Clyfford Still Life and Art Periods

CLYFFORD STILL SYNOPSIS

Although not as widely known as some of his New York School contemporaries, Clyfford Still was the first to break through to a new and radically abstract style devoid of obvious subject matter. His mature pictures employ great fields of color to evoke dramatic conflicts between man and nature taking place on a monumental scale. "These are not paintings in the usual sense," he once said, "they are life and death merging in fearful union.. they kindle a fire; through them I breathe again, hold a golden cord, find my own revelation." A believer in art's moral value in a disorienting modern world, Still would go on to influence a second generation of color field painters.

CLYFFORD STILL KEY IDEAS

Still's overriding theme is the existential struggle of the human spirit against the forces of nature, a notion that finds expression in the vertical forms that reach defiantly through the majority of his compositions, and a struggle he evoked in his phrase "the vertical necessity of life."
His expansive fields of color have sometimes been likened to caves or vast abysses momentarily illuminated by crackling flares of light.
Still's progression to purely abstract painting in the mid-1940s predated and influenced a similar move to non-representational art by his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries.
Still was a notoriously difficult character who often shunned the New York art world, resisted most critiques of his work and went to exceptional lengths to control how his paintings were sold, collected and exhibited.
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CLYFFORD STILL BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Born in Grandin, North Dakota, in 1904, Clyfford Still spent his formative years in Spokane, Washington and in Alberta, Canada, where his family maintained a wheat ranch in what was then the last outpost of the North American frontier. Though he later denied its significance, the vast, flat landscape and harsh lifestyle of the Canadian prairie would exert a lasting influence on his worldview and artistic practice.

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Early training

Clyfford Still Biography

After a brief stint at the Art Students League in New York, Still returned to Washington in 1926 and enrolled in Spokane University. He studied painting, literature and philosophy throughout the next decade, graduating from Spokane in 1933 and receiving a Masters in Fine Arts from Washington State College in 1935. He would stay on to teach at Washington State for several years.

Still's paintings from this period range from brooding agrarian scenes reminiscent of American Regionalism, such as Untitled(Indian Houses, Nespelem)(1936), to more Surrealist-inspired works such as Untitled(1935) in which the human body is reduced to almost completely abstract forms. Yet the underlying theme of all these works seems to be man's attempt to survive in an unforgiving environment - a notion that is sometimes symbolized by vertical shapes rising in defiance against a horizontal landscape. During this period, we see the emergence of the color scheme (dark, earthy tones punctuated by flashes of bright colors) and technique (thick layers of paint applied with a palette knife) that would dominate the artist's entire oeuvre.

Mature period

Still relocated several times in the early 1940s, first to California (where he befriended Mark Rothko), then to Virginia (where he taught at the Richmond Professional Institute), and finally to New York in 1945. This was the beginning of an exceptionally fruitful period for him and the paintings he exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery, in 1946, evidenced by a unique and revolutionary style on the cusp of maturity. In these monumentally scaled works, all recognizably human forms have been discarded and replaced by flame-like shapes that rise vertically through dark and expansive fields. Along with his adoption of a non-representational style, Still also began to shy from the use of referential titles for his compositions, and would eventually settle on a nomenclature composed entirely of numbers and dates. 1944 -N No.2, from 1944, is typical of both his style and titling in this period.

Clyfford Still Photo

In the context of American painting, Still's paintings from this period mark a highly original advance into abstraction, and they would prove very influential on the New York artists who would later become the chief exponents of Abstract Expressionism. Yet despite his association with these artists, Still bristled at the notion that he was part of any school or movement, and he remained a self-styled outsider. In fact, despite his activity in New York, Still spent a great deal of time on the West Coast during these years. He composed much of his work there and began an influential teaching tenure at the California School of Fine Arts in 1947.

Still returned to New York in 1950 and spent the majority of the next decade in the city. He continued to explore and expand upon his signature themes, refining his motifs and introducing new elements to his work. Most notably, he began to include areas of bare canvas in his paintings and started working on increasingly horizontal compositions. However, a notoriously cantankerous character, Still grew even more disillusioned with the New York art scene. He clashed with most of his contemporaries - resulting in the termination of long friendships with Rothko, Pollock and Newman - and severed ties to his galleries. In 1957, he even turned down an invitation to exhibit his work in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Around this time, Still also began to place severe restrictions on how institutions could lend and exhibit his paintings. In many instances, he even refused to allow any other artists to be shown alongside his work.

Later Years and Death

In 1961, Still relocated to a farm in Westminster, Maryland. He continued making art until his death in 1980, but never re-entered the New York art scene, which he saw as hopelessly frivolous and decadent. Instead, he worked in seclusion, showing his paintings only when he could exert complete control over the circumstances of their exhibition.

Clyfford Still Portrait

CLYFFORD STILL LEGACY

Because of the restrictions Still imposed on the collection and exhibition of his paintings, the majority of his work remains unseen. As a result, appraisals of his oeuvre have tended to revolve as much around the discussion of his difficult personality as they have around the critique of his life's work. However, considering the influence they exerted over his New York School contemporaries, it is clear that his paintings were hugely important for the establishment of Abstract Expressionism. It is also clear that Still, both by teaching and through example, continued to exert a powerful influence on countless artists in the years that followed.

In 2004, it was announced that a museum dedicated to the work of Clyfford Still would be established in Denver, Colorado. Scheduled to open in 2010, this museum will house 2400 previously unseen works from the artist's collection, or 94% of his entire output.

Original content written by David Kupperberg
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CLYFFORD STILL QUOTES

"I'm not interested in illustrating my time. A man's 'time' limits him, it does not truly liberate him. Our age - it is of science - of mechanism - of power and death. I see no virtue in adding to its mammoth arrogance the compliment of graphic homage."

"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."

"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."

"My work is not influenced by anybody."

"As before, the pictures are to be without titles of any kind. I want no allusions to interfere with or assist the spectator. Before them I want him to be on his own, and if he finds in them an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look to the state of his own soul."

"You can turn the lights out. The paintings will carry their own fire."

"It's intolerable to be stopped by a frame's edge."

Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still Influences

Interactive chart with Clyfford Still's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne was an influential French Post-Impressionist painter whose depictions of the natural world, based on internal geometric planes, paved the way for Cubism and later modern art movements.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Paul Cézanne
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pablo Picasso
William Blake
William Blake
William Blake was an English painter and poet who was very influential during the late-eighteenth-century Romantic Age of poetry and the visual arts. His experiments with relief etchings are considered a seminal moment for the artistic medium. He was also outspoken in his support of the American and French Revolutions.

Modern Art Information William Blake
Jane Ellen Harrison
Jane Ellen Harrison
Jane Ellen Harrison was a British academic and classical scholar, and a pioneer in the modern-day studies of Greek myhology. Harrison was also a prominent figure in the early-twentieth-century movement toward women's suffrage.

Modern Art Information Jane Ellen Harrison
Sir James Frazer
Sir James Frazer
Sir James George Frazer was a Scottish anthropologist in the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century. He specialized in the modern studies of mythology, comparative religion, and contributed to a modern reinterpretation of Plato's Theory of Forms.

Modern Art Information Sir James Frazer
Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche was a nineteenth-century German philosopher and an early pioneer in the ideas of existentialism. Nietzsche examined the human condition through the lenses of culture, religion, science and morality. He is one the most celebrated thinkers of the modern era.

Modern Art Information Friedrich Nietzsche
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
American Regionalism
American Regionalism
Regionalism emerged in 1930s America as an alternative to the abstract and avant-garde veins of modern art. Executed in a realist style, it often depicted scenes of everyday rural life, and frequently featured allegories about land, labor, and American history.

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Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman was an Abstract Expressonist painter in New York who painted large-scale fields of solid color, interrupted by vertical lines or "zips." His sometimes narrow or boxy canvases, part painting and part sculpture, were influential for Minimalism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Barnett Newman
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Mark Rothko
Alfonso Ossorio
Alfonso Ossorio
Alfonso Ossorio was a Manila-born Abstract Expressionist artist who worked in Paris and the United States. His early work, gestural paintings tinged with Surrealist squiggles, gave way later to encrusted assemblages of shells, jewelry, plastic parts, broken mirrors, and sculpture-thick paint.

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Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Bay Area Painters
Bay Area Painters
The Bay Area Painters emerged in the 1950s and 60s around the San Francisco Bay. Heavily influenced by the color fields and painterly brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, they later moved away from abstraction in a more figurative direction.

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Washington Color School
Washington Color School
The Washington Color School refers to a group of Color-field painters who exhibited together at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1965. Their work is marked by the presence of color areas and washes, geometric designs, and even surfaces.

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The New York School and Abstract Expressionism
The New York School and Abstract Expressionism
The New York School is a reference to Abstract Expressionism movement, which was the tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and 1950s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraces the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information The New York School and Abstract Expressionism
Art Students League of New York
Art Students League of New York
The League is an artist-founded institution that arose in the post-Civil War years, when many art students became dissatisfied with the lack of quality instruction in the basics of portraiture, sculpture and composition offered by New York art schools. During the Depression years, many young artists who would eventually define the Abstract Expressionist movement spent their formative years studying and teaching at the League.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Art Students League of New York
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim, the neice of Solomon R. Guggenheim, was a collector and patron of the arts. She gave important exhibitions to many modern, Surrealist, and Abstract Expressionist artists at her Art of This Century gallery in New York in the 1940s.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Peggy Guggenheim
Untitled(Indian Houses, Nespelem)
Untitled(Indian Houses, Nespelem)

Title: Untitled(Indian Houses, Nespelem) (1936)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Untitled (Indian Houses, Nespelem) is characteristic of the artist's work from the late 1920s to mid-1930s. It was executed in the town of Nespelem, on the Coleville Indian Reservation, where Still co-founded an artist's colony in 1937. In this work, Still synthesizes the influences of Gustave Courbet, Paul Cézanne, and American Regionalism, while also beginning to formulate his own individual artistic philosophy and style.


Oil on canvas - Collection Douglas Sandberg, San Francisco

Untitled
Untitled

Title: Untitled (c.1935)

Artwork Description & Analysis: An amalgam of body and landscape, Untitled is emblematic of the influence of Surrealism on Still's work of the mid-1930s. It also shows the development of a personal iconography and hints at the artist's lifelong interests in mythology, Native American shamanism, and totemic motifs. Art historian David Anfam has described the picture as a contradictory one, the grim-faced head suggesting sterility, whilst its apparent position, high above a landscape, evokes the soaring spirit.


Oil on canvas - Private Collection

1944-N No.2 (also known as 'Red Flash on Black Field')
1944-N No.2 (also known as 'Red Flash on Black Field')

Title: 1944-N No.2 (also known as 'Red Flash on Black Field') (1944)

Artwork Description & Analysis: 1944-N No.2 marks an essential turning point in Still's progression to completely non-representational painting. Along with its purely abstract subject matter, it also exhibits several other devices which he would employ throughout his career: a dynamic relationship between vertical and horizontal forms; a predominantly dark palette highlighted by areas of bright color; a highly textured surface resulting from the use of a palette knife; and the adoption of a non-referential naming system composed of numbers and dates. 1944-N No.2 is also notable in being one of the few replicas that Still produced throughout his career. Although Abstract Expressionists often produced pictures in series which were very similar in composition, their conception of the painterly act as an event, as an expression of emotion, discouraged them from producing replicas. Nevertheless, Still appears to have seen both this picture and its pair, 1944-N No.1, as identical in character and quality.


Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York

1948-C
1948-C

Title: 1948-C (1948)

Artwork Description & Analysis: 1948-C serves as a perfect example of Still's mature style as it appeared in the mid to late 1940s: figuration has disappeared entirely, to be replaced by nothing but a strange, crackling field of color. The work features characteristically dramatic relationships between compositional elements - foreground and background; light and dark - relationships that the artist thought of as "life and death merging in fearful union." It is also characteristic of Still's work from the late 1940s in being dominated by colors drawn from a palette at the extreme end of the spectrum - here, hot yellows.


Oil on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

1957-D
1957-D

Title: 1957-D (1957)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Still began to move towards more vertically oriented canvases in the mid-1950s, a shift that is evident in 1957-D. In this work, the fleeting flashes of color that interrupted the dark expanses of earlier paintings are now monumentally scaled vertical forms that rise and fall across an almost mural-like composition. Art historian David Anfam has observed how Still was drawn to compositions which evoke "enclosure and liberation, containment and precarious release;" here the dramatic tension of yellow and black suggests exactly that contrast.


Oil on canvas - Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

Untitled
Untitled

Title: Untitled (1974)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This work is a late-period piece typical of Still's output after his 1961 move to rural Maryland. It features a markedly lighter color palette than his earlier paintings, though it retains the sense of a loose, grid-like structure underlying the abstract motifs, a characteristic evident in some of this earlier work. The work is also notable for the large amounts of bare canvas that Still allowed to remain visible on the surface of the painting.


Oil on canvas - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.