By Thomas J. S. Learner
Those charged with devising conservation strategies for collections of modern and contemporary art are likely to experience frequent bouts of overwhelming anxiety. Simply put, where does one start? The number of materials that artists have used over the last seventy-five years must be little short of infinite, and for each of those different materials, there is only, at best, limited—and, more usually, nonexistent—knowledge of the ways in which they might alter with age, respond to different environmental conditions, or react to any number of potential conservation treatments.
We also already know that several modern materials are inherently unstable and can quickly show signs of deterioration, such as the cellulosic plastics—cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate—used by Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner in their early twentieth-century sculptures, although many conservators and art historians would also point to the polyester resins and synthetic latexes utilized by Eva Hesse. The deterioration in some of these works is so catastrophic—resulting in a complete loss of structural strength—that they can only be seen lying flat on their backs in a manner not completely dissimilar to a corpse in a coffin. Taking this subject of inherent vice in materials a step further, major issues must be confronted with works incorporating technologies that will become obsolete—for example, the fluorescent lamps of Dan Flavin or the cathode-ray tubes in time-based media work. And then there is Web art, a medium that can disappear offline at any moment.
Modern and contemporary art also presents complex ethical and philosophical conservation issues—for example, the conflict between conceptual, intangible values in works of art and the sanctity of the original materials. Frequently debated within the profession is how one balances the intention of the artist with more conventional conservation values. An artist's intention has always been an important consideration in the conservation of art, but things are definitely different with contemporary art: with the artist still alive—or only recently passed on and with an active estate—his or her voice is far stronger. But should an artist's opinion be given so much weight? Or would it, in fact, be more appropriate to consider it as one voice among many?
There is also considerable pressure by today's society to deny any sign of aging in these pieces—even aging that might be classified as natural. This trend has the unfortunate ramification that a pristine work might be valued so highly that there is pressure to consider conservation interventions at a much earlier point than they would traditionally be undertaken. One might, therefore, think it best to slow down all potential deterioration and apply the most stringent preventive conservation measures. But perhaps contemporary art loses so much relevance in ten years' time that it should be actively displayed, experienced, and documented instead, so that what is passed on to the next generation is a detailed record of its existence during its early life.
Despite these complexities, choices have to be made and priorities set. But should we pour significant resources into attempting to save a few notable works, or should we instead spread those resources more broadly to impact a larger proportion of the art being created? As with most areas of conservation, the best approach is probably "a bit of both."
In June 2008 the Getty Conservation Institute organized a three-day meeting of professionals involved in all areas of modern and contemporary art conservation, challenging them to identify and classify the significant issues they were dealing with and to propose potential responses. Despite the inherent difficulties in condensing this broad discussion into an organized and comprehensive report, a document was produced that laid out a series of potential steps for the profession to consider in its approach to this area of conservation. What follows are brief reflections on some of the issues and responses discussed.
Scientific research can play a critical role in identifying various materials and, perhaps an even more important role—determining degradation mechanisms and causes. However, an enormous amount of research is needed to gain a meaningful level of knowledge for each type of material; for example, our understanding of the drying mechanism of oil paint and its sensitivity to solvent cleaning is the result of over thirty years of research. So we need to acknowledge that reaching a significant level of understanding in all new materials is unattainable. That said, there have been notable advances in recent years in our knowledge of some of the materials used in modern and contemporary art—in particular, modern paints. And it is encouraging to see the emergence of large-scale collaborations in which multiple institutions pool their resources to investigate plastics and other materials.
One specific need that is likely to become greater is the development of techniques to assess the condition of works of art in situ—techniques such as the microfader for determining the relative light sensitivity of any colorant on an object. In the same way, it clearly would be useful to determine the level of oxidation or deterioration in individual objects, instead of just identifying the materials used.
Conservation Practice and Treatment
Conservators are often required to carry out treatments on modern and contemporary artworks without the desired level of understanding of the materials or processes themselves and without knowledge of the long-term consequences of their use; the result is a limited range of appropriate materials and treatment options. In such situations conservators might be reluctant to execute treatments—and fewer treatments, in turn, mean that future generations of conservators may have fewer case studies on which they can establish the success or failure of treatments. Although it may seem prudent to wait for scientific research to develop a tried-and-true method for conservation treatments before they are applied, in reality there is little chance of this happening. It is far more likely that the profession will progress when more conservators are able to describe treatments and decision-making processes honestly.
Would it not be better to encourage a range of approaches and treatments and to monitor the long-term effects of conservation treatments? But how do we encourage creativity and variation in approaches without trampling on ethics? For example, if it becomes necessary to sacrifice a small amount of white primer in order to remove a set of disfiguring and ingrained finger marks, would conservators tolerate (and admit to) a degree of primer removal in order to achieve the aesthetic benefits of an unblemished surface on a painting?
Redefining Our Roles
The fields of conservation and art history have traditionally relied on the authority that each brings to an artwork's meaning and to an understanding of its physical nature. With contemporary works, not only is there a curatorial/conservation blur when it comes to questions of meaning and material, but there is also a natural concern, on both sides of the profession, about shutting down interpretive possibilities for recently created works. A more active interdisciplinary dialogue among art professionals —especially between art historians and curators—is needed. These discussions should be guided by a highly informed conservator who can oversee treatments, bring context and a balanced overview to a particular problem, and engage the technical expertise that is needed, whether it be a structural engineer to keep a Richard Serra sculpture standing, a computer technician to establish guidelines for mastering digital art on servers, or a professional paint sprayer to recoat without error a Donald Judd sculpture.
The Artist's Intent
Inevitably searching for clarity and, ideally, consensus, conservators will often elicit the opinion of the artist. However, this approach is not without complexity or pitfall, and the potential for confusion and conflict is massive. The artist may prefer a treatment that compromises professional precepts, for example, or express uncertainty regarding possible solutions. We now recognize that attitudes change throughout an artist's lifetime; an artist may be intentionally or unwittingly deceiving; and artists' responses may differ depending upon how—and under what conditions—they are interviewed.
Is the artist always right? Or should we accept that an artist's intent can never be known with complete confidence? Of course, the middle ground of "it depends" has enormous value, and the profession does seem to be evolving sensibly in that direction. For example, it is becoming much less common to hear conservators speak of an artist's intent as a defined concept without parameters, and it is even less likely for that notion to be the driving force behind a treatment without this intent first being put into a broader context.
In recent years, much emphasis has been placed on documenting works thoroughly, and this is especially true for modern and contemporary art. Given the complexities faced by the profession over how to conserve these artworks, the very least we can do is provide the next generation with as much information as possible about the works themselves—although the danger here, of course, is that with more focus on documentation, less time will be spent on treatments and other research. There are certainly many aspects of a work of art that we could document—and this challenge is most obvious for installation art. Several new parameters could, and probably should, be measured, such as light, sound, motion, time, and surfaces (including three-dimensional surfaces), in a process building on parameters explored in the Inside Installations project. Unfortunately, for many of these aspects, techniques do not yet exist to measure them.
THE WAY FORWARD
Perhaps we are simply too close to the creation point of contemporary art to predict what aspect of it will be most valued in the future. Will it be reinstatement of the pristine surface of a minimalist sculpture that has been stripped and repainted repeatedly in order to preserve the formal integrity of the object? Or will the slightly discolored or cracked paint that happens to be the original coating turn out to be the valued element? And will replicas become more commonplace for displaying works that have long since deteriorated into states totally unrecognizable from the originals? Unable to predict the future, the conservation profession cannot assume the determining role at this moment. Rather, it is our responsibility to digest as much information as possible now and then to proceed in a manner that acknowledges and respects the unanswerable questions through diligent discussion and avid documentation.
Despite the complexities and uncertainties, there do seem to be avenues of inquiry that should enable the field to establish a framework that will benefit future generations of conservators. Scientific research must continue within a tightly connected network of researchers, so that discoveries are quickly shared and duplication in research is minimized. Conservators can and should play a far more active role in shaping research, as their practical and theoretical input has been crucial in developing conservation strategies and treatments for materials in the past. As a profession of practitioners, we learn from our mistakes as well as from our successes, and there is no doubt that greater tolerance for trying different approaches to specific problems will ultimately improve our knowledge of how best to care for contemporary art.
The challenges are so varied, so unprecedented, and so unpredictable that—despite the anxiety—there cannot help but be a glint of pure excitement in the eyes of caretakers of modern and contemporary art. This is an area of conservation that requires—and will continue to require for a long time—a combination of cutting-edge research and difficult practical compromises, confrontation of ethical dilemmas, and constant innovative thinking. We are regularly faced with the responsibility of conserving highly important works of art—benchmarks of our contemporary culture—at a time when we lack professional consensus on what exactly to preserve and how exactly to preserve it.
Alarming? Yes! But what an incredibly exciting position to be in.
Thomas J. S. Learner is a GCI senior scientist. He heads the Institute's research on the conservation of modern and contemporary art.