Art Conservation – Clyfford Still Museum

Art Conservation

Conservation image

The conservation laboratory at the Clyfford Still Museum. Photo by Raul Garcia

Conservation of the Clyfford Still Collection

Changes are inevitable, and these changes—whether physical, chemical, or visual—can alter an artist’s original work of art and affect the way viewers receive and understand that work. At the core of modern conservation practice is the study of these changes, which cannot be achieved without a thorough understanding of the artist’s materials and techniques. The discipline of art conservation is particularly relevant to the Clyfford Still collection. The Museum houses the majority of Still’s work, most of which has never been publicly viewed. Most of the paintings were rolled almost immediately after completion and have undergone a variety of changes that render some unexhibitable in their current condition. As stewards for the majority of this artist’s work, the Museum’s conservation team is tasked to interpret these changes and find the appropriate balance between materiality and intentionality. The ongoing care of the Clyfford Still Collection is critical to the Museum’s mission.

Glimpse behind-the-scenes into the Museum’s conservation studio on the entrance level, viewable to the general public through large windows.

Condition of Still’s artworks

Since Still moved across the country several times and he did not have room to stretch and hang many paintings at a time, he stored the majority of his works by rolling them on cardboard or metal tubes, an average of six paintings per roll. Thankfully, they have shown very little physical damage such as cracks or missing paint (“losses”).

However, the artworks present other challenges. Often the paint was not completely dry before Still rolled the canvases. Alterations to the surface, especially in the thicker paint passages, and the transfer of the canvas weave onto the paint commonly occur when malleable oil paint is tightly rolled. Also, the Museum’s conservation team regularly sees a phenomenon called “fatty acid bloom,” which is the presence of a hazy, whitish film on the surface. This is caused by the paint drying in a closed environment, causing certain components to migrate upward. Additionally, it is not uncommon to find that the oil paint has darkened. The linseed oil in the pigment will discolor when not exposed to light, causing the surface to look dull and cast an uneven sheen.

The conservator’s challenge is to try to understand the changes that have taken place since the work was completed. The Museum must study Still’s technique and materials and, drawing on chemistry and connoisseurship, alter the paint surface to restore as accurately as possible the artist’s original vision.

James Squires examines the fatty acid bloom using a microscope in the Conservation Lab.

James Squires examines the fatty
acid bloom using a microscope in the
Conservation Lab.

In this detail of PH-637 (1967), the fatty acid bloom reveals itself on top of the dark red paint in the center of the image.

In this detail of PH-637 (1967), the fatty acid bloom reveals itself on top of the dark red paint in the center of the image.

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