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Modern Paints Research: Robert Ryman
artist Robert Ryman in his New York studio

The Modern Paints project, a central component of the GCI's Modern and Contemporary Art Research initiative, addresses questions regarding the character of modern paint materials through the development of analytical techniques for identifying modern paint media and the evaluation of cleaning methods and techniques for modern paintings. In conjunction with this research, the Modern Paints project is undertaking case studies of materials used by a number of important twentieth-century painters and researching the implications of these findings for the long-term preservation of the artists' works.

One study currently under way focuses on American abstract painter Robert Ryman (b. 1930) and is being conducted in collaboration with the Dia Art Foundation and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, both of New York.

artist Robert Ryman in his studio

Throughout his career, Ryman has been fascinated with materials and their individual behavior, and his interest has prompted him to experiment with a tremendous range of paint types, including those classified as artists' materials, as well as a range of household and industrial paint products, all within the confines of a very limited color palette—white. This combination of an extremely limited pigment range with wide diversity in binding media presents a unique opportunity to monitor and compare the handling, aesthetic, and aging properties of a broad range of modern binding media. It also provides an opportunity to test if the analytical techniques used or developed at GCI can detect the full range of paint types.

The first part of the case study involved sampling and analyzing eighteen key paintings in the Dia and Guggenheim collections. The results of this work, presented at the 2009 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works conference in Los Angeles, confirmed the extensive diversity of painting media believed to be used by Ryman. In these paintings, at least eleven different binding media were detected, and all were successfully differentiated by use of the analytical methods developed by the GCI during an earlier phase of the Modern Paints project.

In November 2009, staff from the GCI, Dia, and the Guggenheim visited Ryman's studio in New York to discuss the analytical findings and to interview him in detail about the paints he used and the reasons behind his choices.

Two important results emerged from this visit. First, in every case the conclusions from the analysis aligned with Ryman's excellent recollections of the paints he used; in some cases, the analysis could even differentiate between specific brands of the same type of paint—something that impressed Ryman immensely. Second, a range of original paints used by Ryman in earlier works was discovered in his studio, including many paints that are now no longer commercially available (some possibly dating from the 1960s). Samples were obtained to provide additional reference materials for this study. The second phase of the project is now under way; it involves a thorough assessment of how each of the paint types is aging, with a view to quantifying the extent of any yellowing or changes in brittleness, as well as the full dissemination of results.

For more information on the Modern Paints project, visit the project's Web pages.