By Carol Mancusi-Ungaro
Art history only begins after the death of the work, but as long as the work lives, or at least in the first fifty years of its life, it communicates with people living in the same period who have accepted it or rejected it and who have talked about it. These people die and the work dies with them. —Marcel Duchamp¹
The notion that art can live only among the generation that created it would be hotly and justly debated by art historians and conservators. However, before we completely dismiss Duchamp's claim, let us consider the nature of preserving old masterpieces versus preserving modern and contemporary works of art. Imagistic art that dominated our history is readily recognizable. We can describe what is portrayed in concrete terms, and sensitive viewers may even empathize with the artist's creative impulse or at least respond in some expected way to the recognizable form. The work may evoke memories of a related experience or meaning implied by iconographic symbols, or it may offer enjoyment of unquestionable beauty. For instance, generations of worshippers and non-worshippers alike who make pilgrimages to the Sistine Chapel in Rome are awed by the staggering evocation of eternally felt humanity that Michelangelo distilled in paint on the ceiling of the pope's chapel. Few leave unmoved. Thus, we may conclude that at least imagistic art does not die with the generation that produced it, as evidenced by our continued devotion to the art of our gifted progenitors.
As a matter of course, conservators rely on familiar criteria to spawn our engagement with art, and we use those clues to structure the nature and the extent of our involvement. We draw on our visual experience to determine intuitively how the object should look. We codify artistic devices favored by an artist, and we depend upon our technical expertise to preserve the artist's intention, of which we are relatively certain because the image is known. The customary materials that shape it may be altered but are essentially unchanged. Thus, we can lighten, brighten, consolidate, or otherwise improve the impression within justifiable parameters.
What happens when the art we are asked to preserve is not recognizable, when we are confused by competing and often arbitrary forms, or when we cannot readily identify a familiar impression or emotional response? How do we, the arbiters of visual clues, proceed when the defining feature may be hard to ascertain? We can usually determine that a particular physical element has changed by comparison with virgin examples. From scientific inquiry, we can even decipher the composition of a material and the presumed mechanism of deterioration. However, if we never saw the physical object in its youth, we may err in thinking that an intentionally stressed and aged bit of material was pristine at the outset. The incorporation of nontraditional artistic materials in unpredictable states of decay within art not universally understood or viscerally appreciated certainly complicates our charge to preserve. This is not to suggest that the treatments are more difficult but that the decisions of what or whether to treat can be more complex and are often without precedent. Ultimately, the physical matter may be conserved, but the motivation of the artist and the response of the viewer may be fatally impaired.
Perhaps this is what Duchamp was suggesting. When my twenty-something students stand in front of a 1950s Rauschenberg combine, for instance, some see only an antique. They do not delight—as I do—in the audacity of an artist who wed ordinary but incongruous materials for visual effect. They are beyond the "first fifty years" in Duchamp's conceit, while I am not. They did not experience the initial punch of the work, and now the aged materials have drastically affected its impact. Thus, in a certain way, the work dies—or so it would seem. Barnett Newman once asserted, "What I'm saying is that my painting is physical and what I'm saying also is that my painting is metaphysical. What I'm also saying is that my life is physical and that my life is also metaphysical."² When the immaterial in art depends so much on the physical state of the material (instead of by association or through recognition), then maybe the immaterial inevitably changes with the material? Short of actual re-creation, the restoration of a work's original impact requires historical knowledge that at best becomes a "semantic" reconstruction.
Most artists wish to retain the initial impact of their art. Some entertain the notion of acceptable aging and often appreciate a museum's commitment to historicity, even though privately they may prefer to rework the piece. Naturally, this may not be said for all artists in every instance. As the esteemed British conservator Herbert Lank once shared with me:
I read with interest the discussion on "Time and Change" in the Getty Conservation [Institute] newsletter. On your point about Joseph Beuys possibly not wishing to have his fat and lard look older with time, I recalled a case on this about 35 years ago when I used to deal with accidental damage to contemporary works of art, which each time involved finding new solutions. [An auction house] had received for sale a construction by Beuys of a German U shaped knackwurst suspended from a rod by shoelaces. Unfortunately the Dutch owners had taken it off the wall overnight before packing. On returning in the morning to do so, they found that a large chunk had been bitten out of the base: their parrot was lying dead on the floor.
Joseph Beuys, when asked about what to do, replied that a new sausage would not be a solution because the original was by then 10 years old, and that the "patina" was an essential element of the work.³
Lank meticulously restored the missing part.
This example, among countless others, demonstrates that conservators are not averse to replacing deadened or lost parts of a recognizable scheme. However, with some abstract contemporary works of art, when the impaired effect is overall, we struggle for an approach. Without benefit of established parameters for our intervention, we cannot arrive at a professional consensus concerning our diverse and uncharted re-creations. Furthermore, with the life span of materials often deliberately short, we must decide whether to attempt preservation at all, allow degradation, or embrace replication.
How can we preserve the life of the immaterial effect when the proprietary material was not made to last? Are the two inextricably tied in a knot that only the artist can fashion or undo? Maybe, in such instances, the original will remain only as an idea. Perhaps that is inevitable when materials are impermanent—but then, no materials are permanent. Maybe we must reconfigure categories of objects and even postulate that if the artist's hand never was of paramount importance to the work, then preservation may mean astute re-creation. We would then be restoring the immaterial through new material means, and that may be, certainly in terms of degree, a distinct break with the past.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro is associate director for conservation and research at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and founding director of the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at the Harvard Art Museum. © 2009 Carol Mancusi-Ungaro
1 Duchamp, in a filmed interview with Jean Antoine, 1966. Printed in the Art Newspaper, no. 27 (April 1993): 16. Unable to locate the original source of this quote, I may be using it out of a context that would have altered my interpretation of its meaning. However, that does not diminish its significance in the current argument.