THE SHIFTING FUNCTION OF ARTISTS' FIXATIVES
MARGARET HOLBEN ELLIS
The study of the shift in function of fixatives would be merely an esoteric chapter in the history of artists' materials if it were not for two ramifications of its “modern” incarnation as all-purpose protection. First, well-intended caretakers may feel compelled to spray works of art with protective coatings in the benevolent name of preservation, as they have been urged to do since the days of Vibert more than a century ago. Experience indicates that this practice is not advisable because of the aesthetic changes that someone other than the artist imposes upon the work of art, not to mention the dangers inherent in making uninformed choices of fixative formulations. Second, and of far more importance, is the fact that fixatives are being used by artists instead of traditional framing to provide protection for drawings. Furthermore, artists are turning to conservators for advice on the procedure. Thus conservators now not only must consider the aesthetic and chemical consequences of the presence of fixatives on works of art, but they must also offer guidance to those in the arts community on the appropriate application of fixatives. While much research has been done on the aging characteristics of synthetic resins and their behavior as varnishes, little reliable information exists regarding their success in preserving paper. Thanks to the technological developments discussed above, the application of more chemically stable fixatives is just a spray away. At present, however, conservators simply do not have sufficient information to make a judgment—positive or negative—regarding the effectiveness of fixatives in their expanded role.
The author wishes to acknowledge the American Academy in Rome and the National Endowment for the Arts for their support of this research. The following individuals contributed their invaluable assistance and insight: Mark Aronson, Yale University Art Gallery; Lucy Belloli, Ellen Pratt, and Marjorie Shelley, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Paul Banks; Craigen Bowen, Harvard University Art Museums; Brian Connell; Mark Golden, Golden Artist Colors, Inc.; Marlis Müller, Cynthia Connelly, Rachel Mustalish, and Robert Stacy, Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University; Antoinette King, formerly of the Museum of Modern Art; Terrence Mahon, Painting Conservator, New York; Joyce Plesters, formerly of the National Gallery, London; and Faith Zieske and Beth Price, Philadelphia Museum of Art.