It all began with Clyfford Still. At least for me it did. Back in 1991, freshly arrived in San Francisco, I visited SFMOMA. To say I was blown away by the roomful of Stills would be an understatement.
I had never experienced a Still in person until that moment. The feelings that washed over me included, but were not limited to, amazement, horror, disgust, delight, and ultimately, unfettered admiration. Growing up at the beginning of our post-modern era, I was well-versed in the joys of cool detachment. But I walked away that day with the realization that art was a huge and vicious battle, a never ending quest for some sort of redemption against the darkness of forever. The Stills spewed out the idea that a hellfire fight against nothingness could also be a celebration, and no matter what the cost, the fight was worth it. At that time, long before the alleged death of irony, it seemed like a radical notion.
Besides making demands of his viewers, Still, in his lifetime, made some very specific demands of institutions that acquired his pieces: that his work never be shown alongside that of anyone else. During his lifetime only 150 pieces escaped his iron grip. In his one-page will Still stated that whoever acquired his remaining estate (of 2,393 pieces) must house it all together -- apart from the rest of the art world -- in a museum solely dedicated to him. And that none of his works be sold. Ever. SFMOMA had the foresight to work with Still while he was living, promising him a gallery of his work on view at all times, rotated in from an original gift of 30 paintings.
Yep, Clyfford Still comes off as a cantankerous, self-righteous ass. But I have a special place in my heart for cranks. Cranks are often believers, sometimes the only believers. Believers in themselves and believers in something better for everyone.
I've lost track of how many times I've visited SFMOMA's Stills over the last decade and a half. Sometimes I stop by on the way to see a temporary exhibition. Other times I run in just to spend a few moments with them. Whatever the reason, I leave ready to get back in the fight.
Last year, it all began with Clyfford Still again.
But this time it was the realization that I was getting old. I had lived long enough around them to watch the Stills age. Over the years, the colors in the Stills have changed. The reds have gotten paler and in spots seem muddier. My friend and fellow painter John Zurier noticed the changes as well. He went as far as saying the yellows were migrating.
Again, Still dredged up emotions for me, but this time mostly of horror. Art is supposed to be man's lasting achievement, right? It outlives its creator, its initial collector, and continues on into the ages. Through this, it is able to connect the viewer to humanity in other moments. This always seemed to me to be one of art's most important purposes. Now, the Stills seemed to be fading away before that could happen.
SFMOMA's Paintings Conservator Paula De Cristofaro explained that "Clyfford Still's two daughters have, indeed, noted shifts in their father's paint over time. He created his own paint by grinding dry powder pigment in linseed oil, and the shifts that have been observed may be due to this technique. His paint might age differently from commercially manufactured, artist quality paint, due to the nature of its components."
Okay. Well, it's actually not okay. Today, museums use state-of-the-art technology to repair and replenish great works of art. Over the years I feel like I've seen a bazillion shows on PBS about this.
Paula De Cristofaro answered, "Change in an artwork that is inherent to an artist's technique is not a condition we would consider Â‘restoring.' We accept it as part of the nature of the work."
Maybe Still bequeathed the Museum a lousy batch. In his lifetime Still sold or gave away only about 150 works. Maybe he only mixed his own paints for a brief time.
In 2004, Patricia Still, Clyfford's widow, announced a deal with Denver to build a museum for him, to showcase his nearly 2,400 works. The estate has been in storage for decades, and it was only in the spring of this year that scholars were able to glimpse it.
De Cristofaro relates. "My conservation colleagues who are working with the Clyfford Still estate and the new museum in Denver are researching the questions you pose, so in the future I think there will be a lot more information on Still's technique and the issues of how his paintings age and change. Because this research is ongoing and results are not published and in the public domain, there is not much technical information that my colleagues can provide at this moment."
Armed with this new and awful knowledge, it was easy to begin wondering how many of my favorite works at SFMOMA are fading and changing.
"We exhibit the work in low light levels, and lower still for works that are potentially more sensitive, such as the Rothko. Light levels and the condition of the paintings are closely monitored. The works on paper and in fragile media (water color, magic marker, etc.) are the most fragile in our collection, so we tend to limit their exhibition time and monitor the light levels very closely. Many works are rotated out on a regular basis," says De Cristofaro.
Did Still make his own bed? By contractually obliging the museum to show his paintings continuously he may have relegated them to a sort of forced second class status. Curators often look for connections among works in the collection; finding new relationships to offer the public is an essential part of their job. Still nixed this approach with his self-aggrandizing demands making it pretty easy to ignore the crank in the corner.
But curators and directors cycle through, and with the recent changing of the administrative guard at SFMOMA (Director Neal Benezra is known to be a big Still fan), mixed with a national renewed interest in Clyfford Still, has come a rehanging of his work.
"We were in storage a while back looking at all of the Still paintings and began thinking about a new rotation," says Janet Bishop, curator of Painting and Sculpture. "It occurred to us that given the depth of SFMOMA's Still holdings (we have 30), it would be nice to do a complete re-hang. I was particularly interested in showing some of the early paintings to provide a more expansive sense of Still's accomplishments, and because they're just such good little paintings. We haven't yet planned the next re-hang, but will try to do it again before too long."
I have faith in Still. With brute will, he fought an art establishment to get his way. He did. And I know that, even as they change, his paintings will, too.
In his most recent novel, The Gum Thief, Douglas Coupland explains that we all have an imaginary age we continually perceive ourselves to be. In my head. I'm 25. And SFMOMA's Clyfford Stills are still rich in red.