Armed with dealers’ records and artists’ inventories, the catalogue raisonné team is finally ready to track down the missing art. In the early phases of outreach, researchers often place advertisements in a range of newspapers and art publications. For Diebenkorn, active in California, those included the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times—but also the New York Times, Artforum, and Art in America. For Motherwell, ads appeared in local papers across Provincetown and East Hampton, where the painter had been particularly active. In recent years, galleries that represent the artist in question have also emailed “call for works” announcements to their mailing lists.
“But a lot of it is also through word of mouth,” Rogers said. Researchers will meet with museum curators and directors, as well as galleries and dealers, to spread the news about the project. “We cast a wide net and then slowly, slowly close that net,” she explained. “Sometimes what we’ll end up doing is a lot of genealogy research if someone has passed away, trying to find heirs, or calling companies where we knew someone worked 30 years ago and seeing if we can track someone that way. Tax documents, Social Security documents—those kinds of things can come in handy.”
This is by no means a speedy process. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent out a letter, and then three years later I get a response,” Rogers said. Projects often last a decade or more. Livingston joined the Diebenkorn catalogue raisonné project in the early 2000s with the assumption that it would take six or seven years; they finally wrapped things up in 2015. “I knew that it was going to be long and arduous, but I didn’t know how
long and arduous,” Livingston said. The timeline is usually influenced by a combination of factors, including the size of an artist’s body of work and the amount of money behind the project. For Motherwell’s catalogue raisonné, the Dedalus Foundation
could afford to pay a large, mostly full-time research team; “that helped expedite the process,” Rogers said.
At first glance, a 10-year-long research project may seem unappealing. “I always said I would never do a catalogue raisonné because it’s such a long slog,” Livingston said. “But I’m so glad that I ended up working on this. It’s a very creative process. It’s something I had thought of, I think, as sort of humdrum and nitpicky research, but it’s a challenge.” Research for a catalogue raisonné sometimes resembles an art more than a science—Rogers remembered a particularly resourceful researcher who pored over design blogs from Architectural Digest for Motherwell works that were serving as backdrops in the photographs. After that, it was as simple as reaching out to the interior designer, who could often connect them with the collector.
And, of course, “there is always serendipity,” Livingston said. She told the story of a Diebenkorn Foundation employee who was standing in line at a Berkeley, California post office when a woman behind her noticed the Foundation’s return address on her letter. They struck up a conversation, and the woman told the employee that she actually owned several Diebenkorns—works that the foundation hadn’t previously been aware of.
Although catalogues raisonnés have arguably been around since the year 1550—when Giorgio Vasari published a list detailing the locations of ’s
works—the research process changed dramatically with the advent of the web. “I am very grateful that I live in a research era that includes the internet,” Rogers said. “There are so many things available now that were not available 15 or 20 years ago. The flipside of that, of course, is that people expect so much more from a catalogue raisonné these days, because they’re so used to having so much information at their fingertips and feeling like everything should be constantly up to date.”
And, since artworks continue to trickle in after publication, catalogues raisonnés are often slightly out of date from the moment they hit the press. (The ones in print, that is. An increasing number of catalogues raisonnés have migrated online, allowing their contents to be updated without issuing an entirely new edition.) Rogers recalled that, just a week after her team sent Motherwell’s catalogue raisonné off to the printer, someone contacted them about a new work that couldn’t be included in the catalogue.
This makes it understandably difficult to decide when to end the project. “That’s part of a catalogue raisonné,” Livingston said. “You’ve got to have a lot of tolerance for unfinished business. The Diebenkorn catalogue raisonné in particular is still missing something like 100 works—and, of course, those are the ones that we know about. There are likely a few more out there that weren’t recorded.”
Rogers agreed. “That’s the hardest part. It’s so difficult to find a time to stop because there’s a sense that a catalogue raisonné should be final. But we had to pick a time and say that we have done as much as we could do. We have built a very solid bibliography, and we’ve tracked 3,000 works of art,” she explained. “But it’s still hard to let go.”