A Cross Disciplinary Conference on the Preservation and Study of Modern and Contemporary Art

January 25–26, 2008
Getty Center, Los Angeles

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On January 25 and 26, 2008, the Getty Conservation Institute and the Getty Research Institute presented "The Object in Transition: A Cross Disciplinary Conference on the Preservation and Study of Modern and Contemporary Art," a major conference at the Getty Center on the conservation of contemporary sculpture, painting, and mixed-media artworks, and the collaborative possibilities for conservators, art historians, and curators working in these fields. This two-day event aimed to foster increased dialogue among these fields, primarily via intensive professional dialogues on case studies and general panel discussions. A number of relevant art works were on display, enabling the audience to participate in the discussion of these works.

  • Topics included: the importance of an artwork's surface, dealing with process, the artist's voice and intent, the life and death of objects, and methods of improved collaboration.
  • Artists whose work were discussed included: Eve Hesse, Sol LeWit, Roy Lichtenstein, Piet Mondrian, Bruce Nauman, Barnett Newman, David Novros, and James Turrell.
  • Speakers included Michelle Barger, Yve-Alain Bois, David Bomford, Jim Coddington, Lynne Cooke, Jack Cowart, Brad Epley, Heather Galloway, Gary Garrels, IJsbrand Hummelen, Pip Laurenson, Tom Learner, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, Christine Mehring, David Novros, Andrew Perchuk, Glenn Phillips, Ron Spronk, Jill Sterrett, Carol Stringari, Elisabeth Sussman, Nancy Troy, David Turnbull, Anne Wagner, Jeffrey Weiss, Glenn Wharton, Stephanie Wiles, and Julie Wolfe.

Conference Program (3 pp., PDF format, 25KB)

Object in Transition: Contemporary Voices
In this complimentary panel discussion, artists Robert Gober, Rachel Harrison, Paul McCarthy, and Doris Salcedo joined curator Elisabeth Sussman and conservator Christian Scheidemann in discussing the often complex production process of their art works, the ephemeral nature of some of the modern materials from which they are created, and the implications this may have for the long-term survival of their art.


Many of the traditional materials of art making, such as oil paint, marble, and bronze, have proven to be durable and resistant to extreme structural degradation over time. Throughout the latter twentieth century, however, artists have turned to a variety of new materials for art making, many of which have proven to be highly unstable and often short-lived. These works pose strong challenges both to the fields of conservation and art history, as there is often no codified method for conserving such works, and the insistent but uneven rate of degradation present in the many mixed-media works has left us with countless artworks that now appear starkly altered from their original form. The interpretative problems that have arisen in relation to durability and ephemerality in modern and contemporary art have been exacerbated by an art historical methodology that has tended to privilege theoretical interpretation and not concrete object study.

Thus, the descriptive knowledge that arises from object-based study and the study of artistic techniques is something that has increasingly left the field of art history and become primarily the domain of conservators. In recent years, there has been something of a return in interest to an object-based study by curators and art historians of contemporary art, but it is not clear how this can best be achieved, as the requisite training is no longer part of advanced study in art history. Conversely, conservators by necessity study art through the empirical and scientific study of objects, but the challenges posed by modern materials often lead to decisions about preservation and acceptable aging in art works that are based upon more subjective inferences about the artist's original intention—an interpretive concept which many art historians view with some trepidation.

There are enormous possibilities as well as limitations to a primarily object-based study of art, and increased dialogue between the fields of art history and conservation may prove beneficial in better defining these parameters. This two-day conference aimed to foster such communication by presenting joint research from art historians and conservators and intensive dialogues between professionals from both fields.

Last updated: July 2009