Conservation for Contemporary Art?

The following is an excerpt from a recent conversation I had with Suzanne Siano, Adjunct Professor at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center. Suzanne was part of the conservation team at The Museum of Modern Art, New York for much of her career before starting a private practice. Today, Suzanne (pictured at right) is the director and chief conservator of Modern Art Conservation. (All images are taken at the Modern Art Conservation studio and are courtesy Modern Art Conservation.)

Matthew Israel: To begin with, can you explain what you focus on?

Suzanne Siano: Conservation of modern and contemporary art has become a specialty within the larger field of art conservation and restoration and, within that, conservators specialize in different materials (paintings, paper, objects, new media, etc.). I specialize in paintings. Yet when someone sends me a “painting” for treatment, that “painting” could be very far from a traditional painting of oil on canvas.

MI: It might be helpful to trace some of the history of this movement away from traditional painting.

SS: Yes, definitely. In Western art, it dates generally to the 19th century, when artists like Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh began altering traditional materials to achieve new aesthetics in their work. Cézanne exposed the grounds of his canvases and used matte paints and van Gogh employed a very heavy impasto. Into the 20th century, artists only continued to modify oil paints—Ad Reinhardt drained his oils, de Kooning added non-traditional oils to his paints—and many new materials began to be developed for artists’ use or artists used materials not traditionally meant for art-making in their work, such as industrial materials. Pablo Picasso, for example, employed Ripolin, an industrial paint, in the first decades of the 20th century. By mid-century, acrylic resins, nitrocellulose paints, alkyds, and acrylic emulsions were all available to artists and used in their works.

MI: And as for today?

SS: Currently, artists continue to use a host of non-traditional materials to create something we still call a painting. For example, if we go to a museum or auction house, paintings might include chewing gum, dried urine, elephant dung, flower petals, tar, soap, ground glass/diamond dust, metal powders, toothpaste, or dust. Experimenting with materials has become part of the creative process and the materials, rather than an image, are often the point of the artwork. Our job, as conservators of modern and contemporary art, is to continually adapt our methods, approaches, and materials to address the many varied media used by artists in an effort to keep the works intact and reflecting the intent of the artist. We often cannot apply the same materials or techniques for cleaning an oil painting to an acrylic painting, for example, since the chemistry is completely different. We work very closely with conservation scientists, color chemists, and industrial scientists to develop and implement strategies for new materials.

MI: Can you explain what your goal is—at least generally—when you work with a painting?

SS: The conservator’s goal is to maintain artworks in a state that is as close as possible to what the artist intended. Many conservators have a background in art history, but we work closely with art historians, curators, collectors, and artists to maintain or regain the artist’s intent. Preventative measures are taken first—if we take good care through proper climate, installation, storage, and handling, we can minimize damage and change. However, there are some things that are going to age based on the inherent properties of the materials and the environments in which we live. What becomes difficult for modern and contemporary art is that we have yet to decide when it is acceptable for something that in our lifetime has been considered “modern” to become, and look, “old”. In other words, are cracks in the paint of a Picasso acceptable? Another issue is that when the materials are so intimately connected to the meaning of the work, any change is unacceptable. A Robert Ryman or an Yves Klein with cracks or discolorations can change the interpretation of the work completely.

MI: Do you ever work with artists when they are creating works, to help them choose better materials?

SS: Yes. While some artists intentionally work with fugitive or ephemeral materials, for others, even though certain ephemeral materials allow them to express what they want, the artist would prefer something more stable or archival. And in such cases, various conservators work closely with artists to help them find stable alternative materials.

What we do with an artist in a collaborative effort is quite different from what we do once the artwork is made and no longer owned by the artist. As conservators, we have an ethical responsibility to treat things in a reversible manner. We rarely use the artist’s original materials in restoration—this is to ensure that, in time, any restorations can be removed and redone as they will likely age differently from the original. If we must use the artist’s materials, we will isolate them in a way that allows the area of restoration to be removed at a later time without affecting the surrounding original.

MI: Can you talk a bit about how you work with galleries and museums?

SS: Conservators today are much more than craftsmen repairing art. By working so intimately with artworks, they possess a wealth of technical art-historical information that can inform dating, collaborations, and interactions between artists, stylistic changes, placement of works within an artist’s oeuvre, and, sometimes, authenticity. When a work is considered for purchase or an exhibition is to be mounted, the expertise of the conservator is essential to understanding the physical condition of the artwork, what may have happened to it in the past, what is intended by the artist and what type of care it will need once in a collection, on view, or on loan. Through examination and analytical techniques such as ultraviolet lighting, magnification, microscopy, infrared analysis, and x-radiography, we gather a technical understanding and history of an artwork.

Much of the time, however, conservators are actually carrying out treatments to fix works of art. Damages do occur and, given the active modern and contemporary market, we are kept quite busy. We adhere to professional ethical guidelines and standards of practice while being creative and tackling the challenges of modern materials. Our aim is to be as invisible to the viewer as possible so that the artwork can be appreciated and enjoyed as the artist intended but reversible to the next generation of conservators.  

To read more about conservation, see the previous interview in this series. To learn more about the Institute of Fine Arts’ graduate programs for Conservation and Art History, visit their page on Artsy.