Archive for Conservation


In Brooklyn: destroying our past

My old neighborhood church in Brooklyn, Our Lady of Loretto, which also had a convent and an elementary school, is apparently being slated for demolition, as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn has decided that Our Lady of Loretto, regardless of its architectural beauty and historical place in Brooklyn, is no longer worthy of remaining open and will surrender the property to the City of New York which has plans to demolish the church.
You can help by signing a petition here to declare Loretto a historical landmark; please sign it here.

The church was built originally by Italian immigrants who lived in the neighborhood, not by the Catholic Church. Stanley Molinari was our next door neighbor and I believe that it was his father who donated the land so that the church could be built.

By the way check out these mugs and see if you can find me in the class of 1970.

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Postmortem on an Ad Reinhardt Painting

Working horzontally, Reinhard brushed and rebrushed the surface to remove all traces of the stroke. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

 Ad Reinhardt in his New York Studio in the 1960s.  The artist worked flat, brushing and rebrushing the surface to remove all traces of the stroke. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum


Ad Reinhardt was a New York painter of the mid-20th Century (born 1913; died 1967), who started as an abstract expressionist and ended up a minimalist. In a slow progression away from color and image, he distilled his work to a series of black paintings.  On the face of it, they are pictures of nothing, these big black canvases. Viewed close up and in person, they reward the serious viewer with subtle geometries, squares and rectangles, in a range of velvety black hues from red to green.


 Abstract Painting, 1960-1966, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum. It’s impossible to appreciate the subtleties of a Reinhardt painting on line or in print. Still, look carefully and you can see a nine-block cross and variations in value, if not in hue


We know that Reinhardt removed as much of the oil from his paint as was possible while still having it bind the pigment. The result was a powdery-looking surface that absorbed light. Slight intended variations in the amount of medium rendered differing degrees of matte. Reinhardt didn’t varnish these surfaces as that would have effectively pulled a curtain over the subtleties he worked so hard to achieve.

When viewing a Reinhardt black painting, the lighting must be right—which is not always the case, even at galleries and museums—otherwise shadows or hot spots obscure the nuances.  And you need to give your eyes sufficient time to become accustomed to the ambient lighting in order to focus on the dark image in front of you. Only then will it reveal its texture and chromatic richness.

So what happens when the surface of the work is scuffed, scraped or marred? It’s a jolt. That velvety expanse which so slowly rewards you with its color and ever-so-subtle surface becomes like a record with the needle stuck—remember those?— so that all you see is the hiccup of imperfection on the surface.

When he was alive, Reinhardt was known to repaint the surface himself  if  it returned damaged from an exhibition. He even made himself available to the institution or collector who acquired a work of his. This was not an archival or esthetic problem, as the materials and methods were his own and he was working in service to the integrity of the painting he had made. After his death, however, overzealous conservation may have made a bad situation worse. In some instances, cleaning a scuff has made larger areas of scuff. Some reckless conservators have “touched up” the surface, and in at least one instance,  they have virtually repainted the painting in their care. That would make it not a Reinhardt at all.

AXA, an art insurance comany, donated just such a damaged painting in 2000 to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Deemed irreparable after having its surface “restored” by spray painting (!),  Black Painting (1960-1966) became an object for study. In Imageless: the Scientific Study and Experimental Treatment of an Ad Reinhardt Black Painting, an exhibition on view until September 14 at the Guggenheim, you can see how the conservation department examined the painting. Working with the Museum of Modern Art and state-of-the-art laser centers on Crete and in the Netherlands, the Guggenheim’s chief conservator, Carol Stringari, and her staff carried out a complete physical examination of the painting with a series of experiments to see what had been done. (Stringari is probably the foremost expert on the conservation of Reinhardts, having worked on a Reinhardt exhibition held earlier at the Museum of Modern Art.)


Cross sections from nine parts of the Reinhardt painting, overexposed so that the black underlayers are clearly visible. Magnification is 280x. The topography includes a base of Reinhardt’s powdery pigment with various layers atop. Some may have been painted by the artist himself, but a top skin of acrylic paint, sprayed to “return” the painting to its once-pristine condition, caused irreparable damage to the work. (In the exhibition’s accompanying video, there are some scenes showing the conservators literally peeling off the acrylic after treatment by a laser–but the painting has been too damaged in other ways for the acrylic-removal to bring the painting back to “life”). Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum


The idea was not to resuscitate the painting but to understand why and how it had died. Viewing the accompanying video was a bit like watching a crime scene show on TV.   Using scanning electron microscopes and spectrography, Stringari and her team were able to to identify the damage and restoration layers above the surface of the original painting. For starters, they confirmed what they’d suspected: that there was a layer of acrylic paint on the surface and that it had been sprayed on. Under the electron microscope–see the grid of images above–this application shows up as a film of plastic over Reinhardt’s powdery oil-based surface. Subsequent treatment with lasers allowed Stringari and her team to understand how to remove some of those non-Reinhardt layers.

 The point of this project was not to save the painting but to understand what \

This is a view of the painting under ultraviolet light. In any “forensic” study, the subject is viewed under different light and conditions. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum


So why is this study important? For one thing, the forensic examination created a dossier of information about Reinhardt’s working methods and of the techniques used to “restore” the painting. The team learned what works and what doesn’t in terms of cleaning the surface of a Reinhardt painting. Laser equipment developed decades after the painting was made uncovered the mysteries of its making. The lessons and methods acquired will be useful not only in the conservation of other Reinhardts, but in any monochromatic work where even a small break in the purity of the field creates an enormous visual obstacle.


Carol Stringari, Chief Conservator at the Guggenheim Museum, who conceived and oversaw this project. Notice the cleanliness of her workroom? Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum


In an adjacent side gallery several Reinhardt paintings in pristine condition are on view.  This is an essential counterpart to the clinical nature of Stringari’s forensic work. Here in the  chapel-like viewing room with a platform for sitting, you have a chance to meditate on the work itself. This exhibition, up through September 14,  was organized by Carol Stringari, Chief Conservator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in collaboration with the Sackler Center for Arts Education.

. . . . . . . . . .

Should you miss the exhibition, here are some good links for more information:

. From Art, Carol Stringari on Exhibiting a Reinhardt “Cadaver” by Robert Ayers. This is an excellent Q&A with the chief conservator.

. From Art in America, Damaged Reinhardt to Serve as Guinea Pig by David Ebony. From the June 2001 issue of AiA, this brief article makes note of the project at its inception.

. From the New York Times, Tall, Dark and Fragile by Holland Cotter. This article is accompanied by a slide show of images.

If you’re in New York City:

. The Guggenheim Museum has a collection of Reinhardt paintings. You should inquire if they will be on exhibition.

. Reinhardt paintings are on view at the Museum of Modern Art  

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Tale of a Lost Leger

It’s a tragic story, one that institutions everywhere should heed now that remodeling, renovation and rebuilding seem to be a nationwide phenomenon.

According to WCVB’s website, Wellesley College seems to have lost a painting by Fernand Leger.

Here’s how this unfortunate event appears to have unfolded:

Painted in 1921, “Woman and Child” had been on loan to an exhibit at the Oklahoma Museum of Art. When it was returned to Wellesley, the college’s museum was in the midst of a construction project. So the crate sat around someplace, apparently. The sense one gets from the article is that it was just chucked in a corner, more or less. I realize that sounds harsh, but so, to all of us, is the loss of an artwork by an acknowledged master.

Finally, with construction complete, it came time to assess where things were. And no one knew where the Leger was. Talk is that it might even have been thrown away with a bunch of similar, empty crates.

Ladies and gents, the facts are clear: had this multi-million-dollar treasure of an artwork been stored in a high-tech art storage facility such as Mind’s Eye, it would continue to bring pleasure and inspiration to future generations. And at what cost, anything even remotely comparable to the loss sustained by Wellesley College? I think not.

As these museum reconstruction programs continue, I hope that those in charge are giving serious consideration to the temporary storage of their works of art. This is no task for interns or do-it-yourselfers.

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Framing Blues

Over the many years that I have been an art dealer, I continued to be amazed on a regular basis by the framing monstrosities that artists and art buyers seem to produce.

Regardless of what your framer or your interior decorator, or your mom tells you, the prime purpose of a frame is to protect the artwork and ready it for presentation and exhibition.

The dizzying array and varieties of mouldings do offer a challenge to the uninitiated, but as long as you keep in mind a simple rule, you will not screw up: Keep It Simple!

While gold rococo frames once worked well in the 19th century, and still hold their presence in presenting the Impressionist paintings that they have been guarding for over a century, they should never make a 21st century appearance in, let’s say, framing a simple black and white photograph.

Not to imply that a good gilded frame is framata non grata for all contemporary artwork; in fact they still manage to complement and make - as an example - traditional landscape paintings look good.

Colors, designs and textures that do not compete with the artwork should be the goal. I am even more severe in my own personal artwork about framing. I prefer simple matte black metal mouldings for my drawings and the thinnest and barest of light wood frames for my paintings.

A good professional framer should already know all of this.  A hack who wants to sell you an expensive, thick, elaborate moulding for your simple artwork must be avoided at all costs or your visual and monetary cost will be enemies of your art and finances.

For do it yourself framers: learn how to frame properly and learn about conservation materials. You would not believe the number of times that I have seen badly hand-cut mats (the result of using an Exacto knife to cut the mat instead of a good mat cutter), a colored acidic mat, a gaudy, cheap frame and brown cardboard backing from your last move used as backing. They will ruin a perfectly decent work of art.

Some basics: for photography only use white acid free mats (or any light, neutral color mat) and acid free backing. Thin, let me say that again: thin, metal (black or silver) metal moulding frames (matte not shiny) or thin light wood frames. Avoid color mats at all costs and thick frames at all costs. If you can afford it, avoid frames period, and use those gorgeous frameless presentations where the photo is sandwiched between two sheets of museum quality  plexiglass re-inforced with strengthened aluminum to prevent warping (for large photos).

For paintings, I have always subscribed to the less the better and prefer the floating mouldings that allows the canvas to free float in the frame while still protecting its edges. I am also OK with gallery stretched canvasses, where the canvas hangs frameless and the staples are hidden behind the work.

Next: My pet peeves on huge artists’ signatures.

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Storing and Moving Artwork and WWII Tunnels

“Humboldt Storage and Moving Co. in Canton has been transporting people’s most prized possessions for more than 100 years.

But when the company was asked to make a high-profile, cross-country delivery of a $135 million painting by Austrian artist Gustav Kilmt in 2006, Humboldt CEO Howard Goldman saw a prospective niche in storing, moving and managing fine art collections.”

So it begins an interesting article by A.J. Bauer from the GateHouse News Service.

Mind’s Eye, a division of Humboldt devoted entirely to moving, storing and managing collections of fine art and collectibles is also our sponsor and backer, and a few weeks ago I had the interesting experience of touring their spaces, and personally seeing the spectacular care and attention that they give to the emerging art of … ah… moving and storing art.

We’re all sort of snobs, even if we deny it, and I must admit that I was expecting to find only fine art being stored in custom made, climate controlled, impregnable room-sized walk-in safes.

I found that, but I also found them being used to store rare wines, family heirlooms, collectibles, and of course, blue chip art.

And I think that this is the tip of the iceberg, as more and more people focus their attention on the business of collecting artwork. According to the article, the company already “has plans to build an additional 3,000 square feet of climate-controlled storage vaults within the next three months, and expects an expansion of an additional 32,000 square feet in the next few years.”

In the next few months I hope to relate my own experiences with moving artwork as I continue to do art fairs all over the nation. It’s a fascinating aspect of the new boom of the art fair business, with galleries and private dealers moving artwork all over the world, from fair to fair. This is in fact, a very special and unique slice of the business of moving and storing artwork.

I am also curious to discover more about museums that are running out of storage space, which I think is the case with the various Smithsonian museums in the nation’s capital. As I am led to believe (and maybe this is all urban legend), a lot of this storage takes place in underground chambers under the National Mall in Washington, DC. These chambers apparently were originally built during WWII to store our national treasures in case the Germans or Japanese ever bombed our capital. Perhaps I will do a little digging research in this area to see if it is true and if an interesting story comes out.

More later…

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