JAIC 1996, Volume 35, Number 3, Article 3 (pp. 197 to 218)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1996, Volume 35, Number 3, Article 3 (pp. 197 to 218)




Artists' intentions can have various levels of complexity and reference, but conservators quickly recognize a familiar problem at the root of the surrounding issues. Time, grime, and mishap always create conditions that obscure, alter, or destroy the character of the artist's original work. Paints dry, crack, and flake; canvases sag; and panels split. Organic colorants may fade to translucence, and metallic pigments can oxidize from red and green to black and brown. Additionally, one or more restorers may have had a hand in the artwork by reinterpreting or attempting to reveal, repair, or replace what the artist created, often with temporary effect. Eternally durable and changeless materials are unavailable to artists and conservators alike. Natural processes and physical conditions eventually alter the attributes of materials that succeed under the artist's hand or in the conservator's studio. Conservators know how difficult it can be to predict or control these alterations, and it makes for wary work. Regardless of the artist's clarity of purpose, all his or her material determinations are subject to physical damage, decline, and decay. Artistic achievements are not and cannot be fixed forever in the final physical result of artists' creative work.

Recent analytic research in art conservation makes the temporality of artists' materials painfully apparent. A work of art that is carefully protected from grime, environmental and mechanical stress, mishap, and restoration is nonetheless subject to chemical decomposition. Changes in materials begin in the first instant of their use. Depending on the artist's choices, changes may be rapid or slow, but usually chemical change becomes apparent within a quarter century.

Georges Seurat's La Grande Jatte (1884–86, Art Institute of Chicago) lost its initial luminous charm within five years. Its yellow, orange, and green pigments were quick to decay into more stable, less colorful chemical compounds (Fiedler 1984). Albert Pinkham Ryder's incessant reworking with mixtures of varnish and paint was driven, in part, by quickly fading artistic effects (Svoboda and Van Vooren 1989). Until his death, Ryder struggled with the appearance of The Tempest (1890s and later, Detroit Institute of Arts), first exhibited to the public more than 25 years earlier. Today, many of his paintings have deteriorated almost beyond recognition.

Twentieth-century art is not exempt from this effect. Joseph Albers's meticulously chosen and applied paints exhibit differing types and rates of deterioration within the same painting (Garland 1983). Mark Rothko mixed his paint for the Houston chapel to achieve a special paint surface quality that proved to be exceptionally short lived (Mancusi-Ungaro 1981).

Some contemporary artists consciously disregard the quick mortality of the media they select, suggesting that permanence is irrelevant to their work. Jasper Johns once joked that he would be a richer man if he were the conservator of his encaustic paintings instead of their creator (quoted in Wyer 1988, 46). Robert Rauschenberg said, “Art has risk built into it. … I don't consider any material unavailable to me” (quoted in Wyer 1988, 46). Anselm Kiefer's works that include straw on the surface deteriorate so readily that debris was reported to accumulate on an exhibition hall floor between regular sweepings (Wyer 1988, 48).

The technical impossibility of stopping the deterioration of an artist's initial creation is clearly understood today. In the face of desperate problems, lighthearted conservators may playfully wish for frigid, lightless, airless storage vaults, perhaps deep in caves on the dark side of the moon! Equally playful is the futuristic hypothesis that molecularly exact reproductions could substitute for artists' deteriorated originals. There is a note of ironic humor in the realization that the next generation of conservators would meet the deferred problems again when faced with conservation of the replica.

Because physical artworks are the primary grounds for representing artist's intentions, a paradox occurs: physical materials decay, but artists' purposes, aims, goals, and objectives exist in a psychological arena where they do not decompose or deteriorate. Eventually and inevitably artists' materials lose fidelity in their allegiance and attachment to artist's intentions. Recognition of physical decay or damage invites questions about the materials' reference to the artist's intent. These questions can be surprisingly varied and complex, and there are equally various and complicated ways of attempting to answer them.

Copyright 1996 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works