As part of its Modern and Contemporary Art Research initiative, the GCI held a focus meeting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this past June to discuss the issues and challenges posed by the conservation of twentieth-century outdoor painted sculpture. The meeting, funded by the GCI Council, was attended by thirty invited participants, including conservators (from private and institutional sectors), sculpture fabricators, and paint experts, as well as several artists' estates, foundations, and studios. Artists represented included Mark Di Suvero, Sol LeWitt, Alexander Liberman, Roy Lichtenstein, Louise Nevelson, and Tony Smith, with the Dubuffet Foundation and Oldenburg–van Bruggen studio also involved in the discussions.
Outdoor painted sculpture presents some unique conservation challenges because of the extreme difficulty of keeping paint layers intact amid the harsh environments to which they are usually exposed. Intense light with its UV radiation, adverse weather conditions, and vandalism or accidental damage all quickly affect a paint surface. Current conservation practice for these works tends to favor the preservation of the original aesthetic qualities of the sculpture while providing optimal protection to the substrate. Consequently, typical treatments usually involve full repainting of the sculpture, often accompanied by removal of all earlier coats of paint. Although this approach optimizes the longevity of the latest paint applied, the downside is a possible loss of significant information on the original paint systems used.
The primary aim of this meeting was to identify potential responses to the many conservation issues presented by outdoor painted sculpture, with focus on two main areas: (1) the need to develop better relationships with the paint industry in order to develop more robust paint products and to ensure that appropriate application techniques are used, and (2) to work more closely with artists' estates, foundations, and studios to establish agreed-upon paint finishes that can be used as reference swatches for future treatments.
The outcomes of the meeting will form the basis of the GCI's future work in this area, and a full report of the meeting's discussions will be available on the GCI website this fall.