JOSEF ALBERS: HIS PAINTINGS, THEIR MATERIALS, TECHNIQUE, AND TREATMENT
Patricia Sherwin Garland
FINALLY we come to some other aspects of the treatment of Josef Albers' paintings. In the time that I have worked on them, I have realized that only one rule can be applied—that is, never rely on anything to conform to any rule! Where one pigment on a particular painting will be so friable that to roll a dry swab over the surface would pick up paint, the same pigment on another painting is very, very stable.
As I have indicated, in the pursuit of the pure, even, color surface, Albers was extremely deliberate about his art. However, this overwhelming concern with purity can be problematic for the conservator. As a result of his application of paints directly from the tube, we often experience extreme solubility in cleaning the paint film with anything from a dry swab to aqueous solutions to organic solvents. I have experimented with several methods of cleaning, including the use of a fan to increase the evaporation rate. In most cases, I have found that the only way to remove grime and/or discolored varnish safely is by applying the solvent with a swab through a layer of Tosa tissue. The subsequent lifting of the tissue, damp with solvent, can remove the varnish by capillary action, without disturbing the paint film. Traces of remaining softened varnish can be safely removed by gingerly rolling the swab over the surface.
A number of the Homage to the Square paintings that have come to me exhibit an odd “smudging” effect in one particular square. I have seen this most frequently in the yellow ochre areas. It almost appears as though someone with very dirty fingers had been handling the surface of the painting. This has been the case on occasion, but here, when one tries to remove the so called “smudges”, one finds them insoluble. It seems that these darkened areas are a result of the electrolytic effect of the palette knife pressing against the oil in the paint. Nothing short of repainting, which would be unethical, could “correct” the visual interruption.
Keeping in mind the discussions I have had with Nicholas Weber and Anni Albers, the artist's widow, I believe that Albers would have had one of three responses to this problem. Either he would have left the painting as is, stating that this is the way this particular paint reacts with the painter's knife or he would have repainted the affected “square” himself or, finally, he might have discarded the painting as damaged. While he might have chosen any of these “solutions”, and he did choose each on occasion, it would be presumptuous to second-guess him. Generally, with the approval of the Director of the Albers Foundation, such problems are left untouched. In a few cases, where the disfigurement is more minor, the choice is made to glaze over the spots, to minimize them.
Albers occasionally repainted surfaces long after the paintings had supposedly been completed. Again, the paint was applied directly from the tube, with a painter's knife, and no added medium. In some cases there has been no apparent resulting problem of adhesion of the second layer to the first paint layer, separated by a varnish film. However, I have seen a number where severe alligator cracking has occurred, greatly disfiguring the surface. In such cases, the Foundation suggested inpainting the cracks. Sometimes, it has been necessary to fill the separations first.
Inpainting can be particularly difficult on an Albers painting, due to his use of pure colors directly from the tube. These colors have, naturally, changed to a degree, and are frequently unreproduceable, except by mixing dry pigments. In a painting with colors of particularly high intensity, the colors are virtually impossible to match, as any mixing of paint dulls the color (which, of course, was Albers' precise reason for not mixing his colors). On one occasion, despite my apprehension about the permanence of the pigment, I resorted to the use of day-glo tempera colors to find a successful match.
An unexpected problem with Albers paintings is a direct result of the poor storage conditions which the paintings endured while the artist was alive, when many of the panels were stored in a wet basement at Yale University. While this situation has, fortunately, been corrected, a number of paintings had evidence of mold growth and had suffered separations of the grounds from the panels due to moisture. In addition, many of the panels were stored, unframed and unvarnished, one right up against the other. All have been treated for their various problems such as cleavage and abrasions to the paint and varnish films. In the cases where paint from one panel had been scraped onto another, I have always chosen to remove it by mechanical means, with a scalpel, under magnification, rather than to use a solvent.