Clyfford Still



Not on display

Clyfford Still 1904–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2359 × 1740 mm
Purchased 1971

Display caption

‘My paintings have no titles because I do not wish them to be considered illustrations or pictorial puzzles’, Still wrote. ‘If properly made visible they speak for themselves.’ In a letter discussing this work, he explained that the red at the lower edge was intended to contrast with and therefore emphasise the depths of the blue. He saw the yellow wedge at the top as ‘a reassertion of the human context - a gesture of rejection of any authoritarian rationale or system of politico-dialectical dogma.’

Gallery label, November 2005

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Technique and condition

The painting is in oil on canvas, and is unvarnished. The canvas is cotton duck with a thread count of twelve warp threads by ten weft threads per square centimetre, sized but without a priming layer. The painting was re-stretched during its making when the top and bottom edges of the painting were trimmed after the paint had dried.

Paint was applied using a palette knife giving the surface a distinctive texture, with pronounced impasto ridges. The paint is mostly French ultramarine blue, with small areas of yellow, black and red. There are some areas of fine surface wrinkling in the blue paint that occurred as the paint dried.

Aside from the ultramarine blue, analysis has identified cadmium yellow, chrome yellow, carbon black, and organic red pigments. Extenders identified in the paints include calcium sulphate, barium sulphate and kaolin. Metal soap additives were also detected. Metal soaps are commonly included in modern oil paint formulations to create a buttery paint texture. Analysis of the binding medium identified small quantities of beeswax in the black and blue paints, with traces of colophony (a plant resin) in the red paint. The colophony may have come from turpentine, which is used as a diluent for oil paint, or may be present as an additive.

The painting is in good condition, with only a few minor losses of paint at the edges, caused when the painting was re-stretched by the artist. The blue paint is water sensitive. Water sensitivity is often associated with French ultramarine paints and unvarnished oil paintings of the twentieth century. Water sensitivity is an area of ongoing research (see the Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project).

Further reading
Barbara Ramsay, ‘Clyfford Still: revealing the secrets of a life's work’, in Postprints of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works Paintings Specialty Group, 21 2009, pp.14–26.
James T. Demetrion (ed.), Clyfford Still: Paintings 1944–1960 , exhibition catalogue, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 2001.
Anna Cooper, Water Sensitive Paints in the 20th Century, master thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, 2012.

Judith Lee
February 2017

Research on this work was undertaken as part of the Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project.

Catalogue entry

Clyfford Still 1904-1980

T01498 1953

Inscribed 'Clyfford | 1953' b.r. and 'TOP | Clyfford | 1953 | 1953 N.Y. | Cooper Square | 93 x 68 | 1953 (93 x 68) | Clyfford N.Y.' on back of canvas
Oil on canvas, 92 7/8 x 68 1/2 (235.5 x 174)
Purchased from the artist through Marlborough Fine Art (Grant-in-Aid) 1971
Exh: Clyfford Still, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York, October-November 1969 (27, repr. in colour); Masters of the 20th Century, Marlborough Gallery, New York, April-May 1971 (81, repr. in colour); Masters of the 20th Century, Marlborough Fine Art, London, July-September 1971 (81, repr. in colour); Untitled 25.10.73, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, October-December 1973 (no catalogue)
Repr: Studio International, CLXXXV, 1973, p.53; Terry Measham, The Moderns 1945-1975 (Oxford 1976), pl.9 in colour

Painted in New York in 1953 when Still was occupying a studio at 48 Cooper Square. It was shown privately in New York in that year but was never publicly exhibited until 1969.

The artist has written of it (letter of 24 January 1972):

'In reply to your question as to whether it is one of a series, I would answer that all but a few of my paintings imply an evolving exploration and extension of the medium for its expressive potential. In the picture mentioned there was a conscious intention to emphasize the quiescent depths of the blue by the broken red at its lower edge while expanding its inherent dynamic beyond the geometries of the constricting frame. Thus I would suggest an implosion of infinities transcending the concepts of mathematical or metaphysical space. In addition, the yellow wedge at the top is a reassertion of the human context - a gesture of rejection of any authoritarian rationale or system of politico-dialectical dogma.

'Because it is unfair that any single painting of mine should bear the burden of proof of what I have just written, it has long been my desire to keep the pictures together or at least permit them to be studied in groups to make visible and confirm the history and intrinsic meaning of the work. I accept with understanding the fact that forces or individuals with personal interests at stake have usually made this difficult or impossible. I am pleased, however, that single spies occasionally do stand and are seen. My paintings have no titles because I do not wish them to be considered illustrations or pictorial puzzles. If made properly visible they speak for themselves.'

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.709-10, reproduced p.709

You might like