Those charged with conserving modern and contemporary art face a variety of practical and philosophical challenges. We asked three individuals whose professional work has required confronting these challenges to offer their thoughts on what constitutes the major issues in this area of conservation.
Jim Coddington is the Agnes Gund Chief Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, where he has been a conservator since 1987. During that time he has lectured and published on a number of topics, including the theory and practice of modern art conservation, digital imaging, and image processing in the conservation and structural restoration of paintings.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro holds a joint appointment as director of conservation at the Whitney Museum of American Art and founding director of the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at Harvard University Art Museums. She has written on Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Barnett Newman, and she continues to engage in research documenting the materials and techniques of living artists, as well as other issues related to the conservation of modern art.
Kirk Varnedoe is professor of art history in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. From 1988 to 2001, he was chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA. Prior to that, he taught at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts and at Columbia University. Recipient in 1984 of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, he has authored numerous books and catalogues on 19th- and 20th-century art.
They spoke with Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Jeffrey Levin: Is there a distinction that one can make in terms of the conservation of modern or contemporary art, as opposed to the conservation issues of older works of art—or is it pretty much the same set of issues?
Kirk Varnedoe: Isn't this a trick question? If you had the same set of problems with ephemeral materials, they would have resolved themselves centuries ago. The artists who built Stonehenge may have done performance pieces or worked in beeswax or other things that contemporary artists are doing—it's just that time has destroyed it all, so we don't know. The preservation of older works of art, de facto, has got to be different from dealing with contemporary works of art, simply because they've survived. It doesn't necessarily mean that the conservation questions posed, had we encountered them in 1500, would be radically different from those we encounter today.
Jim Coddington: All art, at some time, is contemporary art. It often pushes the boundaries of known material preservation. There is a natural filtering process that the second law of thermodynamics takes care of for us. Everything tends to chaos.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: I think, though, that conservation does step in here, in that some materials—like paint on canvas, for example, as opposed to paint on panel or on stone—presented issues of preservation that perhaps hadn't been addressed before. When painting on fabric became a widespread technique, then conservation rose to the occasion and figured out a way to preserve the innovation.
Jim Coddington: There's a second question here, and that is—Is there something fundamentally different about the way a conservator of modern art thinks about the work of art than a conservator working on an older piece thinks? I would say in general, no, in that we have general sets of standards and working guidelines.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: I agree, but I also think that when we restore a representational work of art, we can go about it in a more localized way, allowing the eye to join areas that might be missing or might be corrected. It's quite different if we're working with a monochromatic piece, where a more overall approach is required. From my perspective, treatments on monochromatic works that have failed have been ones that have been approached as if the painting were a representational work that could withstand a localized treatment.
Jim Coddington: But you can have large monochromatic passages in representational works that present the same optical problem.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: That's true, and we've seen those successfully and unsuccessfully done. But there's something about having a broad, expansive color that I think requires a different kind of approach.
Jeffrey Levin: Have artists in modern times lacked some of the knowledge of materials science that artists in earlier ages had? Your answers to the first question suggest that, with regard to knowledge of materials, there's always been a learning curve.
Kirk Varnedoe: My feeling is that in Renaissance Florence, you were intimately involved with the people making your paint if you weren't making it yourself. You'd have a pretty intimate knowledge of the nature of what you were working with, just because you weren't far from the site of production and because the level of specialization wasn't as extreme as it is now. In most cases, artists now are radically detached from the makers of the material that they work with. That's a big difference. Even in the 19th century, any sculptor who farmed out his work to a bronze foundry still understood quite well the process of bronze casting. I'm not sure that an artist today who sends his work out to be done in stainless steel or in titanium by some technician is going to be as closely involved.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: I think that's right. But I also think that although an artist may not be as informed about the constitution of the material, or the making of the material, that lack of information doesn't necessarily affect his or her relationship with the material and his or her use of it. The intimacy is still there.
Kirk Varnedoe: Yes. If you take an artist like Eva Hesse, for example, she found properties in materials that the people who made them didn't suspect were there. She had an intimate knowledge of what those materials would do that their makers might have regarded as inadvertent consequences of the properties of the material but which, for her, had a poetic value.
Jim Coddington: I think that there is a limit to how far we can go with this. If you take it to the extreme, it is that the contemporary artist is essentially ignorant of his or her materials—which is surely not the case. I am pleased that Richard Serra knows enough about his materials to keep those steel sculptures standing. It may be more of an engineering problem, but that is essentially what the artist asks of the material that he's chosen.
Kirk Varnedoe: But, Jim, that's a perfect case, because Richard has to go to people who are normally fabricating ship hulls or nuclear reactors. They think this material does one thing, and Richard says, "I think this material can do something else—it can bend in ways that no practical purpose requires, but my artistic purpose requires." He has one understanding of the potential of the material, they have another understanding of the limitations of the material, and it's a give-and-take between the two.
Jim Coddington: I would say that Serra brings to the materials enough knowledge of their properties so that his choices are informed choices and not random ones.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: I can't help but think of Jackson Pollock in this instance. Here's a person who used industrial paints for their quick-drying properties and flexibility. The material provided him with what he needed in order to paint the way he did; it enabled the process. He said, "The method of the painting is the natural outgrowth of the need." The intimacy of the artist with the material was definitely there.
Kirk Varnedoe: Well, Pollock initiated an entire school of contemporary art where the properties of the material became the determining factor in the look of the work. The fact that industrial paint fell the way it did, that it had that kind of gravitational property, that kind of viscosity, was everything to Pollock's compositions. And similarly, the pliability of certain kinds of resins gave Eva Hesse's work a feeling for a kind of bodily inflection on minimalist properties. The gooeyness, the resistance, the very nature of materials became the speaking voice. In the 1950s, with de Kooning and others, your signature was the gesture with which you pushed the materials around. But in the 1960s and 1970s, your signature became the material that you chose, because the expressive properties were exploited directly from the inherent properties of the material itself.
Jeffrey Levin: But when we talk about properties, don't we have to distinguish between the properties of the materials with respect to the effect that the artist wants to achieve, and the properties of the materials in terms of their long-term stability? Or is that something we don't need to be concerned about? If artists can achieve what they want to achieve, at least initially, with particular materials, then long-term stability be damned.
Kirk Varnedoe: Hesse is a perfect example because of the extreme fragility of some of her pieces now. Some of the resinous materials that she used lost their flexibility when they decomposed and began to get brittle. Then the works lost everything that Hesse loved about them. That's a real problem.
Jim Coddington: When this question was posed to her—that these materials might not last all that well—she said she was conflicted. She wasn't certain as to what her ultimate opinion was about the longevity of her work. And yet she finally opted to stick with these materials. Had she lived longer, her position might have evolved over time.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: We have to recognize, though, that all materials change over time, including traditional artists' materials. Certainly the case of Hesse is extreme in that the properties that she was going for are, in fact, gone. But that phenomenon is seen in different degrees with different artists, and we've always had that to contend with in conservation
Jeffrey Levin: Which leads us to the issue of the needs of conservation being inserted into the artist's creativity. Is that something we even want to talk about? Or do we just have artists do their work, and then, whatever the consequences are, conservators have to deal with them?
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: The artist should use the material that the artist needs to use, and the conservator needs to understand the how and why and try to preserve that intent.
Jim Coddington: Yes, my simple answer is that we should not get involved.
Kirk Varnedoe: I'd like to dissent. If I could've told Duane Hanson, when he started working with fiberglass, that he was going to get cancer if he didn't take certain precautions, it wouldn't have been to stop him from working with the material. It would be asking him to make certain choices and take certain precautions. If you saw an artist using the improper amount of fixative in his photographic mix, wouldn't you say, "Listen, these prints are going to fade in five weeks because your chemicals are wrong." And if you could've said to Hesse, "If you just add a certain rubber base into this fiberglass, it won't change the property you're using, but it will ensure its flexibility for 20 years longer," wouldn't you? I wouldn't hesitate to make that knowledge available to them.
Jim Coddington: I've fielded many a phone call from an artist saying, "I've made this painting, now I want to varnish it." And I ask, "Why?" And they say, "Because that will make it last longer." And I say, "Wait a minute. It might not." That's just a different version of the dialogue you're talking about, Kirktalking to them about what they want to achieve, and is there another way to get there that makes it last longer, if lasting long is something they're looking for.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: That's absolutely true. My favorite days at the Whitney, I have to admit, are going to artists' studios when they call and say, "I have a problem. Can you come take a look at this?" What I object to is putting forth a definitive list of materials that we think should be used.
Jeffrey Levin: What is the appropriate way of educating or informing artists as they do their work?
Kirk Varnedoe: My old mentor, Al Elsen, was in the forefront of getting the College Art Association (CAA) to take a strong stance on the toxic properties of materials. The companies weren't advertising the stuff, and the CAA became kind of like the FDA, going after these materials. Now there's nothing so extreme here, but it seems to me that the annual CAA meetings where artists get together, newsletters, and artist magazines are perfect venues for conservators to disseminate this kind of information that artists need to make informed choices.
Jim Coddington: In the case of CAA, this has been done. The American Institute for Conservation has done a couple of CAA sessions where artists can come. We've got conservators and scientists there—and about a dozen people typically show up. Also, there is a subgroup of the American Society for Testing and Materials that sets standards for paints and canvases, and they meet annually at CAA. Again, those are sparsely attended meetings. It's maybe callous to put it this way, but how do you get somebody interested enough to say, "My career is advanced by attending this meeting and knowing about these materials." I don't have the answer to that. Somehow or other, there needs to be a consciousness-raising that attending these meetings is important to your career.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: There's certainly a lot of research that's done within our field that pertains to this question, and I'm curious about how that can best be disseminated. Maybe it should be translated into a form that is understandable—such as a column, perhaps, in a journal like ARTnews or Artforum. This information in a monthly column could be very helpful to artists. Also, conservation is becoming more and more a part of the curriculum for art history students and artists. Perhaps it should be within the purview of conservators to put this information forth, rather than trying to go through art departments.
Jim Coddington: It's analogous to our efforts doing art historical research shoulder to shoulder with art historians. This ought to be done shoulder to shoulder with studio art teachers, not one in front of the other. By shifting our focus over the next couple decades, perhaps we can make progress on teaching studio art professors and students about the importance of this.
Kirk Varnedoe: If art schools that train young artists were responsible in this regard, there'd be a standard course of cautionary tales to raise people's consciousness—if you're interested in preserving your work, look at what happened to these guys.
Jim Coddington: Some of the paint manufacturers—people like Mark Golden and Bob Gamblin—work with the conservation field to do the best possible job in terms of longevity of the materials. Mark Golden's got chemists on his staff, and he works closely with artists trying to answer the particular questions they have in looking for certain working properties, keeping the longevity of those materials in mind.
Jeffrey Levin: If an artist intentionally makes the choice to use ephemeral materials—understanding that it's not going to last—is it appropriate to make any attempt to preserve it over a longer period of time?
Jim Coddington: I would first want to be absolutely sure what we mean by "intentional" and "ephemeral."
Kirk Varnedoe: Well, let me take one example, Jim. Picasso and Braque chose to use newsprint, right? We're very concerned to preserve those works of art that have the newsprint in them, even acknowledging that the newsprint doesn't look the way it looked when they originally made it. We still want those things with the newsprint in them, and we'll do a lot to make sure that they stay around. You'd have to say that newsprint is an ephemeral material. On the scale of things, it's not the same as using spit, for example, which is not going to last nearly as long. But there're a thousand shades of gray in this question.
Jim Coddington: Yes, and that's why you would want to be sure that the artist was aware of whatever degree of ephemerality it had and that it was chosen intentionally. Let me choose another example that points out how many shades of gray there are. It's been reported that van Gogh said that if some of his colors faded or changed over time, you could just scrape away some of the impasto and you'd have the original color back. That was his solution to the ephemeral in his art. But I'm sure no one is prepared to take him up on this.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: It's important to understand from the artist what's most crucial to preserve. If the color of the newsprint clearly wasn't the most important thing in these works, then it makes sense that we accept that change. Most artists accept change. But—getting back to Hesse again—if it affects the actual facture that was the work, then it's a different question. It's very important to try to understand from the artists, while they're alive, what their feeling is about this. Sonja Alhäuser had a piece at Harvard made out of chocolate and popcorn that was only intended to last three months. That was her intent. She made it very clear that the work ends when the material—in this case, the chocolate—loses its nature. She said she left nothing for the conservator to do.
Jim Coddington: One of the things that was first noted and valued about those Picassos and Braques was that these guys were using these ephemeral elements and it was sort of shocking. We no longer find this shocking at all. And yet, as Kirk has pointed out, we value them for the way they look now. We've assigned a historical value to them, or an aesthetic value to them, and that's why we don't intervene to remove them or fix them.
Kirk Varnedoe: And part of the aesthetic value that we assign to those things has something to do with the fact that they have aged. There's something special for me about the history of art in the primary object. Take, for example, the Joe Kosuth chair that we have at MoMA—the chair and the photostat on the wall. I get something out of seeing that chair and that dim photostat that was made 25 years ago that I don't get out of seeing remade things. There's something authentic or compelling about the passage of history across these things.
Jeffrey Levin: You're talking about the history in the art, as well as the history of the art.
Jim Coddington: This is why this whole bundle of questions is a moving target. There are so many different meanings within a work of art—even the materiality of a work of art—and we emphasize different ones at different times. One of the interesting things about the symposium that took place at the Hesse exhibition was that some of the scholars argued that the changes that had occurred in these works of art—and some works had discolored dramatically—essentially have become the art itself. The way they look now and have looked over the last decade or so has influenced a generation of scholars and artists and therefore become the work of art—and to even restore it would be, somehow, inappropriate. And this thinking leads you—
Kirk Varnedoe: Down that path where you get the grimy Sistine Chapel ceiling, doesn't it?
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: Yes.
Jim Coddington: You get a paralysis that I don't think does the artist a service. And so what we're doing is continually slicing all of these issues finer with each particular example.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: I think about artists like Degas, who was very clear that time was a player in his work. Time would change the work, and that was understood. He might not have liked it, but that was part of it. But that's not what Sonja Alhäuser is saying. What I'm saying is that artists differ, and we need to understand that. And while we may be comfortable with seeing the fat and lard in Joseph Beuys's works look older and darker, that may not have been his intent at all.
Kirk Varnedoe: But it's never anybody's intent to die either. The fact is that change and mortality get a hold of everything and everybody. One of the most moving things that we observe in life is the struggle against that—and yet the fact of it. That someone should intend to escape from it is an important part of human nature. But the inability to do it is also an important part of being human. You know, Rauschenberg painted a set of white paintings—and he repainted them again. Should we just keep repainting them? Suppose I'm in a museum and I think they're getting a little tatty so I just throw them in the barn. I know they're the ones that his assistant did while he was alive, but that doesn't make any difference, he's dead, the assistant's dead. I'm just going to get my assistant to whip up a new set of white canvases and put them on the wall.
I'm not happy with this.
Jim Coddington: To play devil's advocate here, why not? What is it about those re-creations that you don't like—that Rauschenberg didn't see them to say that they are good? Or is there something in the touch that you would find inauthentic, even though the touch may be three times removed now?
Kirk Varnedoe: Somehow when I see them age, I know that that gesture—that act of will—was made at a certain moment in history by a certain human being.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: But it may not reflect what was done at that time.
Kirk Varnedoe: In what sense?
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: Now it's not white. It's beige and has yellow spots here and there.
Kirk Varnedoe: The question is—to what degree do you want to restore it? It is not a black-and-white question.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: Right. It is never a black-and-white decision. If Rauschenberg's white panels have turned a little beige or tan, that's okay. But if there's a big spot on them, we have to deal with that. We're constantly making judgments about keeping a certain amount of aging, but we can't allow it to get to a point where it's no longer related to what it might have been originally.
Jim Coddington: There is a very practical question here. Let's say Kirk is really dissatisfied with these particular Rauschenbergs. Is someone going to say, okay, these works will never again see the light of day—either restored or as re-creations? In some retrospective, somebody's going to bring them out—and, who knows, they could be foxed all over the place and look bad. And somebody will construct a rationale as to why that is a valued look.
Kirk Varnedoe: Suppose you had an eccentric sculptor who had produced a work that had inherent vice, and over the years, the work collapsed. The sculptor no longer wanted it shown in the collapsed form, but wanted to remake it into a form that he found acceptable. Now here's your dilemma. You can't restore it to the way it used to look, and the artist desires to remake the work himself. It's his work, and he's never going to allow it to be shown in its current state. Your only hope is that he'll take it and remake it into a work that he will allow to be shown. What is your recommendation to the curator as conservator in that case?
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: Assuming there's a fair amount of time that's passed here for the work to have collapsed, you stand the risk of getting a completely different work from this artist, even if he's trying to rework it. I think you're commissioning a new piece.
Kirk Varnedoe: Fifty years down the road, would people who are interested in this artist rather have the collapsed wreck of the thing that would tell them something—or would they rather have it redigested into a new, late work?
Jim Coddington: The standard conservator's response to any question is, "Well, it depends." And it really does. Even in the case of collapsed sculpture, there may be, even in that collapse, some statement of what the original was about.
Jeffrey Levin: You all seem to be saying that it's difficult to draw any hard-and-fast rules. You have to look at each piece individually and evaluate what you think you know about the artist's intent. But what we haven't addressed is that the artist's intent at the age of 27 may be different from his or her feelings about it later, at the age of 53 or 72.
Kirk Varnedoe: You said a mouthful. That's absolutely true.
Jim Coddington: Right. That's why I said that if Eva Hesse had not died young, perhaps her opinions on her work, which inform the decisions we make, may have changed. But it's the best information we have to go on, and it's darn good information.
Carol, not that long ago a great deal of effort was expended by you and others to get people to accept some level of change in contemporary art. In a sense, it was no different from old masters, where change was accepted. But now we're seeing a complete acceptance of change, and even identifying the work with all of that changethus preventing, maybe, a conservator from stepping in. Are you noticing that?
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: To a degree. I think what you're asking is if we are accepting too much change.
Jim Coddington: Yes—and even beyond conservators, hearing art historians, curators, and scholars saying, "Oh, yes, well, that's just a function of change. Don't worry about it."
Kirk Varnedoe: What Jim is describing is true, and let me give an example from another field. When I went to the Maya ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, many of the things that we looked at had been rebuilt from rubble. But the thinking now is that if an arch that had been standing ever since you'd been there—you have photographs of it—falls down tomorrow, you don't put it back up. Even if you know exactly how it would go back up. That's the moral injunction of this "hands-off, change-happens" ethos. That's exactly how it was explained to me.
Jim Coddington: But I think that gives a certain amount of credit to the person who goes there to use their imagination and to envision it. And having gotten a photograph, they could then say, "Gee, it would occupy space in this way."
Kirk Varnedoe: There's a big difference between walking over a pile of rubble and walking under an arch.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: I think that leaving a pile of rubble goes counter to our whole profession. We're here to preserve, in some measure, what we have.
Jim Coddington: Yes, but what about reconstruct? There's a difference between preserve and reconstruct.
Kirk Varnedoe: Ah, there is a line that I'd hate to parse.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: All right, reconstruct with the same materials and you have photographs and you know how it was. Yes, I would consider that a restoration.
Jeffrey Levin: And that would be okay?
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: For me, it would.
Kirk Varnedoe: A restoration as opposed to a reconstruction?
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: Yes.
Jim Coddington: The history of architectural restoration is rife with lots of potent and opposed points of view. One guy just flat-out reconstructs a cathedral, and the other guy says, "You can't possibly reconstruct these things. You don't have the mind-set of somebody from the medieval era to be able to reconstruct that." Viollet-le-Duc reflects the first approach, and William Morris the second. Morris, and others, aestheticized ruins in order to provide a further basis for letting them stay as is.
Kirk Varnedoe: Yes, and I think I was approaching something perilously close to that when I talked about the idea of not liking remade things, but liking the dings and scratched-up things because they told a tale of history that had gone along with it.
Jim Coddington: And that is a legitimate value to assign to it.
Kirk Varnedoe: The trouble is that when you mention the word original, I hear the cash register ring. Sometimes the decisions are made by people who have huge financial investments in the acceptance of a work as being the work of that artist, despite the amount of reconstruction or restoration that's gone into it. The pressures on all of these decisions by our society's valuation of authenticity is the ghost that's been flitting around this conversation.
Jim Coddington: You know, after lots of works in an artist's oeuvre have been restored to varying degrees, let's say you come up with one in pristine condition, truly untouched. It's going to look like the oddball—the one that doesn't look authentic.
Kirk Varnedoe: If we found an original piece of Greek sculpture with its polychromy still on it—boy, would it look weird.
Jim Coddington: Exactly. And this leads me to documentation, which is one of the great needs in the field. Documenting the intention, to whatever extent we can. Documenting the materials. Technology gives us the ability to do a much better job of documenting colors and the three-dimensionality of things. In trying to resolve some of the debates that we are having now—"How far do you restore it to?"—we can at least give some tools to future generations by addressing these issues specifically.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: I absolutely agree. The best we can do is to make sure that our documentation is as precise as possible to give some notion of how the work of art appeared, at least in our time.
Kirk Varnedoe: Technology does allow us to be more exact about any number of things that formerly escaped the net of reference. Being able to describe the surface of a painting in terms of its depth and relief—which you can now do with scanning—is a very useful thing to pass on to someone in the future so that they can measure change. Exactitude is within our grasp, making it possible for the future to make better-informed choices than we're able to make.
Jim Coddington: Part of this is the kind of conversation where you talk about why you made a decision. We routinely include that sort of information in our conservation treatment reports now. Why we didn't do something may be just as important as why we did do something.
Kirk Varnedoe: We're much more conscious of our fallibility. The imperative now is to make reversible decisions, so that in 20 years, if someone thinks that you shouldn't have overpainted an area, they can get that overpaint off. That's a kind of prudent humility that we've adopted, which I find altogether appropriate and generous to our successors.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: Reversibility is very important, especially for those of us working with unknown or industrial materials. I recently had access to a conservator's records of many years ago, and I was astounded at the value of his handwritten notes and notes on conversations that he'd had with the artist. It pleases me that in our treatment reports, there is now more about judgment—"I'm thinking of doing this" or "I chose to do this because . . ." That's very important information for the future.
Kirk Varnedoe: We all know of cases where restorers thought of themselves as alchemists in the old guild sense, and no one was allowed to know what technique was used. Those days are past, thank God. It's become a much more ethical business. We have a keenly developed historical sense, in terms of an awareness of past mistakes, a sense of our fallibility, and a need to provide the maximum amount of information and flexibility to those who'll follow us.
Jeffrey Levin: And that represents a historic shift?
Kirk Varnedoe: It seems to me that it's a new consciousness that's evolved within my lifetime.
Jim Coddington: Yes—and it is probably a result of a series of historical phenomena, not the least of which is the rise of museums.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: And also organizations of conservators sharing ideas and recognizing, as a profession, that sense of fallibility.
Jim Coddington: Yes. However, a recognition of fallibility should not be used as a reason never to intervene. It just means that one needs to intervene with a kind of self-consciousness, rather than a sureness of one's infallibility—or maybe with a sureness of fallibility.