Georgescu-Clyfford Still

Dora Georgescu

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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. Continue reading

Clyfford Still Paper (Nicole Avant)

Nicole Avant

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Clyfford Still Paper

Clyfford Still was born on November 30, 1904. Over the course of his 76-year life his painting style changed drastically. As the roaring 1920’s turned into the Great Depression and then into World War II Still’s paintings changed. Like many painters of his time he turned to the traditions of Abstract Expressionism, which included large scale painting and all over composition. In reality, Still and the others were simply reacting to the volatile and catastrophic landscape that they were living in.
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Clyfford Still by Sonya Rivera

Clyfford Still is generally regarded as a master of his time, specifically a leader and founder of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the United States. Continue reading

Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still was an important figure within the abstract expressionist movement and his career spanned nearly all of the 20th century. The abstract expressionist development was a post World War II art movement that achieved worldwide recognition for American artists. Although the work of Abstract expressionists varied, the style was consistent with a monumental scale that depicted abstract forms with expressionist brush and color work. These compositions conveyed themes in relation to creation, life, struggle, and death in a manner that psychologically invested the viewer.

 Still was born during 1904 in North Dakota, and started painting at an early age. His work displays an evolution of style, beginning with representational compositions and moving into pure abstraction. His early work explored the depiction of western life through the representation of figures, buildings, and machinery in his imagery. His semi-early paintings were particularly interesting to me. Ph-20, painted in 1936, depicts several abstracted forms existing and melding as a single subject in the composition. Human-like forms are contrasted by machine–like shapes and hint at the relationship between man and machine. The limbs are elongated and enlarged and faces are hardly recognizable. “Unlike the many upbeat images of labor made by diverse American artists during the Great Depression, Still seems committed to revealing the physical, emotional, and even psychological effects of hard work.” (Clyfford Still Museum) By depicting the figures using rough color, anatomical abstraction and coarse brushwork he taps into a conceptual representation of the effects of hard labor on the body and mind.

“By 1936-37, he began to simplify his subjects as he moved closer to abstraction. Passages that’s once described anatomy or landscape now reappear as carefully executed arrangements of line, color, and interlocking shapes.” (Clyfford Still Museum) By the late 1930’s his figures began to disappear into the background. His paintings became more abstracted with age and I found his sculpture work to be a blend between his representation and abstraction. PS-2, created is 1943, is an abstract wooden sculpture. The composition reminds me of his older paintings depicting juxtapositions of farm life and the human figure. The shape of the wood is similar to the way he abstracted the anatomy of the body. The rectangular head, with a notched out eye, is perched upon a fragile extended neck protruding from a roughly carved body. This abstract representation is complemented by two other wooden sculptures. The other two didn’t evoke the same relationship I saw between PS-2 and Still’s early painting.

By 1943 Still’s work was moving in the direction we now associate with abstract expressionism. 1943 marked a successful point in Still’s career when he landed his first solo exhibition. His paintings were expressing themselves on a deeper level. “Still built up his palpable, evocative surfaces through the use of trowels and palette knifes. His use of intense colors, ranging from blood red and blaze orange to powerful browns, yellows and pinks, is highly unique.” (Clyfford Still Museum) As his abstraction evolved, Clyfford Still began to influence other first generation abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. A very important Legion of Honor exhibition in 1946 made audience and critics alike breathless. First came shock and admiration to the raw vibrancy of his painting. Still had a strong relationship to his work and felt his “…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.” (Clyfford Still Museum) This realization dominated is persisting work and inspired him to create and express the inner concepts of emotion rather than representational compositions.

PH-1049, executed in 1977, is the latest of his work in the gallery, done only 3 years before his death. The 9×13 canvas displays a monumental scale of primarily negative space, occupied by bare canvas. Still’s reserved use of color makes the jagged yellow and red brushwork pop against the unpainted void. “Since the Renaissance, artists usually arranged their compositions to focus attention to central subjects, which were often set against deep space. Still began to favor flat, ‘allover’ compositions in which the viewer’s eye never rests on any single image. This work appears boundless, as if the image extends beyond the canvas. Similarly, it is also filled with movement, both across the surface and between the foreground and background.” (Clyfford Still Museum) I resonated most with this piece because it sparked a curiosity about the artist’s psyche. I am curious if and why Still considered this painting complete? The amount of unpainted surface makes the areas of color tantalizing and valued. I guess abstract expressionism can be infinitely perceived and that is what gives Clyfford Still’s work a life of it’s own. “I never wanted color to be color, texture to be texture, images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit.”

Wall Text, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO.

Clyfford Still Paper – Jackson Ellis

clyfford still_jackson ellis

Predating even Jackson Pollock’s iconic drip paintings, Clyfford Still’s breakthrough paintings would be the first and foremost examples of a genuine American art movement: abstract expressionism. His unique colorfield paintings led to a monumental shift in the way painting was perceived as a medium, an accomplishment only fully recognized after his death in 1980. Still’s remarkable discovery was possible only after many long years of experimentation and historical circumstances. However, it is impossible to deny that Still was working with the concepts that would later define his most prominent works from a very early point in his long and successful career.

Born to a farmer in Grandin, North Dakota, 1907 Clyfford Still lived in several extremely rural locations including Spokane, Washington and then later the great open expanses of Alberta, Canada. During these formative years, Still spent most of his time working the farm with his father or painting the great lonely expanse, broken by the occasional grain elevator or plume of train smoke rising to the sky. It was this harsh landscape and meager living that had a radical influence on Clyfford Still and his early work. In one such piece, PH-782, a painting depicting vertical grain elevators in stark contrast to the horizontal land, it is possible to recognize a sort of regionalist style prevalent in the depiction of rural landscape and agricultural architecture. Already using his distinct pallet knife technique to create chiseled planes with intense color, these early architectural works would later arise in abstract forms reminiscent of this same sense of space and composition. As Still grew older and attended art schools, his paintings began taking on more social concerns and would begin to reflect influences from surrealist and American Regionalism styles, not to mention the historical times he was living in.

When the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, artists all over the country would feel the devastating effect of unemployment, however, Still was lucky enough to be attending college at the time and continue his education regardless of the social upheavals. Despite his apparent security, Still’s work from this time reflects the social and working conditions encountered in this era and depicts human subjects becoming one with the tools they work with. Having been attending college he was now more in touch with the art world than he was during his earliest years, resulting in some striking similarities to other art movements at the time. For example, looking at the work PH-414, a work created in 1934/35, there are clear ties to Grant Wood’s iconic American Regionalist 1930 painting, American Gothic. Both works incorporate figures looking directly out to the viewer in a frontal and centralized composition, however Wood’s work emphasizes similar forms in the people and the tools they are holding (the pitchfork for example is echoed in the stitching of the farmer’s overalls) to emphasize the region while Still instead chose to emphasize the psychological aspects of his figures by painting them with exaggerated features. For Still, painting was not a way to reproduce the world around him (in short, the European tradition), rather he would paint to emphasize the emotional feelings regarding his subject. As a result in his many paintings depicting farm workers he cast them as elongated, emaciated figures, worked tirelessly until their faces have grown long and their bodies have begun to show bones peeking through thin flesh. These works would reflect the psychological conditions encountered by many during the Great Depression.  Still’s initial fascination with an emotional depiction of human forms was to be his first foray into abstraction with his series of works depicting the workers becoming one with the tools they use. Two works from this era seem particularly telling in how Still began conceiving his ideas in a more abstract way. In PH-343 (1937) a diptych composition juxtaposes man, a soft conglomerate of flesh and bone shapes against machine, a dense linear composition of elements taken from farming tools. While initially separate, these two subjects would then combine in PH-753 (1938), in which the organic bone-like shapes become part of the linear conjunction of lines in a vertical composition. This last aspect of verticality had already manifested itself in Still’s work from the 20’s and again in the 30’s when his figures became looming towers in defiance to predominately horizontal features. It was around this time that Clyfford Still began to develop his style-defining exploration of the relationship between life and verticality, death and horizontality.

As Still grew older, his work followed suit. His recognizable human forms began to morph into more totemic symbols, reminiscent of bones and other ritualistic forms. It is clear that Still has begun to work with an aspect that has been present since his earliest work, the vertical. Despite a darkening of his color pallet, Still’s work from the 40’s still retains sculpted swaths of bright color, thrown on with his signature pallet knife and his subject matter has simply taken another form. In one such work, PH-751, painted in 1944, Still has completely abstracted his totemic forms, reminiscent of his earlier work with machines and the figure, into a sense of architectural space rising into the sky. Also reflected in this painting is Still’s development towards irregular swaths of color, seen towards the center of this work in the rising, jagged edged plumes of color. At this point in his life, Clyfford Still had begun to achieve great things as an artist, taking the art world by storm with his earliest colorfield paintings, exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in 1946. These works, right on the cusp of Still’s true breakthrough would inspire the first generation of abstract expressionists such as Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell. However, Still was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the art world and its critics, despite his apparent popularity.

Abstract Expressionism was just reaching its peak in the 1950’s with artists such as Jackson Pollock, De Kooning and Mark Rothko (a close friend of Still) taking center stage, in essence becoming celebrity artists. Still however, chose to avoid the praise as he felt that his work was not part of any school of painting or movement for that matter. It would be this decision that eventually led to his withdrawal from the art world in 1951. Unfortunately for the art world, it was also during this period that Still would begin to create his most prolific works. PH-118, painted in 1947 would mark the beginning of total abstraction and the end of identifiable figurative forms. In this piece, a black flame of paint rises up from the corner to confront almost angel-like figures that seem to be flying in battle around the swirling darkness. Almost biblical in its depiction, the painting is more than a vague scene, it contains an emotion. This aspect is what makes Still’s work so monumental, he was able to translate the emotional feeling into non-representational images that have the power to affect people from diverse backgrounds.

During his absence from the art world, Still continued to paint, albeit without the restrictions imposed by a movement and without critics to comment on his every brushstroke. These later works would occasionally be seen in small contributions Still made to various art museums across the country, but never would the full scope of Still’s will to paint be exhibited until after his death in 1980. While Clyfford still may have joined the eternal horizontal, his works remain as powerful vertical testaments to the human condition of life and deat

Megan-Clyfford Still Paper

Megan McGrain

ARTH 3539

1.28.12

Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still was one of the first generation painters to greatly influence abstract expressionism, a movement that came promptly after the second world war. This movement, which is now called “Abstract Expressionism”, is a demonstrative and abstract form of painting that the world had not seen before. Still, was of this generation of painters striving for a new wave of art, one that would separate itself from the dreary past of the 1930s and 1940s, and from the art of its European neighbors. Continue reading

Clyfford Still and his artwork

How Clyfford Still Changed Over Time

Clyfford Still Paper-Romney Smith

clyfford still paper

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Clyfford Still Paper

Romney Smith

January 28, 2012

Abstract Expressionism-Summary (Jillian Fox)

The article “Abstract Expressionism” discusses the artistic style that flourished and dominated the postwar era (after World War 2). There was a shift to an artistic style that focused more on personal expression and social alienation. Jackson Pollack was a representative painter of this Abstract Expressionism style.

The Abstract Expressionism movement was not specific to painting; there was a great variety of expressive works during this time. The movement began with the idea that the styles of previous generations, such as the realism during the Great Depression, were no longer conducive to this postwar era.  This shift in artistic styles embodied the changing circumstances of postwar America dealing with the New Deal reforms and the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union. Jackson Pollack summed it up well when he noted that “each age finds its own technique.”

During this postwar era, the American economy was flourishing due to mass consumerism and the defense industry. These circumstances encouraged artists to develop a new form of aesthetic. These freer forms of artistic styles reflected the feelings of each individual artist and were much more expressive of each individual self. Postwar America was in a state of intense anxiety and these artists evoked that feeling of unease in their works. Pollack, for example, attempted to liberate himself through his works from the conformity of the affluent postwar middle-class society. These Abstract Expressionist were drawn to elements of the unconscious and their works often reflected conflicting feelings within human beings. For example, Pollack was more interested in performing acts or rituals, through which he found self-healing.

Abstract Expressionism embodied this idea of “individualistic modes of liberation” (Doss). This style also challenged consumerism and authority and offered a different mode of creative personal expression. However, the supposed neutrality of abstractionism did seem to contradict its notion of ‘free’ expression and being open to anyone. African American and female Abstract expressionist painters were largely forgotten. This art was still clearly subject to the sexism and racism that was prevalent in this postwar period.

Abstract Expressionism is clearly shaped by the historical events that surrounded it. If those events and circumstances had not existed, the avant-garde style would not have either. The pressures and anxieties surrounding the expanding military-industrial complex and the conformity of a rising middle-class was what these artists wanted to confront and challenge through Abstract Expressionism.