As part of the GCI's Modern Paints project, a number of case studies are being conducted on the materials used by important twentieth-century painters. One of these is focused on American Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still (1904–1980) and is being conducted in collaboration with the ARTEX Conservation Laboratory, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC, and the Clyfford Still Estate.
The diversity of materials used in modern paints has important and direct implications for their conservation, since each type of paint is likely to display its own unique set of properties that will govern its responses to aging, environmental conditions, and conservation treatments. Although Still worked with relatively traditional paints, mainly oils, there has been much discussion and speculation over whether he hand-ground pigments directly into oil media or whether he used conventional tube paints. The large range of gloss often seen in his paintings (more readily achievable if he were able to control the amount of oil in his paints) and large drums of dry pigment found in his studio after his death both point to the likelihood that Still hand-ground his paints.
In January 2010, staff from the GCI and Hirshhorn Museum visited the ARTEX Conservation Laboratory to undertake a sampling campaign of ten important works representative of Still's oeuvre. The samples have been analyzed, and some important initial findings are emerging—perhaps most interestingly, the identification of castor oil, probably in combination with linseed oil, in a number of the paints. The exact interpretation of this is still unclear, but castor oil is known to have been a component in Bellini oils, a brand of tube oil color that was available in the United States during the period in which these works were created. The presence of castor oil might suggest that not all Still's paints were hand-ground, although it cannot be ruled out that Still might have added castor oil to his linseed oil prior to grinding in his pigment.
A second endeavor was the cataloguing and sampling of a range of forty dry pigments found in Still's studio, which point to the likelihood that Still mixed his own paints. A sample of each pigment has been submitted for further analysis and will be entered into the GCI's reference collection of artists' materials.
The results of this project will form the basis of a publication in the GCI's The Artist's Materials books series, and will be disseminated at the Clyfford Still Museum, scheduled to open in Denver in late 2011. Many of the paintings to be displayed in the museum have never before been exhibited.
The Modern Paints project is a central component of the GCI's Modern and Contemporary Art Research initiative, which takes a broad approach to the needs of this area of conservation with a range of scientific research projects, as well as with a number of conferences, events, and meetings that are intended to promote discussion of these issues and to help disseminate information.