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Installing the garden at the far end of Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Galleries posed several challenges, some organic.
The piece, titled the state of absence—voices from outside, incorporates a network of clear plastic tubes that pump water into lacquered gourds on beds of sand. There were plumbing questions. The tubing was a potential tripping hazard. Behind it hung a nearly 700-pound beaded curtain by the same artist, which came undone in one spot as it was being hoisted to the ceiling, requiring emergency intervention.
Even after having multiple conversations with the artist, making repairs, installing the water pump, the tubing, the “Watch your step” signage, and everything else to make it ready for visitors to enjoy as part of the 58th Carnegie International, there was another problem: the seeds in the gourds.
“We didn’t realize they’d be constantly in water and ferment, and thus would have a very organic aroma to them,” says Mary Wilcop, associate objects conservator at Carnegie Museum of Art. “Some of these things are just really hard to predict until the work comes on-site and then you can see how it all comes together.”
Such is life as an art conservator.
Wilcop occupies one of the more discrete corners of the arts world, where her work, by nature, is meant to be invisible. An antiquated view of conservators would be of someone in a smock working in isolation to touch up losses in a painting. However, conservators play a critical role in not only the preservation of art but also its creation. They are partners with artists to realize their vision, even as they are stewards of it and the museum where it will be exhibited.
“I really think they’re critical in collecting contemporary art and commissioning contemporary art,” says Clarissa Morales, the museum’s director of collections and exhibitions management.
Art conservators are cross-disciplinary, trained in art history, chemistry, and studio art, and their practice is underpinned by professional ethics. They confront questions both practical and philosophical. What should be done to ensure that visitors, both today and in the future, can have equitable access to a work? How do you conserve something that, by artistic intent, is supposed to fall apart? How do you balance artistic vision with real-world safety and educational concerns of a public museum?
“I really think [conservators are] critical in collecting contemporary art and commissioning contemporary art.”– Clarissa Morales, director of collections and exhibitions management
With these questions swirling around them, conservators operate largely in anonymity—in some ways, the essence of the job.
“I feel that a conservator, when they do their job right, it looks like they were never there,” says Rikke Foulke, associate conservator of paintings at The Andy Warhol Museum. “It looks like the artwork is in good, stable condition.”
One afternoon in mid-November, Foulke was in her workshop in the underground level at The Warhol staring at a silkscreen portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
It was a large canvas, 95 inches by 76 inches, that was going to Paris for exhibition. But first, Foulke had to determine whether it was safe to travel.
Wearing headband magnifying glasses, she hovered over the canvas and looked for signs of instability such as flaking paint. There was a scratch; a 2-inch caterpillar-like skip in the matte black paint in the lower left corner.
“It made me concerned,” Foulke says. “Is that original? When did that scratch happen? How did that happen? Did it happen in the museum? Did it happen when a patron may have bumped into the painting?”
Foulke turned to the portrait’s history for answers. Conservators keep meticulous records anytime they touch a piece, documenting damage or degradation and how it was addressed. She found no prior record of the scratch.
But Foulke doesn’t think the scratch is new. She thinks it’s something that Warhol did in the studio.
Her evidence is in the upper left corner. It’s an area that has been treated by previous conservators using materials with a higher sheen than the rest of the painting. These touch-ups have a different appearance than the scratch, which to Foulke’s trained eye matches the look of the original paint. The imperfection is probably original. And so she will leave it alone. First, do no harm.
A work’s history—not just what conservators have done, but also how the art was created—informs all conservation decisions. But there are some questions that can’t be answered. One of them is how newer paints will age.
Warhol worked with acrylic emulsion paint, which gained popularity with artists in the mid-20th century and is still rather young as an artistic medium. People tend to think of acrylic as durable, but it presents challenges for conservators, says Amber Morgan, director of collections and exhibitions at The Warhol.
“I feel that a conservator, when they do their job right, it looks like they were never there. It looks like the artwork is in good, stable condition.”– Rikke Foulke, Associate Conservator Of paintings at The Andy Warhol Museum
Acrylic is prone to changes in temperature and humidity, she explains. It attracts dust. It can also become brittle in dry and cold conditions, making it subject to cracking. Complicating matters, commercial paint formulas are proprietary, so it’s difficult for conservators to know how they were manufactured, how they’ll age, and how they’ll react to treatments.
This is why Foulke is so important to maintaining the museum’s collection.
“Learning all of this about acrylic paint made it really apparent that we needed a conservator who was devoted to the museum,” Morgan says.
Fortunately, conservators have more than their intuition and experience to guide them.
The analytical tools Wilcop has at her disposal are vastly more sophisticated than those used by her predecessors.
Next to a Nikon polarizing light microscope sitting on one of her lab tables is a handheld ray-gun called an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. It uses radiation to noninvasively analyze the composition of inorganic materials like pigments, metals, and stone. This information can be useful for many reasons—from figuring out what an artwork is made out of to helping predict the results of a conservation treatment.
Next to it is a tool about the size of a home printer called a Fourier transform infrared spectrometer, which uses light to identify and distinguish materials at a molecular level, such as plastics, which can then be graphically displayed on Wilcop’s laptop.
“Because of the wide variety of materials we encounter, a conservator of contemporary art isn’t the person who knows everything, but rather who to call for what problem,” Wilcop says.
She relies on insights of the museum’s art handlers and facilities staff for questions outside her expertise, but not every issue can be handled in-house. Sculptures with plumbing or electrical components sometimes require an outside specialist.
Consider Bruce Nauman’s Having Fun/Good Life, Symptoms in Carnegie Museum of Art’s contemporary galleries. It consists of two 5-foot-tall spirals of blinking neon tubing, bent into words (“Fever and Chills,” “Dryness and Sweating,” etc.) wrapping around each other.
“If you were to pull the piece away from the wall, you’d see 40 transformers that run to each of the sections of the neon. You’d see timers, you’d see syncing wires,” Wilcop says. “We’re able to go to this neon specialist in Chicago who works with his pieces and understands them very well.”
There was even an occasion for The Warhol to consult with NASA.
Two decades ago, during a gala exhibition opening at the museum, one of the attendees took out a tube of lipstick that was included in the gift bags, applied it, and then kissed Warhol’s Bathtub painting, leaving behind a bright crimson, full-lipped print on the dry white canvas.
The surface of the painting is delicate, like dry oatmeal, says Ellen Baxter, who was conservator at The Warhol at that time and retired last year as chief conservator at Carnegie Museum of Art, ending nearly 32 years at Carnegie Museums. Every cleaning approach brought a high risk of causing further damage.
“It’s like removing lipstick on a tissue,” Baxter says. “How can you get that off without disturbing the surface?”
Baxter and her colleague William Real spent several months considering the problem before they turned to rocket science.
Real attended a conference and heard two NASA researchers give a talk about a process used to test materials on the space shuttle that could also restore damaged works of art. It involved atomic oxygen, found only on the fringes of the atmosphere, which could be used to vaporize stains without touching the canvas.
After a few tests, they were ready to try it on the real thing. It took a full day, literally removing the lipstick fiber by fiber, but the technique worked.
Still, Baxter wishes that it didn’t come to that. If she’d known about the lipstick in advance, she could have helped prevent the incident.
“It’s something you don’t want to use,” she says. “But it’s nice to know that [NASA technology] is available and it’s out there.”
Risks and Rewards
The experience with Warhol’s Bathtub highlights the nuanced relationship that museums have with visitors—finding a balance between access and protection.
Many contemporary artists want visitors to be able to get close to their art, Wilcop says, which invites certain risks, such as accidentally coming into contact with it.
“At the same time, it’s our job to find a way to facilitate that access safely,” she says. “We want visitors both of today and 50, 100 years in the future to have equitable access to the enjoyment of that work.”
More recently, conservators have become preoccupied with the intentional defacement of art.
Climate change activists last year targeted pieces at several museums, provoking onlookers to consider why they might feel more outrage at the desecration of a painting than they do attacks on the Earth.
Protestors in Europe splattered tomato soup across Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, doused Claude Monet’s Grainstacks in mashed potatoes, and smeared cake across the Mona Lisa, and in Australia, scrawled blue ink across Warhol screenprints.
The damage wasn’t permanent—the artworks were protected behind plastic or glass—but it raises questions for conservators about how to protect artworks while allowing them to be enjoyed.
“Should we start framing everything and putting it under glass?” asks Morgan at The Warhol. “That’s cost-prohibitive and it’s extremely counterproductive to what the protestors are trying to accomplish. … It’s wasteful, it’s bad for the environment.”
Conservators also need to think through risks posed by the creation of commissioned art.
“We want visitors both of today and 50, 100 years in the future to have equitable access to the enjoyment of that work.”– Mary Wilcop, associate objects conservator at Carnegie Museum of Art
Vietnamese artist Thu Van Tran was commissioned by Carnegie Museum of Art to paint 10 large wall panels at either end of the Hall of Sculpture for the 58th Carnegie International. Her work, Colors of Grey, evokes the pastel palette of French impressionists, in contrast to the room’s ancient Greek-inspired white marble floor and pillars.
Tran discussed the project with museum staff in advance, including how to create the piece while protecting its historic home. Opened in 1907, the hall was built with white marble from the same Greek quarries that provided the stone for the Parthenon.
The room was prepped with plastic and tape covering the marble in proximity to the painting surface, but it wasn’t until Tran started working that Wilcop realized a problem: The room had been prepped to catch paint drops, but Tran doesn’t just spread pigment with a brush—she splashes the surface with buckets of water.
“We had a moment when she first started where we knew we had to think of a better plan,” Wilcop recounts.
Wilcop halted work and huddled with art handlers Jim Nestor and Ramon Camacho to discuss options. They settled on custom-built PVC troughs to catch the watery pigment splashing down the wall. The marble was also covered with heavy-duty vinyl tape.
“It’s a conservation approach to a building issue,” Wilcop explains. “The solution that we came up with was really good because it allowed the artist to work in the same way that she’s used to working, but it also protected the building to accommodate that.”
These kinds of collaborations have compelled some to question whether the title “conservator” appropriately captures what they do.
In a 2011 article for the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, former Hirshhorn Museum chief conservator Gwynne Ryan says there’s an element of ethnography to their work. It’s the double-consciousness that conservators experience, Ryan says, in that they participate in the creation of art while also acting as detached witnesses.
Morales thinks that ethnography is a component of conservators’ work, but that misses the hard science—chemistry is an essential part of their formal training—that makes conservators “like being a doctor for the artwork.”
There also is the art of the job. That’s where Wilcop shines, Morales says, in the way she thinks expansively and creatively about how to preserve an object.
Wilcop’s view of conservation extends beyond her direct collaboration with artists and applying tools to artwork. It is also the Zoom meetings covering mundane details, interviews with media to inform the public, educational talks with schoolchildren that might spark an interest in conservation for the next generation.
It’s any act that in some way could extend the life of an object. All that is within the realm of her responsibilities.
“All of those become acts of preservation,” Wilcop says. “It’s just doing it in a different way.”
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