Conservation of the Clyfford Still Collection
The Clyfford Still Collection was given to the City and County of Denver in perpetuity, and its ongoing care is critical to the Museum’s mission. The Museum’s facility includes a conservation studio, located on the main-floor level, which is viewable to the general public through large windows.
Since Still moved across the country several times and he didn’t 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”).
There are other challenges, however. Often the paint was not completely dry before the artist 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, we regularly see a phenomenon called “fatty acid bloom,” 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. Finally, 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. We 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.