Material Matters: the Conservation of modern Art

Michael Coleman: Now and Then , installation shot, Cross Gallery; thirty-one canvases of various sizes, oil and glitter, placed on the gallery floor; these work were intended to shed their glitter during the exhibition - Coleman's work s often involve the use of media that will alter with time

Modern art is so completely different from traditional art that conventional approaches to conservation and restoration were no longer appropriate. A new range of guidelines for conservation needed to be drawn up and museums such as the Tate Gallery in London and the Stedelijk in Amsterdam led the way. Conferences were and are held regularly to present case histories and discuss problems. Gradually, new approaches are being developed to cope with the subtleties and complexities of modern art.

With regard to 'traditional' art the meaning of the object in a material sense is generally unambiguous. Material and technique serve the meaning which is largely determined by the representation. That means that as long as the representation is preserved, intervention with regard to the material characteristics of the work do not have to take place at the expense of the work's meaning...

With regard to 'non-traditional' objects of modern and contemporary art... meanings are mostly specific to the artist in question or even the object in question. Materials and techniques, moreover carry their own meaning. The array of materials and techniques is thereby so expanded, that in principle anything and everything can be used.

A concomitant factor is that the less traditional the material used is, the more it contributes to the meaning of the work. A consequence of this is that a change in the material characteristics of a contemporary artwork often directly impacts on its meaning. 1

Therefore knowledge of the artist's intention is crucial for the conservation of modern objects.

Modern paints and acrylics, resins, synthetic polymers, and miscellaneous inclusions are normal in today's artworks. For example, fibretipped pens, oilsticks, feathers and poster paint can be combined on paper to create an unstable image that will self-destruct from what is colourfully described by conservators as 'inherent vice'. The question then arises - did the artist intend the painting to disintegrate? Or should every effort be made to stabilize the work? How far should curators and conservators go with regard to conservation?

The meaning of a work, however, is layered and certainly not unambiguous. One can speak of meaning imparted by the artist, but also by a context (criticism, group, style, time), by a place (collection, country, 'site specific' or event (performance). In addition, the choice of material and working method has consequences for the meaning of the work. Finally there are also ideological (political, philosophical and religious layers of meaning.

In the case of modern art, materials and working methods acquire a highly specific significance so that in restoration research must be conducted per artist and per work. 2

One must know what a work means before taking any decision regarding conservation. The central question then is: how will the meaning of the work be altered by the proposed conservation options?

In Joseph Beuys' Fettecke in Kartonschachtel ('Corner of fat in a cardboard box'), 1963, (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam) the corner of a cardboard box is filled with a piece of grey felt covered in a layer of ivory-coloured opaque fat. 2 As a result of being displayed in a plexiglass box under a spotlight the fat heated, and began to melt. It changed shape and sank into the felt and the cardboard of the box darkened and took on a greasy appearance. The decision was taken in 1977 to restore the piece by reconstituting the fat using stearin, linseed oil and beeswax. The artist was not consulted. The question now is: is the reconstruction of Beuys' 'corner of fat' in its present form still as the artist conceived it? Beuys himself said, "That's why my spatial designs are neither settled nor finished. The processes continue autonomously: chemical reactions, fermentation, colouration, dehydration. Everything changes."

What is still significant in this sculpture after restoration? To what degree can art's historical, ethical and copyright values balance against the issue of material authenticity?

Often too there is a major gap between the artist's view of his own work and the view of a museum or gallery that has just purchased that work for a considerable sum of money. The artist may be making a statement, e.g. in Robert Rauschenberg's 'Neo Dada Junk Aesthetic' or David Hockney's colour photocopies and faxes from the 1980s.

When asked what part of the faxed work he considered to be the work of art – the original, the transmission, or the fax at the receiving end, he mused: 'all three'. In Hockney's opinion, after an exhibition, the work was of no value. However being unique, dated and part of his work, they may have some future value. Once an exhibition closes the works can be kept, sent back to him, or simply thrown away. 3

What should the conservation approach be to such materials as the temporary nature of the material is essential to their meaning as an art object? This sums up the conservator's dilemma: to preserve art for posterity while trying to preserve the artist's intent and the expressive power of the work.

For example, should the artist raise an objection if coloured paint is used instead of animal blood when the museum recreates an installation? It changes the meaning and the expressive power of the work. Should the curator and the conservator decide? The artist owns the image but, if the integrity of the object is affected, what rights does an artist have regarding the treatment of his artworks once they leave his studio? When the artist dies does that mean all bets are off? Both Europe and the United States have defined the artist's rights in law but this is a minefield I will leave for another day.

Nowadays students are constantly encouraged to use found objects and to experiment with materials. Freedom of expression is very important and should not be restricted at the expense of materials, but cheap materials change and deteriorate. Certain combinations of materials will accelerate the aging process. The question we now ask is: did the artist choose poor materials by an error of judgement or by an informed decision to create an ephemeral art work? Were the students sufficiently well informed to decide?

And does it matter? Is it important that the students should be taught about the nature of the materials they use? Or is it each artist's own individual responsibility?

Artists now use materials such as plastic, resins, cellulose nitrate, Perspex, nylon and miscellaneous organic materials. Many of these materials are used in good faith but they will all deteriorate rapidly with age and exposure to light. While museums have responsibilities to the artists whose work they collect, artists must carry some responsibility for their choice of materials. Artworks should not be created from a position of ignorance. Is it unreasonable to expect the artist to give prospective buyers some guidelines explaining his/her expectations and intentions regarding the survival of the work in question and the conditions under which it should be displayed?

Modern guidelines suggest that when a gallery or museum purchases a work, the artist should be interviewed and the following information registered: How was the object made? Was it created solely by the artist or in an art factory? What does it mean and what is the significance of the materials used?

For example, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain was an ordinary urinal bought in a hardware store. When the original broke before a big exhibition Duchamp instructed the organizers to go and buy another one! By contrast his The bride stripped bare by her bachelors even is displayed with its broken glass. Artists' approaches and attitudes towards their materials vary even from work to work.

The museum should document motion and installation, essential component parts of many modern artworks. Sound is another vital ingredient. It too is essential to certain art forms. The rickety, rattling mechanical sound made by Jean Tinguely's Gismo is an essential part of the artist's creation. The continuous operation of this mechanical piece will inevitably wear it out but to see it motionless and to hear no sound robs the artwork of its very essence.

Video installations are now central to contemporary art. Conservation of such installations creates many new dilemmas.

As instruments of time, the materials of video, and by extension the moving image, have as a part of their nature this fragility of temporal existence. Images are born, they are created, they exist, and, in the flick of a switch, they die. Paintings in the halls of the museum in the middle of the night are still there, a form of sleep, but in the room of the video projections there is nothing. The images are thoroughly non-existent, gone into some other dimension " 4

The mechanics of video installations have improved considerably with the advent of digital technology. But what of those recorded on tape. Is the original tape archived? Has it been updated to a digital recording which retains the quality of the original in a way tape never could? Whose responsibility is it to do this? Does it come under the heading of conservation or is it the role of the registrar or curator to maintain the integrity of the museums collection? What of the hardware used to display the video art? Is it part of the art work? Who decides? Should the original be archived and a substitute used instead to preserve the original intact? If this is done is the artwork compromised?

Even more arcane is the conservation of early websites. These are conserved in cyberspace, a concept far beyond the ken of most conservators. A brand new specialist field concerning electronic media has grown up and the conservators are electrical engineers, physicists and scientists.

The problems described above deal largely with the theory of conserving modern art. In practice the problems that one routinely deals with in the conservation studio are those caused by modern artists frequently ignoring the basic rules of painting, such as 'fat on lean'. Quick-drying paint applied over slow-drying paint results in flaking, or to use another Americanism, 'inter-layer cleavage'. Large inclusions sometimes fall off due to inadequate binding media or adhesives.

Accidental damage frequently occurs in transit due to the large size of the piece or occasionally to faulty construction. Linen is now so expensive that it is rarely used. Cotton is not so forgiving and dents and tears are frequently seen. Artists experiment with non-traditional materials and supports resulting in unpredictable long-term behaviour. As paintings are frequently unframed and large areas of the canvas painted white or left unpainted, staining from dirty fingers and general grubbiness are frequent problems. Unvarnished acrylic paints in particular are extremely porous. Adhesives used in collages stain the materials. Modern art needs to be seen in pristine condition unless its physical deterioration is part of its message. Dublin, in particular has problems with air pollution from diesel fumes, sulphur dioxide and windborne dust and particulate matter. Climate control is in its infancy in many exhibition areas and paintings tend to be biodegradable. Paintings should age gracefully. Sometimes the solution is as simple as displaying the work under glass, as recommended by Jack B.Yeats and Louis le Brocquy among others. Sometimes structural intervention is necessary to ensure the survival of an artwork.

The aging of an idea and its visual expression is a major component in the assessment of contemporary art. If an image is presented in pristine condition many years after its creation this can have the regrettable result of making the idea behind the image appear irrelevant.

When the physical image is removed from the period and context of its creation so is the thought behind it. In other words presenting an image of the 1960s as a fresh thought in the 1990s might end up making it appear more dated and irrelevant than if it were allowed to look its age and keep its original theoretical edge. 5

New approaches to art bring with them new techniques, new materials and new philosophies. This is where that greatly overused word 'dialogue' comes into play. The Museum of Modern Art among others now organizes meetings between the public, conservators and artists in residence. IPCRA 6 has begun to document artist's techniques and intentions with a view to future conservation.

Contemporary art is in a state of constant evolution. In the past conservation techniques have lagged behind, as they were based solely on materials and techniques; however, considerable efforts are now being made to come to terms with the complex new problems presented. It is important to remember that conservation exits in the service of art.

Mary McGrath is a lapsed conservator.

1 Decision Making Model for the Conservation and Restoration of Modern Art. Published by the Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art , Amsterdam, March 1997
2 ibid.
3 Kees Herman Aben, Conservation of Modern Sculpture at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam , Tate Gallery Conference, 1995
4 Heather Norville-Day, The Conservation of Faxes and Colour Photocopies, with special reference to David Hockney's 'Home Made Prints' Modern Works, Modern Problems? , Tate Gallery Conference 1994
5 Bill Viola, Putting the whole back together, in conversation with Otto Neumaier and Alexander Puhringer , in R.Violette, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House; Writings 1973-1994 , exh. cat. Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, 1995
6 Daria Keynan, Issues in Collage Conservation , conference paper, Modern Works, Modern Problems? , Tate Gallery, 1994
7 Irish Professional Conservators and Restorers Association

Article reproduced from CIRCA 109, Autumn 2004, pp.50-53