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Brown Study

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Brown Study

Artist: Clyfford Still (American, 1904 - 1980)

Date: 1935
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Framed: 31 5/8 × 21 3/4 × 1 5/8in. (80.3 × 55.2 × 4.1cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase with Funds from the Katzenbach Foundation
Object number: 75.65
Text Entries

Clyfford Still’s Brown Study, painted in the fall of 1935, is an important early work, combining Still’s interest in Cézanne, Nietzsche, and Native American art and thought.(1)

In 1935, while an M.A. student at Washington State College (now University), Still wrote a thesis on Cézanne whom he described as a provincial “primitive” whose work rhythmically co-ordinated form and color. Still’s identification with this concept of Cézanne informs the style of Brown Study. The painting incorporates stylistic features from two different periods of Cézanne. The loose, rambling forms of the right shoulder and arm are taken from Cézanne’s early, violent, and more painterly style of the 1860s, before his absorption of Impressionism, while the small diagonal strokes throughout and the continuous flow of planes from the head to the lower central area reflect Cézanne’s Post-Impressionist passage. By limiting his color to a single brown tone, Still attempted to unify these forms and thus to establish a continuity and extension of figure and color to the very edges of the canvas. This transformation, by which form becomes extended color, and extended color becomes form, is fundamental and characteristic of Still’s later style of expansive color fields.

While the style reflects his understanding of Cézanne, the image in Brown Study is pure Still. It consists of a semi-abstract figure, whose massive, stone-like head, articulated only by deep eye-sockets, rises vertically above a more loosely defined torso. To the left is an outsized hand, dropped from the bent wrist in a vertical parallel to the head. This large and emphatically vertical head-figure becomes a constant in Still’s work as it increasingly incorporates ideas adapted from his contacts with Nietzschean thought and with Native American life.

Still spent part of 1934-35 at Yaddo, the artist colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. There he came into contact with the growing interest in Nietzsche among American artists and writers. Nietzschean attitudes and purposes immediately shaped Still’s art and thought. In his writings, Nietzsche conceived a new type of human being who, through the cultivation of his ancient and natural powers, would contest modern civilization and scientific man. Such a figure was a primitive force unto himself. This Nietzschean image suited Still’s forceful personality and his growing sense of the artist’s power and transformative role. Then, while teaching on the reservations of the Plateau Native Americans near Pullman, Washington, during the summers of 1937 and 1939, Still observed Native American life and art. From Native American ceremonies in particular, he learned how to attain their so- called primitive magical power and their communication with natural spirits.

Brown Study is among the first paintings by Still that synthesizes these seemingly divergent sources with his own concerns. The painting can be described as the symbolic representation of a nature-figure, whose form was probably inspired by Native American stone and wood carvings. The figure looms before us as a natural, primitive, expanding force. Identifying and projecting himself as such a “primitive power,” Still set forth to engage and contest the modern culture that he was so famous for denouncing.

 

Notes

1. A full discussion of Still’s development will appear in my forthcoming book, Resurrection: Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience.

Copyright
Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s).