Clyfford Still’s art is usually considered within the context of Abstract Expressionism, a movement of artists who independently developed approaches to abstraction around the time of World War II. These artists mostly avoided combat (by virtue of their age) but were keenly aware of the details of WWII through newsreels, newspapers, radio, and popular magazines. After WWII, these same news outlets began to cover the emergence of an American avant-garde art born from the horrors of the Great Depression, world wars, and collective need for a spiritual and emotional reformation.
Although Abstract Expressionist artists’ paintings look very different, their work tends to share several key characteristics.
Abstract Expressionist artworks do not generally contain realistic images of objects or figures (the “seen world”). Instead, in Abstract Expressionism, shapes, colors, and lines combine to create the “image.” Many Abstract Expressionists wanted people to be able to react to their paintings without the interference of associations with recognizable imagery.
Many Abstract Expressionist artists wanted to immerse the viewer in a total experience of their art. Making art that was very large in scale helped draw the viewer’s focus into the artwork to achieve this goal—creating art that could be experienced, not just seen.
Abstract Expressionist artists commonly activated the entire surface of their paintings. Their images often “played” with the edge of the canvas. In a typical Abstract Expressionist composition, there is not one focal point. Instead, a viewer’s eyes might be directed “all over” the canvas by the colors of paint, brushstrokes, and the artist’s technique.
Abstract Expressionist artworks often show motion or the movement made by the artist in the act of making the painting. Even artists who did not create their artwork by using big movements or gestures did, in many cases, achieve a sense of implied movement in the finished artwork by how they made marks on the canvas. A sense of movement is also created by the all-over compositions that keep viewers’ eyes moving around the artwork.
Abstract Expressionists used several different techniques to make their art. Some artists poured and dripped paint, moving around the canvas in the act of painting. Other artists applied broad, heavy, brush strokes with thick brushes. Clyfford Still applied his paint with a trowel in jagged swaths, sometimes layering it on very thickly, and in other places very thinly. Each artist’s particular technique, their particular manner and order of applying paint to the canvas determined what their artwork would look like.
Many of the Abstract Expressionist artists were interested in philosophies or other ideas that examined the artist’s inner life and the experience of being human. Whether illustrated with broad body movements or controlled applications of paint, Abstract Expressionist artists “expressed” with their technique, tools, and materials the ideas and emotions that could not be conveyed by everyday images. These artists did not want their expressions to be confined by recognizable imagery. While Abstract Expressionist artists wanted viewers to be free to experience and understand their artwork on their own terms, their artwork often touched on big ideas they thought were important—like life and death, spirituality, power, struggle, and a range of human emotions.