Masterful abstract expressionism of Clyfford Still


Clyfford Still, 1956, h106 x w117.5 in © City and county of Denver


Tribute to Clyford Still by Mayank Chhaya, 2014, Digital, indeterminate size,   © Tributes have no copyright

I was planning to write about the resignation of US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell amid speculations that it was a consequence of the strains in Indo-US relations. However, that must wait to make way for Clyfford Still, by some consensus America’s greatest abstract expressionist artist. As always, I discovered him on the Google Art Project the other day.


Clyfford Still, Photo courtesy:

In particular, it was his 1956 painting (above) that lured me into his world. It turns out it was a prolific world that he lived in.Here is how his official site describes him:

“Clyfford Still was among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists who developed a new, powerful approach to painting in the years immediately following World War II. Still’s contemporaries included Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. Though the styles and approaches of these artists varied considerably, Abstract Expressionism is marked by abstract forms, expressive brushwork, and monumental scale, all of which were used to convey universal themes about creation, life, struggle, and death ("the human condition"), themes that took on a considerable relevance during and after World War II.

Described by many as the most anti-traditional of the Abstract Expressionists, Still is credited with laying the groundwork for the movement. Still’s shift from representational painting to abstraction occurred between 1938 and 1942, earlier than his colleagues, who continued to paint in figurative-surrealist styles well into the 1940s.

Still was born in 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota and spent his childhood in Spokane, Washington and Bow Island in southern Alberta, Canada. Although Abstract Expressionism is identified as a New York movement, Still’s formative works were created during various teaching posts on the West Coast, first in Washington State and later in San Francisco. He also taught in Virginia in the early 1940s. Still visited New York for extended stays in the late 1940s and became associated with the two galleries that launched this new American art to the world—the Art of This Century and Betty Parsons galleries. He lived in New York for most of the 1950s, the height of Abstract Expressionism, but also a time when he became increasingly critical of the art world. In the early 1950s, Still severed ties with commercial galleries and in 1961 moved to Maryland, removing himself further from the art world. He remained in Maryland with his second wife, Patricia, until his death in 1980.

In 1979, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the largest survey of Still’s art to date and the largest presentation afforded by this institution to the work of a living artist. Following his death, all works that had not entered the public domain were sealed off from both public and scholarly view, closing off access to one of the most significant American painters of the 20th century.”

I went through a lot of his works and was struck by how, notwithstanding the abstraction, they are so compellingly expressive. Quite apart from his trademark abstract paintings, his paintings of people/figures have a strangely arresting quality. Take for instance the ones below. This lumbering monstrous figure may look menacing if you look at it casually but a closer look would reveal a more sympathetic being. The second painting, showing what seems like a family, has faces that inspire empathy once you get past the oddness of the way they are made to look. Most of Still’s figures have that touch of the weird that melts away on closer examination.


Still, 1935 (above and below)


It was only while writing this post this morning that I realized that my tribute above, although inspired by the painting on top, is actually much closer to the one right below. Of course, I did mine before I saw this one. I strongly recommend you check out Still’s works on the Google Art Project or his museum.


Still, 1951


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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