Clyfford Still’s Abstract Journey

In the 1930s and 1940s, new forms of abstract art were taking root with many artists. In particular, Abstract Expressionism grew out of the intellectual interest of surrealism in subconscious or spontaneous creative impulse. In the first wave of artists belonging to the movement, Clyfford Still carved a distinctive path for himself.

“PH-342” by Clyfford Still

“PH-342” by Clyfford Still

 

The Variety of Styles

As many artists moved away from traditional representational art, they struck out in different styles. The free-thinking that marked surrealism began to inspire artists toward different methods of painting. Some abandoned the use of brushes, such as Pollock’s splatter method. Of the group, Clyfford Still was the first to start moving away from representational and figurative painting. His “PH-342” from 1934 retains a slight echo of surrealist figuration. But his later works move even further away from this start.

Still’s Independent Streak

Still gained the respect of his fellow Abstractionists by his boldness in stepping away from representational works. His choice to work with large canvases carrying his strikingly different images prompted his colleagues to start stretching themselves. In reference to the ground-breaking nature of Still’s work, Jackson Pollock once said, “Still makes the rest of us look academic.” By the early 1950s, Still’s independent streak had made him more and more critical of the art world establishments. He ended his connections with commercial galleries and began to refuse to show his work in conjunction with other artists.

Perhaps Still’s impulse to isolate his work was an extension of his drive toward abstraction. Comparisons between his work and that of others would be inevitable if pieces were shown together. In order to have the visceral response to his work made immediately on the viewer, without reflection of other things recently seen, his works would need to be isolated. The result was that fewer of his works were seen by the general public, and so his influence on his colleagues became somewhat invisible.

After his death, because of stipulations that his works not be shown in conjunction with other artists, his large body of work remained largely unseen until the Clyfford Still Museum was built in Denver. For quite some time, only a smallish number of his works could be seen, works that had been sold before he had started restricting distribution of his paintings. Thus, although he influenced and inspired his colleagues to step away from traditional methods of painting, the general audience was not fully aware of his impact on the growth of abstract painting.

Breaking Free of Traditional Methods

The movement toward abstraction in artwork had begun concurrently with Still’s work, so Abstract Art was a certainty for the ongoing development of art. But Still’s boldness in considering the ability to express things visually in new ways definitely had an effect on others, making him a very important figure. Choosing to eschew representational and figurative images gave him the freedom of distance to consider form and color without needing to be “true to subject” in some sort of objective way. He could abstract the elements he wished to consider.

Other artists have followed down the path that Still marked out for them. The keynote of abstract art is that it forces the viewers to consider things other than the objective world around them. The art puts forwards aspects abstracted from what we see and places these elements before us in a type of isolation.

"Delerious" by Diana Hobson

“Delerious” by Diana Hobson

 

Diana Hobson has continued this aspect of abstract art, taking non-representational approaches to her subjects. In her 2005 piece, “Delerious” the hard edges of the black and blue shapes mix with the red squiggles and the central lighter blue and white coil, with the yellow slashing through all. By removing the representational, she makes the viewer consider the impact of the title in the combination of colors and shapes in the work, creating the hectic feeling and energy of the turmoil invoked in the name.

Similar evocative works by Diana Hobson can be found at her own website, as well as her studio in Venice.

Notes:

“PH-342” by Clyfford Still, 1934. The Clyfford Still Museum. Copyright Clyfford Still Estate. Included here under Fair Use Practices, for instruction and inspiration.

“Delerious” by Diana Hobson, 2005. Copyright Diana Hobson. Used by permission.

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