Sundays with Clyfford Still: Breaking the Cage (15)

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

This is number 15 in the series. You can read the other posts here.

This week we go back to the early days of Clyfford Still, before his paintings progressed into complete abstraction.

Haunting images from Clyfford Still

Untitled Still from 1936. Photo: Tiffany Weber

A woman old before her time, a death’s head surfacing beneath her skin.  A gaunt male figure is cradled on her lap, almost in a nursing position, but he seems too weary to take any nourishment and she is too empty to provide it. These starveling figures are eerily prophetic in the light of the concentration-camp images that would shock the world only ten years after this picture was painted.

Artists learn how to do art by reproducing what they see around them in a realistic manner.  Once the techniques are mastered, many artists go on to use the techniques that they learned to interpret reality more imaginatively.  Clyfford Still began on this path trod by so many others, but his originality soon surfaced, and drove him to be one of the first artists who abandoned reality altogether and plunged into complete abstraction.   But what drove that process?

Still spent much of his childhood slaving away on a farm, often till his hands bled and his paintings show what a miserable experience that must have been for a deeply sensitive boy who loved books and poetry.  Reality was pain.  He had to find a way to free himself.

Intolerable  conditions cause us to seek escape.  We bury ourselves in a book or immerse our senses in a film.  Someone else’s reality seems better to us than our own, at least for a while.

Those of us who have creative impulses escape by retreating inward.  The creative process itself makes one feel liberated from reality while we’re engaged in it, even if what we’re making is still bound by the same reality that binds us.   In this picture, Clyffie recalls his childhood misery with expressive images that already show a departure from literal reality and a progression toward abstraction.

Here’s another Still from the same time period, and this one is even more abstract.  A barren, sorrowful earth seems to be anthromorphized here.  It has nothing left to give, just as the world had nothing more to offer Clyfford Still.

Clyfford Still, from 1936-1938, Hirschhorn

A grim face in the darkness. Abstraction, like death, a relief.

These pictures are visual explanation for those that came after:

I seek abstraction because reality hurts.  The lines and edges of the real world are big black bars, holding me down.   This world is a cage of misery and death.  I  want to blast away the walls.  I want rivers of free flowing color on canvases tall as the sky and wide as the plains.  I want freedom.

Clyfford Still museum, Tiffany Weber

After abstraction: bursting into the sunlight

>Clyff notes:

…Few artists hated museums as much as Still. “Museums were like morgues, death places,” [Dean] Sobel said.

Quotation from the director of the Clyfford Still museum taken from this article by Robert Weller in Technorati.  Not wild about his comparison of Still to a character from an Ayn Rand novel, but the article is interesting and a bit different.

I was pleased to discover this post from Tiffany Weber at Verbose Vagabond about her experience at the Clyfford Still Museum:

He kept the movement going and it evolved into something abstract, yet beautiful.  It isn’t just lines and colors that change either.  It’s size.  All of the sudden, these nice salable sizes explode to cover walls so big most people wouldn’t be able to fit them in their living room.  They fill the space and explode with color and paint.  He breaks rules.  He leaves canvas exposed.  And I love it even more though I didn’t think it was possible.  I don’t like modern art.  But may be I do.

Do go read the rest of her post.  There are a lot of great pictures of Still’s work that I haven’t seen before.

Comments? Opinions? Random neural firings? Tell me in the comments box below or tweet me with the hashtag #clyffordlove.


4 thoughts on “Sundays with Clyfford Still: Breaking the Cage (15)

  1. Awww… great post and thank you for your kind words and use of a photo and quote.

    You know, they start grim and very sad, touching, yet nothing I’d put on my wall lest I fall into that same somber mood. But it changes. The later words are vibrant and bright. They invoke the imagination and something much more uplifting than the former.

    The Denver museum is still cataloging works that have never been seen. Over the next few years, they’ll emerge onto the walls there. If you like it, do follow their website. It’s an interesting progression.

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