Conserving contemporary art: immortality starts here
Goats, guns and roofing sheets: how to look after art’s unusual materials
By Emily Sharpe. From Frieze New York daily edition
Published online: 09 May 2013
The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) turned down the opportunity to acquire a seminal work by Robert Rauschenberg because of fears the piece would be too difficult to conserve. The sculpture in question, Monogram, 1955-59, consists of a stuffed Angora goat encircled by a rubber tyre. The late collector and taxi baron Robert Scull volunteered to buy Monogram for MoMA in the early 1960s but museum director Alfred Barr declined the offer because he was worried the goat might contain vermin and disintegrate. Despite having been made only a few years earlier, the goat had already been restored following a stint in a Swiss museum where the institution’s director sat on the animal to have his picture taken.
The story—first recounted by Calvin Tomkins in the New Yorker—illustrates the challenges faced by museums seeking to ensure the long-term survival of art in their care. While MoMA’s loss was ultimately the gain of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm which purchased Monogram in 1965, Barr’s concerns are as relevant today as they were nearly five decades ago.
Although the science of conservation has moved on since the 1960s, institutions seeking to acquire works made from non-traditional materials still face considerable challenges. Artists working today have more materials available to them than at any other point in history. Plastics, taxidermy, c-prints, digital technology, neon, textiles, automotive steel, paper, deactivated assault rifles, trees—almost anything can and is used to make art these days.
Adding to the difficulties of conserving such work is the challenge that much of the information on how to treat unconventional materials can only be found in specialist journals. Conserving Contemporary Art: Issues, Methods, Materials and Research, by Oscar Chiantore and Antonio Rava, gathers much of this information into one, easy to navigate source. It is an English translation of the original book, which was published in Italian in 2005.
The authors provide a thorough overview of the glut of materials available to artists from the early avant-garde to the present day. In their desire to reflect a rapidly changing world, artists have increasingly incorporated a range of media into their practice despite the fact that most of these materials were not created with them in mind. “It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atomic bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique,” said Jackson Pollock in 1950.
The impact of fast-drying acrylic paints on contemporary artistic practice cannot be overstated. Water-based acrylic paints, developed in the 1950s, became a favourite tool for Hockney, Warhol, Oldenburg and Rosenquist, among others. They signalled the end of artists having to juggle multiple paintings at the same time while waiting for one to dry. How these modern paints age, however, is a question that conservators are scrambling to figure out with institutions such as the Getty and the Tate leading research initiatives on the subject.
The worldwide diffusion of plastic material—Plexiglas, polychrome resins, fibreglass, polystyrene, PVC—following the Second World War led many artists to embrace the new medium. The Constructivists were some of the first to experiment with synthetic polymers, sometimes with disastrous results. Many of Russian artist Naum Gabo’s early experiments with cellulosic plastic do not survive.
Many other artists continue to use plastic in their work, a material to which the authors devote more than 20 pages. It presents one of the greatest challenges to conservators due to the sheer number of varieties, each of which requires different methods of treatment. Contrary to popular belief, plastic does not last forever.
Sixteen artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko and Anselm Kiefer, have chapters devoted to them which explore specific issues associated with their work. The source of artists’ materials is important and we discover here that much of the lead in Kiefer’s works comes from roofing sheets removed from old buildings while Tinguely sourced materials for his early sculptural machines from garbage dumps.
The Getty chose to translate the text “fairly literally, with no updates or revisions”. And while there have been scientific advances since the book was first published, the history of approaches to conservation as well as the ethical dilemmas faced by conservators, who in some cases have to balance their duty to preserve a work with the desire of the artist, have not changed. The text’s consideration of the field’s most pressing concerns, its overview of the materials and practices of some of the leading artists of our time, and its extensive bibliography and list of industry websites make it a valuable starting point for anyone concerned with the preservation of contemporary art.
Conserving Contemporary Art: Issues, Methods, Materials and Research, Oscar Chiantore and Antonio Rava, Getty Publications, 332pp, pb, $49.95
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