By 1947, Clyfford Still had begun working in the format that he would intensify and refine throughout the rest of his career—a large-scale color field crudely applied with palette knives. Still liberated color from illusionary design by allowing large, uninterrupted tonal areas to interlock on a flat plane. He dispensed with typically “beautiful” colors in favor of more disquieting hues to create unsettling impressions. In 1948, visceral smears of brown, mustard, and dark crimson impasto seem to spread beyond the canvas. The painting’s soaring scale and the energy of the roughly painted crags suggest the boundlessness the artist revered. The patches of earth tones in many canvases, including 1948, have been interpreted as organic shapes: parched riverbeds, frozen wastelands, swamps, and even flayed skin. Wishing to avoid the possibility of such associations, Still left his paintings untitled, or identified them simply by the year of their creation. Evocative titles, in the artist’s opinion, might influence the viewer’s experience as they contemplate the palpable tension and sense of the infinite that can be found within the canvas.
Still espoused what he regarded as particularly American ideals such as absolute freedom and individuality, which were manifested in his works as well as in his artistic career. Although he was given solo exhibitions at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in 1946 and Betty Parson’s Gallery in 1947, he disdained the commercial aspects of the art world and became increasingly aloof from the burgeoning New York School, to the point of refusing to exhibit for a period between 1952 and 1958. Although the artist scorned categorization, his expansive canvases dominated by jagged fields of color were influential among the Abstract Expressionist artists he was grouped with, in particular Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, who shared his interest in the metaphysical sublime. These artists believed that a painting could convey meaning without reference to anything outside of its inherent formal and material qualities. Rather than capture a realistic representation of the world in his abstract paintings, Still sought to create a transcendental experience that was purely visual and impossible to describe with words.