Clyfford Still

Why I Use Vertical Lines in My Paintings by Jennifer Davey

February 28th, 2017: 7:55 a.m.

I'm on the Bustang, taking a trip home to see my family in Colorado Springs. On the ride from Fort Collins to Denver, I have been writing this blog post. My thoughts about the use of the verticle line in painting are formal, aesthetic, philisophical. But when I transfer buses at Union Station, the last line I wrote before getting off the bus rings in my mind. "The vertical also speaks to me about the equality of all human beings and that at our core, we are all the same."  I see all different people, from commuters on their way to work, to the homeless.  There is one man in particular that grabs my attention. He is over-weight, and very tall  He is wearing a bright blue sweatshirt and is leaned back in a seat-taking up the space of two chairs. He yells out to no one in particular.  I imagine his verticle core, the same as everyone elses who is walking past. I wonder what experiences have lead him to this moment in time. As I start to see him at a core level, merely constellated with a life-time of experiences, just like everyone else in the station, I see him differently. Less fearful, more curious. I see the breakthrough that Clyfford Still made in abstraction that goes way beyond a breakthrough in painting. It is a paradigm shift in the way to view the world-from the inside out, from spirit to matter. 

The central vertical line/spine is the core energetic essence of who we are as humans. I am pulling this visual imagery forward from Clyfford Still, who in his paintings and drawings, specifically broke down exterior structures of the body.  As a young man, he drew and studied the figure intensely, creating classical beautiful figure drawings. During the depression he began threading strong emotion into his figures, creating works with exaggerated, elongated faces and hands, spare ribs and somber expresions to capture the psychological angst of the era. Next he began to strip away the outer layers of the figure, leaving the feeling that you were seeing an x-ray picture or bone fragments from an archeological dig. Finally he broke through to abstraction, leaving the other layers of the body behind, and focusing on vast emotive abstracts with a core vertical element, what he called "life lines."  As Still himself states, "the figure is behind all of my work." A wonderful way to see this progression is to view the exhibit The War Begins: Clyfford Still's Path to Abstraction on google arts and culture.

I have come to realize that the body is behind all of my abstract work as well. And that I am very deliberately pulling Still's use of the vertical forward into the 21st century. Last year I explored the elements that make up the psyche using words in my paintings as points of meditation.

This year the large stenciled words are mostly gone and I realize I have moved down a few layers-from intellectual questioning to direct experience: exploring emotional and energetic states of the body. I feel as if I am practicing reverse studies of the body. Rather than following the traditional artistic practice of observing and re-creating the human figure, I am observing and painting the internal landscape. I am looking for the still space within that encompasses and understands all parts of the self. I use the canvas as a vehicle to question, and a place to hold thoughts, emotions and experiences. As I build up layers, the painting transforms dramatically. It is this build up of layers that creates its own archeology-both hiding and revealing the past. During this process, it is the body that remains the essential element. The vertical lines in my paintings serve as an anchor. They are a reminder of the essential nature of the body to have this human experience. The body is the vehicle that allows us to experience consciousness and spiritual evolution.  The verticle line also speaks to me about paradigm shifts-viewing the world from the inside-out and that we have tremendous creative capabilities as humans to help generate and transform our world. The vertical also speaks to me about the equality of all human beings and that at our core, we are all the same.  And sometimes, it is in an everyday, unexpected transfer from one bus to another, that this truth becomes clearly evident. 

The Language of Abstraction: Still's Path of Discovery by Jennifer Davey

The War Begins: Clyfford Still's Paths to Abstraction at The Clyfford Still Museum from Oct 10th - January 18th, 2015 is an illuminating and exciting exhibit that pulls the curtain back to reveal Still's fervor and struggle to discover a new language in paint.  I was fortunate enough to gain a behind the scenes tour with David Anfam, the curator of this show and Dean Sobel, director of the Still museum.  

The show highlights Still's paintings, drawings, and sketchbooks from 1939-1944, revealing a complex constellation of events that swirled into Still's incredibly focused mind, leading him to discover an abstract, all-over, simplified visual language that would mark the shift of the art world from Paris to New York and a beginning to the lineage of a Western fully abstracted visual  language.

Read More

Still Committed by Jennifer

Clyfford Still

One year after the opening of The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, my admiration for the artist only continues to grow.  I just returned from a class at The Clyfford Still Museum, graciously taught by the director, Dean Sobel.  It was two hours filled with the joy of soaking up the beauty and depth of Still's work.  I am astounded by the insights uncovered when I give time to just be with one of Still's paintings.   His gift to the world stretches far beyond most artists imaginations or capabilities.  This gift came about largely because of his incredible commitment to his vision and purpose in painting.  As he was gaining fame and recognition in the art world in the 1940s and 50s, he became increasingly wary of the business of art.  Seeing that continuing to show and sell his work without strong leadership on his part would lead to a diminishing of his artistic vision, he pulled back. His decision to stop showing work unless it met his stringent guidelines and criteria was a profound and bold decision to remain true to his creative spirit.  Although he did sell some paintings and showed work at a few select museums, mostly he painted alone in his Maryland barn.  At the end of his life he wrote a simple will bequeathing his entire body of work to an American city willing to house it together as a whole to be open to the public in perpetuity for exhibition and study.  Some call him arrogant for such a wish.  Seeing the museum and continuing to learn more and more about his work, I call him committed and incredibly generous.  He had the vision to understand the importance of remaining true to his artistic voice, without interference of trends, critics, gallery sales.  He also had the vision to see his lifetime of work as one entity, only understood as a whole.  Still died in 1980.  Now I stand in Denver, in front of his ever unfolding collection in 2012, in awe of a man who was able to see his artistic vision through to its completion. I highly recommend a visit to The Clyfford Still Museum, situated directly behind the Denver Art Museum.