The War Begins: Clyfford Still's Paths to Abstraction

Clyfford Still Museum

Clyfford Still Museum

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. 

Studio portrait of Clyfford Still (1941) by Erna Bert NelsonClyfford Still Museum

When America entered the War in 1941, Clyfford Still moved from Washington State to San Francisco’s Bay Area where he found work in the war industries.

PH-620 (1942) by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum

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.

Portrait of Artist's Father (1941) by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum

He also opened a portrait studio, which garnered few customers. However, the portraits from this period—as evidenced by this portrait of Still's father—exemplify Still's skillful draughtsmanship which ultimately helped to inform his non-objective idiom.

PH-625, Clyfford Still, 1942, From the collection of: Clyfford Still Museum
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PH-618 (1942) by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum

The Advance: PH-618, 1942

This painting marks an early moment in Still’s transition to abstraction. On the one hand, Still has depicted clearly recognizable machinery and objects from the shipyards in which he was working. On the other hand, Still's vision transforms these into enigmatic presences which seem to hover, suspended in space, therefore creating a remarkable fusion between the observed and the imaginative.                                                            

For example, at the upper left, the yellow curved bow of a ship resembles the skull of a steer. The rectangular red-orange plow at the top right becomes an eerie, robotic presence.

Second, Still sets deep blues against glowing yellows, golds, and rust tones. These complimentary tones help to create a strange, glowing, nocturnal atmosphere.

Thirdly, Still's handling of space in this painting is remarkable. By suspending mechanistic objects in a deep blue ground, neither figure nor field are entirely separate. Instead, space and presence are unified into an all-over composition.

With the all-over composition, there is no single focal point. Instead, viewers are invited to follow lines, shapes, and colors across the entire surface of the canvas. This type of composition became a hallmark of Abstract Expressionism.

PN-2 (1942) by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum

Around this time, Still created many works like these, which he regarded as visual "notes" where he plotted new compositions in microcosm. They range from highly representational, almost blueprint-like studies to much more cryptic, notes in pastel.

PNX-41, Clyfford Still, 1941/1942, From the collection of: Clyfford Still Museum
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PN-4, Clyfford Still, 1939, From the collection of: Clyfford Still Museum
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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.

PH-352.2 (1941/1942) by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum

The forms in this painting evolved out of Still’s sketches of cranes. Here, the towering verticals become enigmatic presences in their own right, thus achieving a synthesis of industrial forms and totemic uprights.

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.

PH-486, Clyfford Still, 1943, From the collection of: Clyfford Still Museum
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Still continued to reduce the representational forms found in his earlier shipbuilding paintings and sketches down to their most basic components and lines. Here, you can see a different translation of the red pulley found in the previous painting.

PH-473, Clyfford Still, 1943, From the collection of: Clyfford Still Museum
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PH-495, Clyfford Still, 1943, From the collection of: Clyfford Still Museum
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PH-326 (1942) by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum

The Battle: PH-326, 1942

"During the War, Still's art became a fierce battleground between imagery, space and abstraction" —exhibition curator, Dr. David Anfam    

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.

PH-334 (1942) by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum

PH-334 (1942) is strikingly similar in composition to PH-326: against a plain ground, an elongated form juts upward and to the right.

The white form here echoes the curved hull of a ship—a subject Still drew many times when he worked in the shipyards. However, it has been dramatically reduced. The white area reads as a positive shape but also an absence in the black field.

Still said, “By 1941, space and the figure in my canvases had been resolved into a total psychic entity.” You can see what he means in this painting.

Figure and field can no longer be easily separated as both forms vie for prominence. This is what Still meant when he said that he resolved space and the figure in his compositions. Figure and field are now one.

PH-210, Clyfford Still, 1942, From the collection of: Clyfford Still Museum
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PH-85, Clyfford Still, 1942, From the collection of: Clyfford Still Museum
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PH-325, Clyfford Still, 1942/1943, From the collection of: Clyfford Still Museum
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PH-758 (1942) by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum

PH-758 (1942) is unusual in a number of ways. First, it was reduced to a black and white palette; second, because Still left a large expanse of bare canvas; and thirdly because the shapes are, by now, totally unrecognizable as representational forms.

What we see instead is a ghostly thicket-like mass suspended against a dark field. Still has used his palette knife to create the gestural marks that animate the surface.

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.

PH-757 (1942) by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum

PH-613 (1942) by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum

The Breakthrough: PH-613, 1942

"We seem to behold two yellow lightning bolts:
one very large, stretching the entire height of the canvas, and a much smaller
gash of yellow at the lower left of the painting." —exhibition curator Dr. David Anfam

This austere canvas is daring for its extreme abstraction, but it is still haunted by the ghosts of figuration. Conservators discovered that the inky black ground covers an earlier composition—a blue field with a large rock-like form. Look closely and you can still see its outline.

The two verticals also recall a much earlier landscape, in which Still depicted chaffs of wheat against a stormy sky.

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.

PH-303, Clyfford Still, 1943, From the collection of: Clyfford Still Museum
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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).

PH-299, Clyfford Still, 1943, From the collection of: Clyfford Still Museum
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PH-242 (1943/1944) by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum

The increasingly radical abstraction and larger sizes of works like this declare Still’s movement toward Abstract Expressionism.

PH-235 (1944) by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum

The Culmination: PH-235, 1944

This painting reveals the climax of Still’s remarkable transition
to abstraction: "Not only is this painting a landmark in Still’s career, but it is a landmark in the development of the Abstract Expressionism. Its monumental epic dimensions make it one of the first
large-scale canvases in the entire movement, larger than works which were being
done at this time by artists such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko." —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...

PH-923 (1943/1974) by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum

Still said his works are "not paintings in the usual sense." Rather, "they are life and death merging in fearful union." This struggle between life and death is at the center of the works in this exhibition.

PH-67 (1944) by Clyfford StillClyfford Still Museum

Still made the transition from representation to abstraction in the swift span of just four years, but he continued to develop his language of abstraction for another forty years.

Credits: Story

Exhibition curator: Dr. David Anfam, Senior Consulting Curator, Clyfford Still Museum, and Director, Clyfford Still Museum Research Center

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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