Blog IV: The Role of Conservation Ethics in Developing Treatment Protocol

By Stephanie Hornbeck

The study and treatment of the two sculptures by Louise Nevelson in the collection of the Pérez Art Museum Miami (formerly the Miami Art Museum), provides an opportunity to consider the implications of conservation ethics. In formulating a conservation-treatment protocol, the conservator has a number of issues to consider and weigh—artistic intent, conservation ethics, preservation of original material, and aesthetic aspects. An ideal treatment will succeed on all of these levels, without compromising on any of them. Yet, sometimes these issues may be in opposition to one another. Various decision makers, such as conservators, the owner (in this case, the Pérez Art Museum Miami, PAMM), the artist, the artist’s representatives/gallerists, museum curators and other scholars may have differing views on treatment objectives. So, it is important for research and communication to precede treatment. For the treatment of the PAMM’s two Nevelson sculptures, Dream House XLIII (1973) and Untitled (1980s), research and discussions are a part of the on-going process (see Patterson’s and Levenson’s respective blog posts in this series).

Before treatment detail of network craquelure and flaking paint on proper right side of Dream House XLIII (Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami). Photograph by Corey Smith Riley.

Before-treatment detail of network craquelure and flaking paint on proper right side of Dream House XLIII (Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami). Photograph by Corey Smith Riley.

A fundamental objective of professional conservation methodology is to preserve original material; the artist chooses materials and media and applies them in a certain way at a certain moment in time. The finished art work is a document of that process.

Artists and conservators have different roles; the conservator’s role begins only once the artist has completed fabrication of a work. The training and objectives of artists and conservators are distinct, the former focused on creation and the latter on preservation. Yet when working with living artists, sometimes the owner of a work of art will have the artist undertake repair, thus conflating the two different roles. This approach is ill-advised for several reasons: It sometimes yields revision of the original work, and almost always brings the use of irreversible media, which can be indistinguishable from the original media. There are even times when the artist will undertake wholesale overpainting and restoration that are unnecessary.

Before-treatment detail of front of Dream House XLIII (Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami). Note the surface nuances of the wood grain from the different cuts of wood Nevelson chose.  These would be lost in treatments that sand, strip or overpaint the surface.  Photograph by Stephanie Hornbeck.

Before-treatment detail of front of Dream House XLIII (Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami). Note the surface nuances of the wood grain from the different cuts of wood Nevelson chose. These would be lost in treatments that sand, strip or overpaint the surface. Photograph by Stephanie Hornbeck.

In the case of the two Nevelson sculptures under consideration, the artist originally used black nitrocellulose paint (identified analytically by Orion Analytical), specifically, Krylon black spray paint, according to the Pace Gallery in New York City, which represented Nevelson since 1963. Nevelson died in 1988, so Pace now provides care instructions for her painted sculptures, which recommend the use of Krylon spray paint in treatments. In our research, we contacted the technical department at Krylon and learned that Krylon changed its formulation in 2008 from nitrocellulose lacquer to vinyl toluene alkyd. So, any use of this paint after 2008 would have involved a different paint composition than Nevelson once used. Commercial products have proprietary formulations and their manufacturers are not required to disclose ingredients, so their stability over time is uncertain.

Conservators limit their interventions to areas of damage and loss, with the intention of leaving undamaged original materials untouched. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works’ (AIC) professional Code of Ethics recommends that conservators consider the intent of the artist when undertaking treatment. This recommendation can yield valuable information about materials and aesthetics.  Yet, the conservator is not obligated to follow the artist’s recommendations in the actual treatment.  Indeed, a core conservation principle is to use stable materials that can be differentiated from the original materials; our interventions should be discernible (on close examination or via analysis) and reversible. So, even if Nevelson were still living to give instruction, and Krylon had not changed its formulation, the ethics of our profession guide us to employ different media for the treatment.

Paint and fill material test swatches of gouache, watercolor, powdered pigments. Gamblin Mars Black powdered pigment was found to be the closest color match. Photograph by Stephanie Hornbeck.

Paint- and fill-material-test swatches of gouache, watercolor, powdered pigments. Gamblin Mars Black powdered pigment was found to be the closest color match. Photograph by Stephanie Hornbeck.

For our treatment, in areas of loss we will use powdered pigments and gouache paints to emulate Nevelson’s black spray paint. A number of black swatches (including bone black, ivory black, Mars black, Payne’s gray, raw umber, as well as mixtures of these) were painted out on watercolor paper to color-match them to the sculptures. Different blacks have visible nuances in color. For Dream House XLIII, the closest match is Mars black in powdered-pigment form. To preserve original material, our treatment employs extensive consolidation of the vast networks of cracks. The cracks will still be visible in raking light, though no longer the great visual distraction they were prior to treatment.

Aesthetic integration is an important aspect of treatments, returning legibility to a damaged work of art. Ideally, the viewer should be reading the work, without focusing on areas of damage. These two Nevelson sculptures have not been considered exhibitable for at least a decade, because of their extensive cracking and flaking paint surfaces. They have remained in storage until this treatment, which prepares them to return to exhibition in the new Museum, opening in December 2013.

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. Tune in next week to learn about the execution of treatment and cross-disciplinary collaboration  on the Nevelson sculptures by Corey Smith Riley and Viviana Dominguez.

Stephanie Hornbeck is Lead Conservator of this Nevelson conservation project. She founded Caryatid Conservation Services, her private practice, in 2010, where she serves as Principal and Senior Conservator, after working for 12 years at the Smithsonian Institution. She can be reached at shornbeck@caryatid-conservation.com. 

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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