the violent atmosphere of this painting. While they are small, they are still big enough to notice that they possibly play a certain role amongst this bloody aftermath.

While I still feel this was not one of my most favorite or most memorable museum trips to date, one aspect of the exhibit that I found interesting was how Still’s style changed drastically over such a relatively short period of time. It just made it interesting to see how the experiences a person goes through transforms them and they way they loo at life overall. While I was not a huge fan of the “colorfield” paintings I liked the challenge they presented when I sat down to look at them. They may not have been as fast moving like the works of Jackson Pollock, but they held this certain sense of peace amongst the violence that they may have depicted. I know that Still had withdrawn away from the art world and later lived in Maryland where he continued to paint because he became critical of the art world. However, I guess that is where this stillness in his paintings comes into play. Assuming he found a sense of peace away from the eyes of the world of art at that time, this sense of calm, even after seemingly violent aftermaths, really shows through in the texture of his painting. It looks rough, but at the same time it looks natural and as if it something that has formed on its own accord.

Overall, while this was not my most favorite exhibition ever, as I have mentioned several times already, I like the challenge that it provided me with both as a viewer and as an art historian. It was interesting to see how Still and his style evolved during his lifetime. By the same token, that aspect also made it interesting to see how much more complicated his works became as well. All in all, it was an interesting exhibit for the fact that it was a challenging one.

(I also just wanted to make a quick note to whom it may concern that this is the Ali Baca that had hand surgery at the beginning go the year and whom Kira told to turn this in by the end of the semester.)

One Response

  1. I really enjoyed that you pointed out your favorite paintings, it really helped me visualize as well as understand. I also really liked that you compare his work to the other Abstract Expressionist painters, like Jackson Pollock. This helps your argument tremendously! I found myself doing that constantly when at the museum, and it was so nice to see someone else go through the same process.

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