Christmas Day is coming for the Clyfford Still Museum and, just like the rest of us on Christmas, its gifts are paintings by a prominent American artist not seen by human eyes in decades.
Also it’s happening Nov. 5.
On that day, museum staff will be unrolling the last canvases still in storage. They likely won’t hang in the museum anytime soon, but it’s the final step in seven years of unrolling, cataloging and addressing conservation issues in Still’s work. It’s all been in storage at least since Still’s death in 1980. Some of the art hasn’t seen the light of day in as many as 40 years and, museum director Dean Sobel said, some barely saw the light of day at all. Still put them into storage almost immediately after creating them.
So there are a lot of surprises in the unrolling. Each roll can hold two to 13 paintings and, as you can see in the video here, the best indication of what’s inside are little crayon sketches. Museum staff also have no idea what kind of shape the works will be in.
“In most cases they’ve been rolled since the artist made the work,” Sobel said. “… Generally they’re in very, very good condition, and that wasn’t something we could have predicted. Oil paintings in some respects are a little more sturdy than you might think.”
Rolling the paintings creates some obvious problems — not enough oxygen gets in, masking tape gets stuck, the canvas shows the “memory” of being rolled (think curly, just-unrolled dorm poster). Sometimes paint flakes off and needs to be re-adhered. Sometimes there’s a chemical change in the paint because it didn’t dry properly, and it needs to be resaturated. Sometimes there are stains, which Sobel said are trickier to fix. “It’s a small number of recurring things that we see,” he said, and restoration can take anywhere from a few hours to 100.
The Clyfford Still Museum is largely alone on this journey. Not many museums haven taken on the task of cataloging, caring for and exhibiting a massive collection of work from one artist. It is, as the museum website points out, “the world’s most intact public collection of an American artist,” and it includes more than 3,400 works of art.
“It’s rather unusual,” Sobel said. “Most museums, when they buy a painting at auction or from a dealer or get a gift work, it’s usually stretched and ready to go. So this is quite unusual that you would have to go through this many steps and machinations to be able to show the work.”
Again, visitors won’t see these final works on display anytime soon. The museum has around 840 paintings, Sobel said, and they only exhibit 50 to 60 at a time.
But the museum will be live streaming the unrolling and answering questions on Facebook at 1 p.m. Monday, Nov. 5. You can sign up here to get more information via email, or just pop over to the Facebook page here when the time comes.
The Clyfford Still Museum, 1250 Bannock St., is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and on the weekend and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors $6 for students and teachers and free for youth 18 and younger. If you buy tickets online in advance and use the code CLYFF, you can get $2 off adult admission.