As the world changed with the start of World War II, so did Still’s life and vision. This exhibition highlights this key period in Still’s development as an artist, when he made the breakthrough to radical abstraction. Still observed and sketched life around him from an early age, but in the late 1930s, he began to progressively reduce these figurative images into cryptic symbols—into lines, outlines, volumes, and planes. Still ultimately reached a profound degree of abstraction and non-objectivity by 1941–42, years ahead of the artists who will be his future colleagues in the movement known as Abstract Expressionism.
One of Still's main jobs during this time was working on technical drawings for battleships in shipyards. This awe-inspiring work, done in a highly representational style, was done at the same time as many of the more abstracted images in this exhibition, revealing Still had no difficulty migrating between the limits of abstraction and representation.
If you carefully look at the two different types of sketches, you will see that in some instances Still took the mechanical and industrial forms from his very realistic drawings and made them much more painterly and mysterious in the small sketches done in pastel. These, in turn, became the basis for much larger paintings on canvas in the following years.
This is actually the painting’s reverse side—a more representational painting appears on the front. Consequently, Still's signature, dimensions, and inventory number can be seen scribbled across the lower half of the work's surface. The red ovoid at the lower right, based on a pulley, offers a burst of dramatic color.
This painting also exemplifies Still’s emphasis on the vertical, found in many of the paintings from this period. This may stem from his childhood experience of living on a farm in Alberta, Canada. Verticality for Still became a symbol of the upright living figure set in vast expanses of empty and horizontal space in the plains of western Canada.
This painting illustrates how Still began to fuse human and mechanical elements. A tiny pinhead appears at the top of a tall, abstract form. A long white tendril, perhaps evoking an arm, stretches down the full length of the figure. The human figure has become almost like a machine standing upright in a gray field of space. The sleek, streamlined shapes are also reminiscent of Art Deco, a design style that became popular in the 1930s.
On the lower left side of the canvas, you can see the white chalk lines Still used to plot the composition. Still's works on canvas were often very carefully thought out in advance, negating their frequent look of spontaneity. In fact, Still calculated his compositions with extreme care, taking details from earlier studies, elements from one canvas or another, and fusing them together into a composite medley.
The final dramatic aspect of this canvas is its use of light and darkness. Extremes of light and dark, bright sun and nocturnal landscape were characteristic of Still's early work through the 1920s. In this painting from 1942, Still has distilled this drama of light and shade into a wholly abstract battle between the forces of radiance and those of darkness and night.
Still continued to develop this new aesthetic over the next few years. In PH-303 (1943), we see "living forms, strangely biomorphic, elongated and writhing in their contours, seem to rise up from the ground in the lower section of the composition. They are neither human, animalistic, nor geological but seem to be like a fusion of three different entities" (exhibition curator, Dr. David Anfam).
Vivid bolts of color flash across a tarry black field. This work’s dramatic contrasts—between the vertical forms and the flat field; between light, color, and darkness—exemplify Still’s fully abstract style. He used a palette knife to produce the scaly surface. He wanted the viewer to confront the paint as a tangible, material force.
In Still’s mature abstractions, we witness a battle between contrasting elements. On the one hand, the directionless field of space; on the other hand, the assertion of a vertical living presence. Similarly throughout the paintings created during World War II, you will notice a war between light and darkness. It was these elemental contrasts, which were intrinsic to Still's abstract style, that led Still in 1950 to make an extraordinary declaration...
Exhibition curator: Dr. David Anfam, Senior Consulting Curator, Clyfford Still Museum, and Director, Clyfford Still Museum Research Center