Among the characteristics that define Clyfford Still’s paintings — dramatic textures, monumental scale, and jagged, vertical forms — Still’s use of color contributes substantially to a viewer’s experience. This exhibition highlights the importance – and possible meaning – of color throughout Still’s career.
Still’s interest in high-key color — red, yellow, and blue, in particular — is apparent in very early works where landscape and clothing are reduced to these “primary colors.” Acutely knowledgeable about both color theory and the history of art, Still was keenly attuned to how artists used color in both modern as well as much earlier times. While Still never acknowledged an overt color symbolism for his work (for example, blue implying melancholy or red equating violence), this exhibition raises essential questions about the role and function of color in his art.
Each color theme in this exhibition includes at least one pre-abstract expressionist period work (before around 1945) as well as a “late-period” work (made after his move to Maryland in 1961), allowing for a fuller picture of the prominent role color played over Still's five-decade career. Still’s use of color also represents the ways he influenced, and was in dialogue with artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, his closest allies in the late 1940s.
PH-1107 (1951) is an example in which an earlier drawing (in this case PH-517, a small, 1949 gouache on paper) was later made into a large-scale canvas. The composition of both works is nearly identical, as is the deep field of red that dominates both.
""I want to be in total command of the colors, as in an orchestra. They are voices.” -Clyfford Still"
"“Color is an integral part of the conception. The works are conceived in color and do not exist amply without it. Each picture takes on the color it demands.”
""Black was never a color of death or terror for me. I think of it as warm—and generative.”
PH-246 (1951–52) is the first of two versions (what Still called “replicas”) of a nearly all black, roughly 9 x 13 foot canvas punctured by a striking, expressionistic vertical line created by exposed, bare canvas. The second version, now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, was dubbed “the Black Monster” by Still and was shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the landmark exhibition, 15 Americans, in 1952.
PH-31 (1951) has the same composition as the masterwork PH-247 (1951) — often referred to as “Big Blue” due to its 15-foot expanse of cobalt blue — which is shown earlier in the exhibition. In PH-31, the blue is replaced by bare canvas, and the flat black form at the center of PH-247 is rendered here in bright white. Still’s use of essentially the same structure in both paintings suggests how much he believed color was essential in determining the ultimate experience of the artwork.
Curator—Dean Sobel, Director, Clyfford Still Museum