by David Fox
Born in 1904, Clyfford Still would become one of the most influential and unique artists to come out of the abstract expressionist movement.
Clyfford Still would be unwavering in his commitment to his craft and refused to ‘sell-out’ or be swayed by money or fame.
Throughout his career and the evolution of his technique, he began with ideas and images that were recognizable and gradually became more abstract. His goal was for the viewer of his work to become lost in the art and create their own conclusions about the meaning and themes.
“I never wanted color to be color. I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit.”
He was born in Grandin, North Dakota, but spent a lot of his childhood in Spokane, Washington, and Alberta, Canada.
Abstract expressionism is linked to New York and Eastern Coast but Still was entrenched in the earliest days of the movement on the West Coast, including Washington State and San Francisco.
Clyfford Still was one of the initial abstract expressionists, and the generation of artists he belongs to is credited with developing a new and powerful approach to art.
Artists like Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Barnett Newman, Grace Hartigan, Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner, Norman Lewis, and Jackson Pollock were of the same generation immediately after World War II.
These artists are all very different from another, but they all contribute to the abstract expressionism movement in impressive ways.
Between the abstract form, large scale, brushwork techniques, and other methods, the pieces that come from this time period handle heavy and universal issues about life, love, struggle, the human condition, and death.
Still is considered by many as the most anti-traditional artist to come out of the abstract expressionists, and this trait is considered the groundwork for the movement.
Between 1938 and 1942, a major shift in Still’s style occurred, which was earlier than his contemporaries, who followed suit later in the 1940s.
“I do not intend to oversimplify—in fact, I revel in the extra complex.”
Still obtained his Masters of Fine Arts degree in 1935 at Washington State College, and he became faculty there, taught at Richmond Professional Institute and Virginia Commonwealth University until 1945, and then visited New York.
He became associated with the Art of This Century and Betty Parsons galleries in New York, and he lived there for most of the 1950s, while the abstract expressionist movement was growing and peaking.
During this time, his reputation for being anti-traditional and critical of the art world flourished. He completed severed ties with all the commercial galleries he had been involved with by 1961 and decided to move to Maryland, placing himself as far away from the art establishment as he could. He stayed in Maryland with his wife, Patricia, until he passed away in 1980.
Just before his passing in 1979, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the largest sampling of his work, and it was the largest by the organization to celebrate the work of a living artist.
Once he had passed, his work that was not in the public domain was immediately sealed off, which closed off access to one of the most incredible influences on the American art world of the 20th century.
Clyfford Still is considered one of the first color field painters. Unlike his peers Rothko or Newman, who’s pieces were organized in a simple manner, Still’s abstract works are focused on juxtaposing colors, surfaces, and forms.
Rothko focused on nebulous rectangles and Newman on thin lines among colors, Still used jagged flashes, color being ‘torn’ from the work, and other irregular techniques.
Still applied his paint in a different way than Rothko and Newman, where they tended to use flat colors and thin paint, Still used a thick impasto, where brush and knife strokes are still visible, creating texture, depth, and variety.
His mature works involved forms of nature like foliage, caverns, lightness, and darkness. By the late 40s, his color field works became prominent, and he would continue to refine through the rest of his career.
His most famous works include 1957-D No. 1, which exhibits black, yellow, and white patches with small red patches. These four colors stay prominent throughout the rest of his work.
The peak of his abstract expressionism produced 302 paintings dating from 1944–1960, and 350 paintings dating from 1961–1979 were created during his time in Maryland.
“A great free joy surges through me when I work… with tense slashes and a few thrusts the beautiful white fields receive their color and the work is finished in a few minutes.”
In 1972, Still was awarded the Award of Merit for Painting from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Skowhegan Medal for Painting in 1975.
The Clyfford Still Museum is located in Denver’s art district, and the building that houses the museum was specifically designed for Clyfford Still’s work and was developed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture.
Still is considered an integral part of the art community, and the museum’s collection represents around 95% of his creations, which is around 3,100 pieces.
The museum’s mission is to: “preserve, exhibit, study, and foster engagement with its unique collections; generate outstanding exhibitions, scholarly research, educational and other cross-disciplinary programs that broaden the definition of a “single-artist” museum; and be a gathering place for the exploration of innovation and individual artistic endeavour.”
In 2013, the Clyfford Still Museum Research Center was established and launched.
The center explores the abstract expressionist period in history, artwork as a whole, and how the painters worked. The programs offered include a fellowship program, research symposia, and cross-disciplinary scholarly publications.
“These are not paintings in the usual sense; they are life and death merging in fearful union. As for me, they kindle a fire; through them, I breathe again, hold a golden cord, find my own revelation.”
About David Fox
David Fox is an artist who created davidcharlesfox.com to talk about art and creativity. He loves to write, paint, and take pictures. David is also a big fan of spending time with his family and friends.