AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, May 9, “Challenges and Choices in Conserving an Early Abstract Expressionist Painting by Clyfford Still” by Barbara Ramsay

American painter Clyfford Still (1904-1980) was a leading Abstract Expressionist artist.  In November of 2011 the new Clyfford Still Museum opened in Denver, Colorado.  For more than seven years prior to the opening conservators in the ARTEX Conservation Laboratory worked to prepare Still’s paintings for travel and exhibition.  One of those paintings was the oil on canvas,  1943 (PH-286).  Barbara Ramsay carried out the treatment of the painting and kept coming back to the question, “Should we hold the artist accountable for the materials and techniques that he has used, or should we attempt to reintroduce aspects of his original intent as we perceive them?”   As one might expect, the answer is often complicated and open to interpretation.

1943 (PH-286) is a key early painting in Still’s oeuvre that serves as an excellent documentation of his artistic process.  The painting represents his transition from abstracted figurative work to the complete abstraction for which he is known.  It is understood that Still considered the painting to be an important work and he exhibited it more often than most of his other works.  The painting also important because it has the inscription “White and Black” on the verso, which may be an early title because he did not completely abandon titling his work until some time in the 1940s.

The stretched painting was executed on unsized cotton duck canvas with a white ground.  The canvas showed signs of being unstretched and restretched more than once.  It was slightly stained but otherwise it was generally stable.  Examination of the paint layers revealed mingling of matte and glossy areas and a discolored surface coating.  The areas of highest gloss appeared bluish white under ultraviolet irradiation but whether there was a local or overall surface coating remained unclear.  There were also areas of marked drying cracks in the black paint layers but all of the cracks appeared to be stable.

After minor consolidation, the structure of the painting was stable so the focus of treatment was on the aesthetic qualities.  Barbara’s approach was to open up a dialogue between curators, the representatives of the Still estate, and conservators to discuss the interpretation of the condition and determine a course of action that prioritized minimal intervention.  Unfortunately, such conversations are often complicated and this case was no exception.  Some of the stakeholders felt the painting should be left as is.  Others wanted the drying cracks to be inpainted.  Still others wanted a complete aesthetic treatment to remove and replace the discolored varnish, saturate the matte areas, and inpaint the drying cracks.  Barbara wanted to do more research before determining her ideal course of action.  The critical questions:  could it be done safely and should it be done at all?

To answer those questions Barbara focused on Still’s working process.  GCI analysis suggested that he used titanium white ground, zinc white, carbon black, organic colorants, and some commercial tube colors on his paintings.  Many of Still’s paints are known to be particularly sensitive to water and organic solvents.  The variable gloss in the paint surface posed several other issues for consideration.  The matte areas could have indicated an original difference in leanness in the paint.  It was possible that Still applied an overall surface coating that soaked into areas of underbound paint over time and left an unexpected variable gloss.  There was also a chance that Still applied the coating to specific areas of the painting.  So, did Still apply a coating?  Was it local or overall?  Did he intend or like the uneven surface?  Research turned up examples where Still did both localized and overall surface coating applications.  It was documented that paint that appeared “too dry” was not his original intention.  However, what did he mean by “too dry”?  Was this an “overly matte” surface or did it describe a surface that had traces of efflorescence?

Additional study by the GCI identified a drying oil on the surface and it was determined that Still likely coated the painting with the oil in the 1970s.  Examination under ultraviolet irradiation supported the theory that the oil coating was absorbed by leaner areas of paint, resulting in localized matte patches.  Although the oil was applied by the artist there was no documentation to indicate what effect he was trying to achieve.  Since the discolored coating was very disfiguring and misleading, it was decided that it should be removed.  But could it be removed?

As expected, solvent sensitivities in the paint layers complicated the removal of the surface coating.  As a result, it was determined that selective and partial cleaning was the most viable option.  Using solvent compresses the coating was reduced in the whites, grays and colored areas, but was left untouched over the black paint.  A varnish was not applied either to the cleaned areas or to the matte black paint passages.

The last step in the treatment was inpainting of the craquelure.  Barbara preferred to leave the craquelure as evidence of the artist’s materials and working methods but finally agreed to inpaint the most distracting craquelure with a reversible medium.  At that point the treated painting was ready for exhibition.

This was a complicated project full of the difficult questions that seem inherent in the treatment of modern and contemporary art.  As a result, the conclusion of Barbara’s presentation was followed by a very interesting question and answer session.  I was unable to keep a written record of the various dialogues that occurred but I can recall one question and answer that I thought was interesting and could lead to additional discussion:  One conservator asked Barbara why she decided to inpaint the craquelure when Still had chosen to exhibit it for so many years in that condition.  Barbara replied that she had considered this factor and believed it was a valid reason not to inpaint.  She did not want to inpaint the craquelure but she feared the other alternative was that the painting would not go on exhibit.  She felt it was necessary to compromise on inpainting the cracks to ensure that such an important painting would be included in the inaugural installation in the new museum.  She noted also that Still had not intended that the drying craquelure would form.  She felt the museum’s desire to show Still’s work to the public for the first time looking its very best was also a valid concern. What do you think?