The conservator’s dilemma at Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum

Preserving the Clyfford Still collection raises questions about artist intent and viewer experience

PH-183, 1939
Photo courtesy of Ben Blackwell/Clyfford Still Estate

In the back corner of the Clyfford Still Museum, a glass door allows partial views of the interior of the conservation studio, where every few days, a new painting is unrolled and the work of preparing it to be exhibited — often, for the very first time — begins. Since Clyfford Still withdrew his work from public view in the 1950s, many of his paintings, which can span 12 to 14 feet, have been rolled in 4-inch diameter cardboard tubes and the occasional plumbing pipe. They were stacked as many as 12 deep, sometimes while their oil paints had not yet fully dried. Unrolling them for the first time is a bit like unwrapping a present that comes marked “some assembly required.” The task of readying those paintings for exhibition — and a surprising array of ethical questions accompanying that project — requires a mix of chemistry, physics, art and art history.

“The sad reality is everything starts to degrade as soon as it’s done because it’s starting to oxidize,” says James Squires, associate conservator of paintings for the Clyfford Still Museum. “Our job is to identify the artist’s materials, and understand how they were used by the artist, and understand their components chemically to begin to develop strategies for preservation and in some cases restoration.”

The consequences of being rolled for half a century aren’t just manifested in canvases that have to be coaxed into laying flat and carefully affixed to stretchers, perhaps for the first time, sometimes with layers of newspaper or wax paper stuck to their surfaces.

The paint has cracked where it’s been compressed in the rolls. When Still, notorious for continuing to make small adjustments, changed the color in a spot of the painting by painting over the top of a previous layer of paint, and that top coat hasn’t bonded well to the surface below it, the paint flakes off to reveal the colors underneath. And as oil paints slowly dry, they off-gas an efflorescence — a soap-like substance of fatty acid chains.

“If it’s not exposed to air, that material has no place to go, so it migrates upward during that chemical change from viscous liquid to rigid solid and just deposits itself on the surface, creating random forms,” Squires says. The efflorescence appears on the painting’s surface in whitish clouds that can be removed with a little massage, an eraser, or a touch of water — even spit will do.

As pigments and varnishes have aged, some surfaces Still painted to have a glossy shine have gone matte and some colors have even shifted.

A year after the museum opened, there were still 190 rolls of paintings waiting to be readied for exhibition — job security, Squires jokes. But as paintings are discovered — they were all catalogued and photographed, but those photographs have aged to the point that their colors are no longer accurate — the museum’s curatorial staff can assemble them into new narratives and arrangements that allow for exploring Still’s work in new ways.

“The real intention of this show was really to understand how he used color — the function of color in his paintings,” Dean Sobel, director of the Clyfford Still Museum, says of the latest show, Red/Yellow/Blue [and Black and White]: Clyfford Still as Colorist. “To try to understand — and this will be through any number of exhibitions, too — what the role of color is in his art, as opposed to texture, scale, imagery, of course, vertical abstractions as opposed to more representational ones.”

1950-A-No. 1, 1950 | Courtesy of Ben Blackwell/Clyfford Still Estate

Color matters for any painter, of course, but in abstract art, color is one of very few tools the artist has left to affect the viewer.

“If there isn’t a figural or landscape implied or still life or train engine — if you don’t have that as a communicator … all you have — and there’s a lot there — all you have are basic things: the way you apply the paint, the color of the paint, the scale and so forth,” Sobel says. “I think in Still’s case, he was very interested in the large role that color plays, to such a degree that if you change out one little patch of color or perhaps, in other ways, if you add [color] — because I think that’s what interesting about a lot of paintings upstairs right now, he would do just a little hit of contrasting color, just one little touch and not use that color anywhere else in the painting. It’s pretty clear that Still also recognized that color was like a note, a minor note or a chord or a crescendo.”

Still would sometimes create “replica” paintings, where the composition of the paintings is the same, but the colors are varied, Sobel says. The composition of “Big Blue” or PH-247, which shows a vast, blue field with a stripe of black and a thread of orange, reappears in PH-31, which was painted in the same year. The pulsating blue field has become bare canvas, and the strips of color are black and red. After Still decided to stop exhibiting his work, based on the abstract expressionist philosophy that an artist’s work was best viewed as a body rather than a single piece in a gallery full of pieces by other artists, the replica paintings were some of the few that he sold.

The paintings selected for Red/Yellow/Blue [and Black and White] each have a dominant color and were curated to include one early work that’s still figurative and one from late in his life. A gallery is devoted to each of these colors independently.

“Having roughly 94, 95 percent of his total holdings allows this institution to develop so many different narratives and in very effective ways that other single-artist museums simply can’t do,” Squires says.

While five of the galleries are devoted to individual colors, the two opening galleries show a chronological evolution from Still’s landscapes and the elongated faces and forms of farm workers he painted in the early part of his career to the point when he let go of representation imagery altogether.

1956-J-No. 2, 1954 | Courtesy of Ben Blackwell/Clyfford Still Estate

“I think it’s incredible that we can really tell the story of an individual’s evolution to something that a lot of people are very uncomfortable with,” Squires says. “A lot of people are very uncomfortable with abstract expressionism, but to be able to link it to a visual language of representation and see how it changes to this, I think, allows people to make that next step. They might not like it, but at least they can see that it wasn’t just something that was thrown on a canvas and then some rationale was created. There was purpose.”

In the red room, the first of the Red/Yellow/Blue exhibit, a viewer encounters one massive red canvas after another before arriving at a duo of paintings that depict farm scenes: a bare-chested man astride a boar, a knife in his hand from having just taken the first stab in slaughtering the boar, and a man in blue coveralls, leaning against a blue tractor wheel, looking out toward a white and brown field. After Still’s grand-scale red canvases, the eye leaps to the red in these paintings — the burst of red coming from the throat of the boar and the raw, cherry red hands on the farmer.

“Every artist uses color, but I don’t know that many are as brilliant or that it is that front and center in terms of their practice, which I think it is for Clyfford Still. There is something just remarkable about his colors,” Sobel says. “It’s much harder than it looks to get those beautiful surfaces and that chromatic brilliance that he achieves over and over again.”

Maintaining those surfaces and those brilliant colors falls to the conservation staff, who blend both preservative and restorative tactics to prevent degradation of the paintings through strategies like environmental controls, light controls and pest management, and, when necessary, try to restore a piece to the way it looked at a specific point in time.

PH 223, 1956 | Courtesy of Ben Blackwell/Clyfford Still Estate

“That seems sort of straightforward, but in many ways, it’s not, because as conservators our goal is to both honor the piece’s history — and recognize its history and integrate that history with how it looks now — with artist intent, and so that becomes the challenge,” Squires says. “I don’t want to change artist’s process. It’s just my job to keep it together.”

The glistening vibrancy of Still’s surfaces stems from varnishes that can fade and yellow over time. That golden hue paintings of old masters have become known for is actually a yellowed varnish. And Still, at times, bordered on fanatical about the reflective surfaces of his paintings. He once visited his works on view at a museum, decided the varnish had faded too much, went to the local hardware store to purchase varnish and recoated the paintings while they hung on the gallery wall. He then asked the conservation staff at the museum to regularly repeat the application. They declined.

Now, as the paintings unroll, there are passages that are still highly reflective, and others that are not.

“We know, historically, that Still would paint a picture and then let it be for a while, then he would actually — say as the pictures dried over time, areas of reflective surface sunk, became more matte — he would actually go back in and re-oil sections or maybe even re-oil the whole thing,” Squires says. “He would literally apply linseed oil to the whole surface. So that material, too, has changed and altered over time and done so in very odd ways. So it becomes this question of, can we separate it, and if we can, should we? What are we trying to emphasize? Are we emphasizing the artist’s hand or are we emphasizing artist intent?

“And again it becomes this balancing act of, which way do you try to go? His hand applied it, but it looks like hell and you can’t read the picture. Do you say ‘OK, well, our best judgment says this is really what he was trying to achieve,’ so therefore it gives a credible argument to actually try to remove that, assuming we can, or reduce it. So that’s sort of the challenge with all of this right now.”

As they work their way through the archives of paintings, the understanding of Still’s materials in use will increase, Squires says, and may help in answering those questions. Still usually mixed his own paints, but if he wrote recipes down for those paints, they haven’t been found, which adds to the challenges of knowing how to preserve or restore those paintings.

“I’m becoming more aware of how each individual color responds, and they are different in each period, they really are,” Squires says. “In one period, the reds could be wonderful and very straightforward. In another period, they’re an absolute nightmare. And similarly with the blues and the blacks. In some periods, I can do whatever I darn well want and I can feel confident that I’m not going to do any damage or do anything to the pieces, and in other ones I feel like I look at it funny and something happens.”

Even when there’s no paint to flake or varnish to fade, the paintings can present conservation challenges. Still applied glue sizing to canvases before painting on them, which essentially sealed the canvas from the paint and protects the canvas from rot. But that glue, unevenly applied, is now yellowing in uneven tones.

“From this angle, it’s really sort of lovely. You can almost see his brush strokes,” Squires says, looking up at a painting with vast sections of bare canvas. “You can see how he did it all over the surface, and it adds a texture and a rhythm to the piece that, if it was dead flat, it would never have. But it also discolors in different ways, so it’s like, OK, we try to keep that rhythm, because it’s actually interesting and complimentary to the piece, where as some of these marks might not be. It’s a real balancing act in terms of, right now, trying to determine what that aesthetic is, and it’s not really for us alone to determine. It’s really for the art world to come together and say, ‘OK this is, based on all of our knowledge of Still and the period and all of that, this is probably what he was trying to go with, and in this case it’s so disfiguring we probably need to try to push back to that,’ — or ‘Ah, it’s fine.’ And once you get more voices it always gets more controversial.”

Part of the conservator’s ethic is to avoid doing anything that isn’t reversible, should the art world’s consensus on how to handle an issue like the yellowed glue sizing change in later generations.

One canvas unrolled earlier this year showed horizontal cracks from having been rolled — a part of the canvas’s history, but an element that interrupts the vertical composition of the painting. Whether the disruption for the viewer is significant enough to undertake restoring the painting is a choice the conservation and curatorial staff the museum will come to over time, after viewing the painting stretched and under appropriate lighting conditions.

“Hopefully it will be fine, because resolving that’s a real bear,” Squires says.

“You have these sorts of signifiers of age, and the question becomes which ones do you try to maintain and which ones do you say are not important, and there’s all sorts of debate about that, and there’s no one answer,” he says. “The challenge is trying to bring it together in a way that is still harmonious and still expresses the spirit of the artist’s intent as much as we can.”

James Squires, associate conservator of paintings, will lead “One Painting at a Time: Black” to discuss PH-1102 at 1 p.m. April 24 at the Clyfford Still Museum. Reservations required. Red/Yellow/Blue [and Black and White]: Clyfford Still as Colorist runs until May 12. 1250 Bannock St., Denver, or call 720-354-4880.