Artist: Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)
Scope (artistic practices) and Years Covered: Paintings and works on paper, 1920–1980
Organized and Supported by: Clyfford Still Museum
Database: Qi from Keepthinking
Planned Format: Print (and perhaps an online version eventually)
Complete, categorized objects: 1,122 paintings and approximately 2,735 works on paper
Key Staff: Bailey Placzek (Catalogue Raisonné Research and Project Manager); Dean Sobel (Clyfford Still Museum Director); David Anfam (Director of Clyfford Still Museum Research Center)
Interview with Bailey Placzek on behalf of the Clyfford Still catalogue raisonné project
What were some of the motivations for initiating a catalogue raisonné project? What are the goals of the project?
The Clyfford Still Museum has 95% of everything the artist created in its collection on-site, so a complete catalogue raisonné has always been part of the Museum’s plans given how little of Still’s total oeuvre has been studied or even seen. The expected completion of the painting inventory later this year is a major milestone for the Museum and is the ultimate impetus for beginning the catalogue at this point in time (we completed the works on paper inventory in 2012).
What is the publication timeline for the project?
At this point, we are hoping to publish the first of the multi-volume publication in late 2020–early 2021. The subsequent volumes will ideally be published on an bi-annual basis.
Since its opening in 2011, the Clyfford Still Museum has maintained an active publications program. Has that benefited the development of the project?
Yes. We have been able to think creatively about how and in what format we would like the volumes to be published. We are still trying to nail down some details about its publishing format, but having the option to publish the project ourselves has opened up a lot of doors for us and allowed us to move forward.
How does a catalogue raisonné serve the artist’s legacy in ways that are either distinct from or complementary to the Museum? Are there any other particular advantages to having the project under the umbrella of the Museum?
As the steward of Clyfford Still’s art and legacy, the Clyfford Still Museum’s mission is to preserve, exhibit, study, and foster engagement with its unique collections. Because the artist’s estate was sealed off from public and scholarly view for so many years, the catalogue raisonné represents a total unveiling of Still’s life work. Thus, the project is inherently tied to the Museum’s goal to promote accessibility, understanding, and study of Still’s place within and contribution to twentieth-century American art history.
As mentioned above, the Museum holds the vast majority of Still’s artistic output, as well as his complete archive and personal library. There are countless advantages to having the catalogue raisonné project under the umbrella of the Museum, but the most significant advantage is our direct access to not only 95% of his works, but also his inventory records, correspondence, and exhibition photographs. Furthermore, the institutional knowledge of collections and conservation staff who have been present for the Museum’s inventory from start to finish has been—and will continue to be—an invaluable advantage for our particular project.
What foundational resources have aided in the development of the project? Did the artist compile inventories of his work?
Yes. The artist and his second wife compiled meticulous inventory records of his works. Though these records don’t contain everything he created, they do describe about 80% of the project’s total object count. The artist’s archive here at the Museum has also proved profoundly advantageous. Correspondence files with major collectors, museum directors, gallery owners, and friends has helped fill provenance gaps for those works not in our collection, and exhibition photographs shot by Still and his wife show early works that have since been lost or destroyed.
One third of the 5% of works that did leave the artists collection are located in private collections around the world or have been “lost” according to the artist’s inventories. These roughly 90 works present some challenges for us, and we anticipate that the majority of our research moving forward will be dedicated to uncovering these works’ whereabouts and histories. So I kind of view the inventories and plethora of records on-site as a double-edged sword, since they have made us aware of many things that we don’t have any records or leads for. While this is frustrating for us since our goal is to present everything he created with complete, verified histories, I try to continually remind myself that many artists probably created things no one even knows about and that Still's records provide us with the ability to present a more comprehensive picture of his artistic trajectory, even if some of the works have been lost forever or there are gaps in their histories.
Outside of the Museum, what are some of the critical art research resources available in the region?
The universities in the area have been incredibly helpful, as well as the public libraries in Denver. The Denver Art Museum also has an art research library accessible via appointment. However, most of my research so far has been with non-regional facilities, since Still was most active on the West and East coasts. The archive at Washington State College, where Still was a student and professor has provided helpful documentation, as well as obvious repositories like the Archives of American Art. Honestly, the Archive here at the Museum is unbelievably rich and is probably one of the most valuable twentieth-century American art research resources available in the Rocky Mountain region.
Are there any catalogues raisonnés that have served as instructive models?
The catalogues for Barnett Newman, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mark Rothko, and Lee Krasner have all been instructive and helpful in the early research stages of the project.
Do you see any useful connections from the number of catalogues raisonnés that have been published on the artists of the Abstract Expressionist generation?
I’m especially intrigued by the figurative stages that many Abstract Expressionist artists worked through in the late 1930s–early 1940s immediately prior to reaching their signature abstract styles. So many of them were taking in and merging such a multitude of influences—Surrealism, anything that Picasso was doing, Regionalism, world art—before they each just spit them all out and emerged with such pure, individualized voices. I’ve also been thinking about how each of the Abstract Expressionist artists utilized paper in their process and how that is translated in their catalogues. Still was so prolific on paper; I’m hoping that the connections we can make within Still’s catalogue will communicate how integral these works were to his practice.
How do you imagine the artist would react to receiving the catalogue raisonné treatment?
The concept of the catalogue raisonné is the ultimate manifestation of Still’s philosophy as an artist. He believed that all artists’ work should be experienced in groups without the distraction of other artists, and that an artist’s contribution and vision can not be fully understood unless their oeuvre is viewed in totality. I believe the inventory books the Stills created in the 1960s were their own efforts to compile an initial catalogue. It really is the ultimate validation of Still’s artistic endeavors and situates him right alongside all the great artists of history—where he sought to be.
What is your favorite quote either from or about Still?
There are so many; he is so quotable!!! I think my favorite though would have to be, “My works are for the observer, what he sees or feels in them. … They could be swords slipped through the belly; tangential references to felt geometries; life and death merging in fearful union; or parables for the blind. As for me they kindle a fire—through them I breathe again, hold a golden cord, find my own revelation.”
Interview conducted by Carl Schmitz, Director of Communications and Publications