Blog III: The Importance of Testing and Research in Developing Treatment Protocol

By Rustin Levenson

If designing a treatment protocol were as easy as surfing up “how to clean a painting”, then Google would simply direct you to your kitchen to mix up a cleaning solution of (warm) lemon water or to use a potato or an onion cut in half to rub on the paint surface. If your intuition tells you these are bad ideas, you are absolutely correct.  Professional conservators are trained to research and analyze a work, and to perform careful testing before proceeding with a treatment.

Instead of food groups, conservators employ a wide array of testing solutions. Photo: Rustin Levenson.

Instead of food groups, conservators employ a wide array of testing solutions. Photo: Rustin Levenson.

It is hard to overstate the complexity of designing a proper treatment protocol for any given work of art.  The following questions must be considered:

  • What are the materials the artist used?  Will there be any sensitivity to the materials used for treatment?
  • What has happened to the work since it was created?  Has the artist re-worked it?
  • Are there previous treatments?
  • What is the condition of similar works by the artist?  Have they been treated successfully?
  • What will be the future impact of the materials used for the treatment? Are they reversible?

In the case of the PAMM Louise Nevelson, Dream House XLIII, 1973, Lead Conservator Stephanie Hornbeck and I undertook extensive research and testing to answer these questions.

Dream House XLIII is composed of various types of wood adhered to a tall, four-sided wooden rectangle and sprayed with a flat black paint.  The thin layer of paint unifies the work and emphasizes the subtle textures of the woods.  Active cracking, lifting, and loss in localized areas required conservation treatment.

Research indicated that the paint most often found on Nevelson’s works was a nitrocellulose-based spray paint.  Physical examination, including magnification, suggested that there was more than one type of paint on the problem areas of the black surface of Dream House XLIII.  To determine the composition of the paint in these areas, cookie-crumb-sized samples were sent to Orion Laboratory for analysis.  The results confirmed our suspicions: Two types of media were identified: nitrocellulose /phthalate and acrylic dispersion.  Both materials would have been available to the artist in 1973.

These findings led to more questions: Were some of the found pieces of wood painted before Nevelson assembled the work?  Was there later overpaint on some areas?  If so, was it applied by the artist?  Unfortunately, without time travel, these questions cannot be answered conclusively.  However, knowing the specific materials helped us predict the solubilities and complications we might encounter.

Surface detail, Louise Nevelson, Dream House, Davis Museum, Wellesley College. Photo: Rustin Levenson.

Surface detail, Louise Nevelson, Dream House V, Davis Museum, Wellesley College. Photo: Rustin Levenson.

Our research also involved comparisons with other Nevelson Dream Houses.  Stephanie inspected Dream House XXIII at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and Dream House XXII at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. I was able to examine the Dream House V at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. We discovered that none of the other works exhibited the same condition problems as Dream House XLIII and we were able to photograph and compare surface details.

To determine the next steps of treatment, Stephanie and I used an empirical testing approach. We wanted to stabilize the paint that had lifted and cracked in local areas of the Dream House XLIII.  Stephanie (an objects conservator) and I (a paintings conservator) assembled some of the most frequently used conservation adhesives from our specialties and made small tests on the damaged areas.  In discrete areas, tiny solubility tests were undertaken on the original paint surface; these would guide us in our choice of consolidant. The painting conservation consolidant (BEVA D-8 Dispersion, an ethylene vinyl acetate) triumphed as the most effective for adhering the loose paint along the cracks.

Empirical testing: Rustin Levenson (left) and Stephanie Hornbeck (right) examine Nevelson's DH sculpture. Photo: Sid Hoeltzell.

Empirical testing: Rustin Levenson (left) and Stephanie Hornbeck (right) examine Dream House XLIII, PAMM. Photo: Sid Hoeltzell.

The next empirical tests were done to determine the most appropriate filling material for compensating the losses that had occurred.  Several filling materials, pigmented with various blacks, were tested.  This time the object conservation material (an acrylic-based fill material mixed with Mars black powdered pigment) proved victorious, providing even fills with the perfect color to compensate the small losses on Nevelson’s surface. (Score: Painting Conservation:1; Objects Conservation:1.)

The testing, assessment, research, and discussions around the treatment of   Louise Nevelson, Dream House, XLIII led to many discoveries, more questions, and a sound treatment protocol. Stay tuned for more information and the next steps!

This weekly blog will run on Wednesdays this summer and feature guest bloggers from the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), Caryatid Conservation Services, Inc., The M Network and ARTEX Fine Art Services. Next week, check out object conservator Stephanie Hornbeck’s blog post about conservation ethics and treatment protocol.

Rustin Levenson is President of Rustin Levenson Art Conservation Associates with studios in New York and Miami.

For questions or comments regarding this blog, please leave a comment below, or directly contact the editor, Jillian Ambroz, at jambroz.caryatidconservation@yahoo.com.

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