Clyfford Still – The Innovator of American Abstract Expressionism & Color Field Painting

Brenda T. Weitzman

Clyfford Still was an American, ‘Abstract Expressionist’ artist, noteworthy for bringing ‘American Abstract Expressionism’ into the limelight, and putting the New York City to the fore of the art world, a recognition previously attached to Paris. Born on November 30, 1904 at Grandin, North Dakota, Clyfford spent his childhood in Spokane, Washington. He graduated from the Spokane University, Washington from 1931-1933 amidst the Great Depression. In 1935, Still did his Masters of Fine Arts from Washington State University, Washington, followed by his teaching stint there, from 1935 to 1941. During this period, his paintings mostly depicted people, machinery, and farm life.

Through 1938 to 42, this art form of Still graduated to ‘Abstract Painting’ with spontaneous ‘Surrealism’ as its cardinal point. In 1941, the artist shifted to the San Francisco Bay area and during 1946-50, he had a strong teaching stint at the California School of Fine Arts (now, San Francisco Art Institute). Meanwhile, Clyfford Still exhibited his work at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1943, where he met Mark Rothko for the first time. During this period, the artist ventured into ‘American Abstract Expressionism,’ which characterizes the use of bold brush strokes and attaches preference to texture over color. This style of painting emphasizes the cycles of life, vis-à-vis, birth, the hardships, and the death, described commonly as the “Human Condition.” Such depiction became increasingly relevant after World War II and was widely accepted & lauded by the critics. Clyfford spent quite a lot of late 1940s and the whole of 50s in the New York City.

Later, the artist adopted a new technique of painting known as the “Color Field Painting.” This style boldly portrays an irregular use of solid colors on the canvas. In effect, his paintings gave the impression of a multifaceted colored canvas. This attribute primarily, gave them a genuine, mysterious, and ingenious look. Despite, most of his contemporaries, like Mark Rothko, using thin color palette, Clyfford Still was gritty enough to use a thick spread of the colors. He was once quoted as saying, “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 together into a living spirit.”

In 1957, Clyfford Still created his masterpiece, “1957-D No 1,” which demonstrates juxtaposed colors with a defined black and yellow scheme, marked by the small patches of white and red. Different people interpreted the painting differently. The art critics’ endless search for a meaning in his paintings annoyed Clyfford Still, because he believed, each of his paintings was a personal experience and beyond interpretation. In 1961, the artist moved to Maryland with his second wife, Patricia. In 1964, Clyfford painted another untitled masterpiece, which extensively uses red color. The method used in this painting is called ‘Serigraphy,’ which involves the manual application of numerous colors on the canvas. His other prominent works include an untitled painting of “1953,” “1949 No. 1 (PH-385),” “PH 77,” and “1957 J No. 2 (PH 401).”

Even after his death on June 23, 1980 at Maryland, Clyfford Still’s paintings continue to gather high praises at art galleries, such as Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Hirschhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. His paintings garnered one of the highest auction prices, to the tune of $21.296 million, in the year 2006. Clyfford Still is highly respected among art critics, art students, and historians because of his remarkable innovations in the ‘American Abstract Expressionism’ and the ‘Color Field Painting.’ His famous quote “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,” describes Clyfford’s genuine fervor for art.

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