Sundays with Clyfford Still: Truth Imagined (11)

Welcome to Sundays With Clyfford Still.  I’m your host, M.K. Hajdin.

This is number 11  in the series.  You can read the other posts here.

Illusions, in one form or another, have been the recurring theme of the blog this week, so it’s only fitting to end it with some words about finding truth.

1965 (PH-578) by Clyfford Still (Photo: The Daily Artist)

I hold it imperative to evolve an instrument of thought which will aid in cutting through all cultural opiates, past and present, so that a direct, immediate, and truly free vision can be achieved. (Clyfford Still)

In this painting we see a strong vertical emphasis on the arrangement of the forms.  A curvilinear band of brown, like a cliff wall,  ripples across the space. Bisecting this is an ominous black shape rising like a tall dark ghost, juxtaposed with a large white shape which is the most restful and horizontal of all the shapes. Splashes of red and blue in the upper left corner draw the eye upward.

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral


“Vertical lines communicate a feeling of loftiness and spirituality. Erect lines seem to extend upwards beyond human reach, toward the sky. They often dominate public architecture, from cathedrals to corporate headquarters. Extended perpendicular lines suggest an overpowering grandeur, beyond ordinary human measure. “

Introduction to the Elements of Design, a very interesting page which you should read.



There is a simple, but compelling harmony between the right and left sides of the painting, where both dominant shapes are the same color, and the diagonal from the upper left to the lower right, where the dominant shapes are opposite in color.

The color, size and shape contrasts suggest conflict. The age-old conflict between earth and sky, between body and spirit?  Maybe that’s what Clyff is getting at.  What makes this interesting is how the areas are defined.   The usual symbolism is turned on its head; the earth or body is a restful and pure place, while the spirit rising above is dark, malevolent.  It has already swallowed one color, blue, and seems about to devour the splash of orange.   This could be an allusion to  evil, which requires human consciousness to be defined as evil;  animals cannot commit evil acts because they operate from instinct and aren’t able to understand what right and wrong is.

Armwrestling Jesus

Armwrestling Jesus! Not by Clyfford Still.


(Here’s something I found when I googled images for ‘evil’ to go along with this section.

Look at the devil’s biceps!   Jesus has no chance.  He spent too much time moisturizing and exoliating and not enough time pumping iron at God’s Gym.

Oh, sure, he’s got REALLY smooth skin and the Devil is totally envious, you can tell he’s dying to ask Jesus where he can get his acne scars lasered off, but that’s not going to help Jesus beat the Devil at armwrestling!  He should have just done “Rock, Paper, Scissors” with the Devil instead.  I swiped the image above from this not so God-fearing blog. )



Sorry. Where were we?  Clyfford Still’s thoughts about evil.  What was he getting at in the painting PH-578?

Ignorance is bliss?

There are some things we weren’t meant to know?

The hubris of mankind knows no bounds?

All possible answers which fit  Clyfford Still’s worldview.  But he did not want to impose any ideology on the viewer or guide us in any way; he wanted us to find our own meaning. That implies a belief  that truth is relative, and yet he also believed it was obscured behind the toxic sheen of a poisoned culture, so what people commonly held to be the truth, wasn’t.

So on the one hand, Still trusts us to find our own truth, and on the other, he warns us not to blindly accept that which is prefabricated for us by the dominant culture we live in.  A process of searching, of discovery, of analysis is required.  A refusal to be content with banalities and superficialities is a prerequisite.

Abstract Expressionists

Abstract Expressionists. Clyffie is third from upper right.


P.S.  In case Clyfford Still is  monitoring this blog from the afterlife, which wouldn’t surprise me AT ALL though I don’t really believe in an afterlife:  A sense of humor wouldn’t have hurt, Clyffie.  Just sayin’.

In somewhat related news:

The Daily Artist is a site well worth visiting.  It’s got pictures and information about a great many artists.  It doesn’t look like it’s been updated recently, but it’s got a nice series of Monet up right now.  Clyfford Still can be found here.

Thanks for joining me.

Questions? Comments?  Reply in the comment box below, or tweet to me with the hashtag #clyffordlove.

3 thoughts on “Sundays with Clyfford Still: Truth Imagined (11)

  1. Yeah, Clyffie, crack a smile, why doncha?
    Nice post. I definitely have the sense here of the verticals on a downward trajectory, of, as you say, ‘swallowing’, but then that is off-set and made ambiguous by the right- hand light ‘reaching’ into the dark? A glimmer of hope/positivity amidst the shit? But yeah, hardly-rib-tickling. 🙂

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