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Clyfford Still (American, 1904–1980)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American painter. His best-known work is associated with Abstract Expressionism, although he had established the basis for a strongly original style and outlook before any contact with New York art circles. His early life was divided between Washington state, where he was educated, and a prairie homestead in southern Alberta, Canada. Domestic tensions and the vicissitudes of farm life added an embattled note to his rugged though sensitive intellect. He was also deeply influenced by the vast flatness of the Canadian landscape, which became more desolate during an extended period of drought and depression after 1917. Early paintings such as the Row of Grain Elevators (1929; Washington, DC, N. Mus. Amer. A.) depict the agricultural environment of the prairies in a vigorous, somewhat crude manner reminiscent of Regionalism. Yet they also stress the symbolic polarities that the artist described as the ‘vertical necessity of life’ rising against the horizontal. Among other early stylistic traits were the reduction of form to essentials, compositions often structured around a central mass and the device of animating sombre colour schemes with bright accents.

Between 1933 and 1941 Still studied and taught at Washington State College, and his art grew increasingly imaginative as it tackled more complex ways of treating the human relationship to landscape. At first painfully distorted figures evoked the plight of existence on the wasted prairies. In the mid-1930s, however, enigmatic presences emerged alongside emblems or details that suggested an atmosphere of ritual. At that time Still was exploring Classical literature, which may have provided a source of imagery dealing with the symbolic drama of life pitted against the forces of nature, especially of the sky and earth. Titles that were later repudiated, for example Totemic Fantasy, also implied allegorical references, but towards the end of the decade he developed a more abstract approach. The central figure or deity of 1938-N-No1 (San Francisco, CA, MOMA) was composed of interlocking planes in a dense space, faintly recalling Picasso’s 1920s variants of late Synthetic Cubism. Nonetheless the conflict between light and gloom, the use of monolithic uprights and an incisive palette knife technique were idiosyncrasies that he refined and extended.

A temporary drop in output and quality in the early 1940s can be related to the rather unsettled period during which Still worked in the aircraft and shipbuilding industries in California (1941–3) before teaching for two years in Richmond, VA, where he executed 21 lithographs, for example Figure (1945; priv. col., see Anfam, pl. 69); he finally moved to New York in 1945. It also stemmed partly, however, from the search for the most concise visual expression of the symbolism which he first used in the 1930s. The chronology of this phase remains slightly controversial, but July-1945-R (Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.) was certainly shown at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in February 1946. In that image a vertical line suggested both a protagonist and a lightning-like force galvanizing an abyss. Over the next four years his work rapidly became more abstract. This coincided with personal activity on the New York art scene, a series of shows at the Betty Parsons Gallery and an influential period of teaching at the California School of Fine Arts. At that time he made friends with Mark Rothko, and contacts with other emergent Abstract Expressionists followed, despite Still’s tendency to remain an outsider.

In Oil on Canvas Fall 1946 (New York, Met.) there is a new technical mastery. The remnants of two vertical presences balance each side of the composition: they are reduced to ragged planes of colour that spring upwards from the painting’s base, also appearing to be visually embedded in its overall ground so that no single spatial reading is certain. Unity is achieved through rich earthy harmonies and a scabrous impasto intended to make the paint ‘bite’. Still soon took these characteristics to extremes. The areas previously identified as the background to the figurative elements began to predominate until they became an encompassing field, as in 1948-E (2.1×1.7 m; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.), the scale of which still somehow retained the tensions of the easel format. Vestiges of the figure were either pushed to the picture’s edges or remained barely visible within its darkness, and Still described the effect in 1950 as of ‘life and death merging in fearful union’. These fields of colour have been linked to the outwardly similar styles reached by Rothko and Barnett Newman in the late 1940s, since they shared a common regard for colour as an ultimate emotional vehicle, but it would probably be more accurate to regard them as the climax of a private iconography. In particular, the idea of the paint surface as a hostile terrain was unique.

In the 1950s Still brought a greater sense of liberation to a handling that gained in elegance and clarity, if not range, until the end of his career. Despite criticism of the mural-like proportions and vivid contrasts found in 1957-D-No1 (Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.) as clichéd, their dynamism is undeniable. A dialogue between height and depth characterizes these panoramas through the use of sheer verticals, implying a wider field of external forces. Perhaps the most remarkable departure of the final phase, after moving to Maryland in 1961, was the use of bare canvas itself as a luminous continuum, as in Oil on Canvas June 3, 1970 (priv. col.; see O’Neill, 1979, pp. 140–41).

Still’s writings ranged from an MA thesis (1935) on Cézanne to extensive diary notes and statements, often published in the catalogues of his exhibitions, revealing an erudite mind with a knowledge of the Classics and of Romantic ideology. Their often scathing analyses of contemporary society embodied his belief that art must be a moral power in an age of conformity. Although Still’s intransigent behaviour sometimes alienated critical response, his status as a vanguard Abstract Expressionist, whose works are charged with the impact of their figurative origins, is universally acknowledged.

David Anfam
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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