Grandin, North Dakota
Summary of Clyfford Still
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.
- 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.
Biography of Clyfford Still
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.
Important Art by Clyfford Still
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.
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Clyfford Still
- Clyfford StillBy Katherine Kuh; Edited by John P. O'Neill
- Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and CritiqueOur PickEdited by Ellen G. Landau / Big resource on Abstract Expressionism that includes analysis of Still's works.
- The most influential artist you've probably never heard ofOur PickBy Jim Spellman / CNN / June 9, 2012
- Clyfford Still, Paul Cézanne, and PosterityBy Kent Minturn / 2012
- Art Review; Why Clyfford Still's Art Stayed Hidden for 30 YearsOur PickPhaidon.com / December 2011
- Art Review; Clyfford Still's Sublime ArtOur PickBy Peter Plagens / Smithsonian / December 13, 2011
- Clyfford Still's 'Lost' MasterpiecesBy Christopher Shea / Boston.com / January 14, 2009
- Unfurling the Hidden Work of a LifetimeBy Steven Henry Madoff / The New York Times / March 18, 2007
- Art Review; Still Against Himself - Clyfford StillOur PickBy Harry Cooper / ArtForum / Summer 2001
- 'Of the Earth, the Damned, and of the Recreated': Aspects of Clyfford Still's Earlier WorkBy David Anfam / The Burlington Magazine / April 1993: pp. 260-269