04 April 2016

Conservation of contemporary art

Ice Bag Scale C by Claes Oldenburg at the Whitney (via)
Museum conservation is a rich medium, says a recent article in the New Yorker. (The Custodians, by Ben Lerner; The New Yorker, 11 January 2016, pp50-59.)

"At a time when so many artists outsource fabrication, [the conservators at the Whitney and other contemporary art museums] are conservators of skill: they know a material's chemical composition, its reflectance levels, its history of usage (and if they don't know they'll find out). In an era when many critics speak of the rise of curation as art - when artists arrange objects as often as they make them - conservation is deeply curatorial, as conservators choose which aspects of a work are presented and how. To treat conservation as it has traditionally been treated - as the behind-the-scenes work of minimally invasive technocrats, bursting onstage every few decades during a cleaning controversy and then receding into the shadows - is to exclude essential questions about culture and value from the domain of contemporary art."

When is it sufficient to restore a work of art (and to which of its former states; the question of the "elusive original") - and when does it need to be replicated? Contemporary works, made in new media, can be most in need this decision; the article talks about the subtleties of conserving Rothko's late, dark works (containing house paint and rabbit glue), and Claes Oldenburg's Ice Bag Scale C, with its (internal) broken gears, motors and fans, a sculpture described as "moody" and even "suicidal" - it never functioned for more than a few days at a time. It was restored by hired experts of various sorts: a guitar maker, an electrician, a robotics engineer;  an auto body expert worked on the lacquer of the cap, and the exterior fabric was carefully matched and replaced - though a slight change in colour needed the approval of the artist. The museum regards the sculpture as conserved, not replicated - a wording that means it can continue to exhibit it as "the original" other than as a version of it.

In any case, says the article, a new strategy is needed for acknowledging the hand of the institution in the life of the work, a way of showing when and how and why the museum has altered what it displays. The conservatorial vocabulary joins other museum vocabularies - curatorial, legal, archival - in considering questions that cannot be answered impartially or finally.

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