By Mildred Constantine
All that remains of an event in general
history is the account of it in document or
tradition; but in art, the work of art itself is the
The art of the 20th century changed the way we look at the world—just as the art itself was affected by all the circumstances and disparities of our time. The second half of this century saw the breakdown of categories in every aspect of art, altering our concept of what art is. While art in traditional media is still being created, we now see art of mixed-media components, art of assemblage, art that is ephemeral—even disposable and repeatable. Art is no longer a single object but is complex, multiple, divisible, and separable.
Will this art survive? Can the intentions of the artists that created this work be preserved over time? Once art leaves the hands of its creator, it enters the art community. It is exhibited, bought, and collected, and it becomes the responsibility of those persons and institutions in whose care it has been placed. What are the possibilities, limits, and importance of preserving art composed of ephemeral materials? Is contemporary art only for the present? If not, who has the responsibility for its future?
For three days in March 1998, at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, over 350 people listened as 34 speakers grappled with these and other questions in a conference entitled "Mortality Immortality? The Legacy of 20th-Century Art." Like a painting by the 16th-century Italian Giuseppe Arcimboldo—whose subjects were human heads composed of fruit, flora, and fauna meshed into the unity of a face—the conference merged a diversity of disciplines and opinions to create a dynamic picture of the preservation challenge of so much of 20th-century art. Philosophical, ethical, art-historical, and technological issues were discussed by artists and conservators, museum directors and curators, art historians and educators, philosophers, collectors, dealers, scientists, and lawyers.
Organized by the Getty Conservation Institute, the gathering grew out of discussions I had over the years with the director of the Institute, Miguel Angel Corzo, who had questions similar to mine. As he put it, "How will our time be remembered? What evidence will be left of the 20th century's creative spirit for future generations to ponder? These issues are as important to conservation as more traditional areas of inquiry."
While other conferences on the conservation of 20th-century art had been held, there had not yet been a comprehensive conference that included the full range of disciplines and views that the subject demanded. With the century drawing to a close, this seemed to be the moment to assess what our cultural legacy would be and how the fugitive materials that compose so much of contemporary art would survive—or even if they should survive.
I first heard the term fugitive materials some 50 years ago at the Library of Congress, when I worked at the Archives of Hispanic Culture. The term referred to materials that did not fit into traditional archival categories: photos, posters, prints, books, catalogues, letters, manuscripts, and published articles. These errant items, mostly pieces of paper, included handwritten doodles and jottings—odd assortments of words, images, and scribbles combined. Many years later, as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, I recognized and cherished these transient items. Meant perhaps to be discarded, they nevertheless became the fugitive collections in the holdings of the museum, with meaning to be found in their tales.
Today we speak of fugitive art. Unlike the industrial object, fugitive art is not created for planned obsolescence (although some art has such an aim) but is fugitive because of its use of nontraditional materials and techniques. In the five decades that separate Ralph Mayer's classic The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques from "Saving the 20th Century: The Conservation of Modern Materials," a 1991 symposium sponsored by the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI), the use of nontraditional materials in art has exploded.
Many of these materials come from the modern industrial world, not the traditional world of the artist. Materials such as rubber, plastic, plywood, polyurethane, and modern metals (aluminum and steel) are often used in unpredictable combinations. As David Grattan of the CCI has noted, "Polymers in the form of plastics, rubbers, or textiles cause major headaches for museums. Their instability and unpredictability make the work of conservation, display, and storage a difficult challenge."
Artists often use ruined and unusable detritus of our industrial and technological society, incorporating such material into works of art. As a result, the traditional division of art according to materials and techniques is no longer valid.
My work as an art historian and a curator has given me experience with the problems of caring for works of art composed of ephemeral materials and produced in new and different ways. It seemed to me that the pursuit of solutions to these problems had to be based on a philosophy of inclusionism—in other words, an understanding of the multiple issues facing the wide range of practices and disciplines involved with art. The preservation of 20th-century art was not simply a matter for curators and conservators. There were technical and philosophical concerns that had to be faced. Museum directors, art dealers, private collectors, artists, scientists, and others were all part of the picture.
With the encouragement of the staff at the Getty, I explored these ideas over a period of three years in more than 60 interviews conducted in the United States, Europe, Mexico, and Brazil. The individuals interviewed were not selected randomly. Their thoughts, which I shared with Getty staff, convinced me of the need for a multidisciplinary approach to the preservation of 20th-century art—and of the formidable challenge the subject represented.
"You are opening a can of worms," wrote James Demetrion, director of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., after I interviewed him and three members of his curatorial and conservation staff. The museum collects mixed media and video, as well as traditional works, and it was revealing to listen to all four staff members critique the answers the others gave to some of my questions. They agreed that ideally no conservation on a work by a living artist should be done without consultation with the artist. However, they noted that when a plastic funnel broke off a work by Robert Rauschenberg, an exact duplicate was simply purchased at a hardware store and installed in the correct place.
The incorporation of nontraditional materials into works of art is a concern for many charged with responsibility for a collection. Christa Thurman, curator and conservator of the department of textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago, discussed with me the curator's need to know every fiber substance used in the composition of each work in order for it to be accepted into the collection. As a curator, she was inhibited in making acquisitions if substances could not be identified—or if the identified substances did not, after investigation, yield sufficient information for the curator-conservator to be able to confirm its properties. Even so, there are works in the Institute's collection that lack this information.
The use of mixed media proliferates in contemporary art—and photography is often an element. Peter Galassi, chief curator in the department of photography at MOMA, devoted an entire exhibition—entitled "More Than One Photography"—to the ubiquitous use of photography in the work of artists in other media. "Given the sprawling variety of photography's guises in contemporary art," he noted, "it should be no surprise that photographic works have been collected by all of the museum's six curatorial departments." An example of the innovative use of photography can be found in the work of Glen Kaufman, a professor of art at the University of Georgia, whose recent work includes images of architecture in gold and silver leaf which float behind grids on silk panels woven by the artist.
Jean-Yves Mock, the retired curator of the Georges Pompidou Art and Cultural Center in Paris, expressed to me his view that the so-called fragility of contemporary art found in mixed media should not be feared because there are so many avenues of research and cooperation with science and industry. He felt strongly that we should accept the aging of materials and approach conservation problems from a practical standpoint. He also stressed that the burden of responsibility for the preservation of contemporary works of art lies more with living artists than with the institutions that house their work.
Of course, some artists clearly intend that some of their art vanish and then be reconstructed. A piece by the late Félix González-Torres in the collection of MOMA consists of a pile of candy. Robert Storr, curator in the painting and sculpture department, explained that the work "is of a semidisposable nature inasmuch as the audience is encouraged to take the pieces of candy that compose this floor sculpture. As a result, during the course of the exhibition, the piece disappears in stages and then entirely and eventually must be reconstituted with new candies."
Sol Lewitt, a central artist in contemporary art, has produced drawings and paintings on walls in museums which he accepts may eventually be painted over, moved, or repainted by the owner (the actual painting is done by a crew consisting mostly of artists who also do the repairs and restorations). The idea for these works came to him in the 1960s, when he didn't want to produce objects—that is, framed canvas paintings that were commodities. He did not consider the colored wall to be an object and therefore it was less salable, even noncommercial. Like many installations, the work is both disposable and repeatable. Although he acknowledges that when the work is reconstructed, there might be slight variation, he makes an analogy to a musical composition, which can be interpreted by many different performers.
Artists may actually intend that their work be temporary and non-repeatable. In 1997 Andy Goldsworthy was commissioned by the Getty Research Institute to produce a temporary, site-specific installation for their reading room. He chose to create a clay artwork consisting of material found on the Getty Center site, a piece he expected to change in appearance following its installation. "I wanted cracks that were not an aesthetic decoration on the piece, but real cracks," he told me. In the end, he was surprised at the amount of cracking, but pleased by it as well. "It's a feeling that you've released something that you're not really in control of, and you don't know where it's going to end. That happens to me all the time in my ephemeral work."
These conversations—and many others—confirmed the virtue of convening a multidisciplinary gathering to address the provocative questions of preservation. The nonuniformity of voices needed exposure to clarify the immensity of philosophical, ethical, and technological challenges that confront us in preserving 20th-century art.
Journey Into History
The purpose of the March 1998 conference at the Getty Center was not to answer questions but to explore them. The first question was whether contemporary art was only for contemporary times. There seemed to be an overall concurrence with the sentiments expressed by Roy Perry, head of conservation at the Tate Gallery in London: "If we do not preserve the art of today for tomorrow's audience, their knowledge and experience of our culture will be, sadly, impoverished."
Artist Judy Chicago declared that values are passed on through "value-laden icons" and that these things need to be preserved. "If we are really going to have a diverse society, a global society, our museums have an obligation to begin to both acquire and preserve a diverse view of the human experience through those objects."
Still, there was the general recognition that not everything could be preserved. How then can we determine what is most important to leave to the future? Arthur Danto, professor of philosophy at Columbia University, observed that it is impossible to know what the future's perspective on the present will be. "We cannot bring into self-consciousness the truths about the present that only the future will know. The question of what we ought to conserve—if we mean to preempt the consciousness of the future—is therefore inherently unanswerable." The best one can do, he said, is to preserve what is meaningful to us now. "That makes conservation a highly political matter—political in the sense that people who are advocates for preserving this have to encounter people who are advocates for preserving that, and it has to be negotiated."
The issue of the political nature of preservation led to several exchanges between speakers as to the reasons a work of art survives. Artist David Hockney maintained that "love" was the reason things are preserved. "It is love," he said, "that makes us pick the things that will last—that's all. It might start with an individual. It might start with a group of people. But without love, the object wouldn't be there. Love will decide what is kept, and science will decide how it is kept."
The conference examined a number of other topics, including the challenge of preserving art created with nontraditional materials and assembled in nontraditional ways. One area of contemporary art that received a good deal of attention was work that uses electronic media. In this new area, John Hanhardt, senior curator of film and media arts at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, urged that collecting institutions work closely with the artists that created the work. "It is essential that the museum play a leadership role in recognizing film and the media arts as art forms and ensuring the conservation and preservation of these media."
The conference also looked at the art "ecosystem"—the different hands a work of art may pass through once it leaves the studio of the artist and moves on to dealer and collector, curator and conservator. The creation of a work of art is only the start of its life. As Laurel Reuter, director of the North Dakota Museum of Art, related, "working in North Dakota, I have come to accept that almost always the art that I show is at the beginning of its journey into history."
The last session of the conference focused on the issue of responsibility. Who, in the end, will decide what will be preserved and how? This was not a question that the conference speakers—or those gathered to hear them—could answer definitively or with unanimity. The desire, instead, was that this be the beginning of an ongoing conversation within a broad community. With the publication of the conference papers by the GCI at the end of this year, it is hoped that the conversation will grow to include many more participants in the effort to preserve the legacy of 20th-century art.
Mildred Constantine inspired and helped organize "Mortality Immortality?." She is an art historian and curator with a special interest in contemporary art. She has curated more than 30 exhibitions and is the author and coauthor of several books, including Beyond Craft: The Art Fabric, and Tina Modotti: A Fragile Life. Her most recent book, Whole Cloth, was published in 1998.
Some Voices From the Conference "Mortality Immortality?"
"Nothing is sacred, little is safe, and the best way to preserve valuable objects is to bury them underground, the way the pharaohs did, never to see the light again."
- Helen Escobedo, Artist
"It is . . . never the material alone that we want to preserve, but the intrinsic, symbolic quality of the work of art more or less engrained or bestowed on the material."
- Jurgen Harten, Director, Kunsthalle
"Over 30 years of collecting, my willingness to lend has changed both in being more generous and more reluctant when it comes to conservation considerations."
- Agnes Gund, Collector
"Works of art, like human beings, are fated to live dangerously to fulfill themselves. . . . In the end, there is no alternative to our acceptance of mortalityfor individuals, generations, and the objects that represent them."
- Thomas M. Messer, Director Emeritus, Solomon
R. Guggenheim Foundation
"Not all contemporary art will survive, nor is intended to."
- Debra Hess Norris, Director, University of
Delaware/Winterthur Art Conservation Program
"Permanence/impermanence . . . nothing could better describe the paradox of a human being, the nature of our institutions—social, political, and religious—and crystallize the very essence of the human condition."
- Bill Viola, Artist
"If between a quarter and a fifth of the photographic art that's been made over the last 20 years is still around 800 years from now, there will be something grievously wrong with human culture."
- Peter Galassi, Chief Curator, Department of
Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York
"The law fails where the nature of a given work is its change, and/or where the artist objects to the work being preserved in its original form."
- Thomas Dreier, Max Planck Institute for
Foreign and International Patent, Copyright, and
Competition Law, Munich
"I think it's okay to make the piece oddly, strangely, or use some nontraditional material, but I think that if there is a bond between artist, collector, museum, and that whole succession of work, then the artist has to do everything possible to arm the next recipient of the work with the ability to maintain the work."
- Cliff Einstein, Collector
"[French philosopher and historian] Etienne Gilson summed it up quite well when he wrote, 'There are two ways for a painting to perish. One is for it to be restored; the other is for it not to be restored.' "
- James Coddington, Chief Conservator, Museum
of Modern Art, New York
"All life is an argument over matters of taste, as Nietzsche wrote, but then he was mad, wasn't he?"
- R. B. Kitaj, Artist
Arthur C. Danto
John G. Hanhardt
Ysbrand C. M. Hummelen
R. B. Kitaj
Thomas M. Messer
Debra Hess Norris
Francis V. O'Connor
Roy A. Perry
Thomas F. Reese
David A. Scott
Joyce Jane Scott