It’s time to compromise over Haring’s mural
Let the conservators do their job and turn down the volume. And to the conservators: back off a little
By Will Shank. Comment, Issue 232, February 2012
Published online: 08 February 2012
The apparently unresolvable conflict described in a recent Art Newspaper article, “This mural should be a living work: Campaign grows to repaint the last large-scale Keith Haring in Australia”, has inspired me to contribute a few words from a conservator’s perspective.
It is the job of artists to make art. It is the job of conservators to preserve it. Confusion about this seemingly straightforward matter frequently arises when the artist is alive and well and interested in participating in the conservation process.
Conservators of contemporary art are often faced with challenging situations because of this confusion of roles. In my own experience as a conservator, I have worked with artists, famous and otherwise, to decide how much change is acceptable in ageing works which have long since left their studios. The voice of the artist is important, but it is by no means the only one of value among the group of stakeholders who together make decisions about the future appearance or configuration of the work.
As I have helped to get Rescue Public Murals up and running in the past decade, we have done our best to apply the principles governing the conservation of movable artworks to the special case of outdoor contemporary murals. Each case is different and no assumptions can be made. Even within the range of outdoor paintings created during the short career of 1980s superstar Keith Haring, there is a wide variation in the materials he used. Depending on the circumstances of the creation of each of his several dozen murals, he used whatever paints were most convenient and painted on whatever wall was identified as appropriate and available, regardless of how that wall might have been prepared for painting. The results, more than 20 years later (Haring died in 1990), are widely varied.
The 1984 mural in Melbourne does not look good. Everyone with a stake in this matter agrees on that, and they all share a desire to make sure that it survives into the future. “Save the mural!” scream the re-painting proponents, a cry that infers conservators would do the opposite. “Preserve the mural!” states the website of both the Victorian Heritage Register and the official site of the state government of Victoria, implying that those who would repaint it would not preserve it.
Physically, the Collingwood mural simply cannot be repainted. Instability in the existing paint layers make the addition of more paint a potential disaster, and more paint would have to be applied every few years to a flaking surface. It is not a well-considered solution to the problem. The re-creation of the design by a sign painter, on a properly prepared wall, elsewhere, is certainly a viable option.
Meanwhile, the historic register status of the original mural, which was conferred upon it by Victoria Heritage in 2004, has ironically kept conservators from being able to test the mural and propose exactly what they intend to do.
Enormous strides have been made in recent years toward an increased understanding of acrylic paint films as they age. This is not just hyperbole. Part of an international team of conservators and scientists, myself among them, has almost completed the conservation of Haring’s last great outdoor mural, Tuttomondo, 1989, in Pisa. When we first climbed the scaffolding last year, we had only vague hopes of being able to revive the colours of the then 22-year-old painting, which were severely compromised after decades of exposure. All previous reports, mine among them, had suggested “fading”, but in fact the colours were by-and-large intact beneath a layer of accumulated grime, a dissolving ground layer and powdered pigments falling from Haring’s black outlines. “Chalking”, also a common problem with acrylic paints, has recently come to be understood as the surfactant element of the acrylic emulsion coming to the surface as a whitish powder. Both of these phenomena can create the illusion of fading, but in many cases the colours are revivable. In Pisa, the results were rather stunning. While this will not necessarily be the case in Melbourne, the conservators should be given the chance to explore every possibility of saving, and improving upon the current state of, the original paint—or at the very least of keeping it intact until conservation technology catches up with its problems.
So I say to the arts community: let the conservators do their job and turn down the volume. And to the conservators: back off a little. Embrace and foster the notion of a faithful copy elsewhere by the hand of others, and offer to help with the technical challenges of the re-painting camp to create a facsimile of the original that the community will value.
Value is a key word in this debate. It is difficult to assign monetary value to a mural but there are other legitimate issues of value at stake in the Melbourne case. The conservators value the original brushstrokes, so respect their opinion on how to preserve them. That is their job. They know how to do it. The community values the image and wants it looking fresh and new. Respect that opinion, it is completely valid.
I am certainly not the first voice in this debate to suggest such a compromise. Time is indeed of the essence, since the mural has not been maintained in recent years in spite of the recommendations of conservators. Paint a new one on a properly prepared concrete wall nearby and in the meantime see what can be revived of Haring’s own work.
The artist’s own attitude towards preservation or repainting is ambiguous. He was too busy making art as he battled Aids to make a definitive statement on his legacy. Both sides, in any case, quote him in order to validate their points of view. One clear Haring quotation does seem relevant. He called the Melbourne mural “permanent”. In Pisa, Haring said that he wanted Tuttomondo to last for “hundreds of years”. We have done our best to give it a longer life.
We should all view ourselves as the temporary custodians of permanent works of art. History, looking back on the actions of the conflicting parties in Melbourne in 2012, will harshly judge those who would decide to erase the original.
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