JAIC 1998, Volume 37, Number 3, Article 6 (pp. 316 to 333)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1998, Volume 37, Number 3, Article 6 (pp. 316 to 333)



ABSTRACT—Conceptual artwork presents particular problems for conservators. Decisions about treatment cannot necessarily take as a central construct the concerns raised by material degradation. Issues of material may be irrelevant or inappropriate as a basis for treatment decisions. Rather, effective tools for the conservator must grow out of a proper understanding of the intellectual and philosophical basis for the work. This article focuses on the work of conceptual artist Mike Parr and examines the role of the conservator in the preservation of a range of Parr's material-based works.

TITRE—Au-delà des matériaux: idée, concept, procédé, et leurs rôles dans la conservation et la restauration de l'art conceptuel de Mike Parr. RÉSUMÉ—Les objets d'art conceptuel présentent des défis particuliers en conservation-restauration. Le choix d'un traitement ne peut pas toujours être basé sur la dégradation des matériaux qui constituent l'oeuvre. La réussite d'une intervention dépend de la compréhension du contenu intellectuel et philosophique de l'oeuvre. Justifier un traitement en fonction des matériaux peut s'avérer complètement secondaire ou impropre. Cet article présente le travail conceptuel de Mike Parr et examine aussi le rôle du restaurateur dans la préservation de diverses oeuvres de cet artiste.

TITULO—Más allá de lo material: idea, concepto, proceso, y su funci—n en la conservaci—n del arte conceptual de Mike Parr.RESUMEN—El arte conceptual presenta problemas particulares para los conservadores. Las decisiones acerca del tratamiento no pueden necesariamente tomar como eje central los aspectos relacionados con la degradaci—n material. Unas herramientas bastante efectivas para el conservador se basan en un entendimiento apropiado de la base para el trabajo. El asunto de los materiales puede ser irrelevante o inapropiado como base para tomar decisiones de tratamiento. Este art'culo se concentra en el trabajo del artista conceptual Mike Parr, y examina el papel de los conservadores en la preservaci—n de un rango de los trabajos de Parr basados en materiales.


This article developed from a series of conversations between an artist and a conservator that began informally and developed into structured, recorded interviews. For the past three decades Mike Parr (b. 1945) has been one of Australia's foremost proponents of conceptual art. Parr was artist-in-residence at the University of Melbourne in 1991 when the initial conversations took place. Since then he has made himself available to discuss and clarify some of the points raised in these original interviews. The process has been both fascinating and rewarding.

Albano (1996, 183) observes: “We, as conservation professionals, have in many ways begun to isolate the artist from our work.” He explains why, in the pursuit of permanence, conservators have tended to take a partisan view of history, and he proposes that artists' “willingness to accept such changes [to the condition of the work], and even to anticipate them” (181) has not been championed as perhaps it should by many conservators. “The implication, if not always directly stated, is that work by these artists may not survive for long, or at least not remain in an acceptable state of preservation…. The contribution of conservators to this intensifying barrage is of particular concern, as these professionals often provide the core of the criticism” (178).

Dykstra (1996, 212) levels other concerns: “Published discussions of artist's intentions frequently address the nature of creativity and artists' interaction with media. The bearing of history on the interpretation of artworks is also an occasional consideration in discussion of artist's intent, but the role of media and the role of historical context are seldom correlated with it.”

Working closely with an artist in order to identify issues of particular importance to that artist and being willing to advocate for the artist's position are actions most conservators would support. However, the cautions raised by Albano and Dykstra remind us that as a profession we may rely on paradigms that limit our ability to take these actions. Identification and assessment of such paradigms are important professional activities.

Conceptual art raises challenging issues for materials conservation practice and theory. This should come as no surprise. The raison d'être of most conceptual art challenges the hegemony of the art gallery and museum and the structures of the commercial art market—all familiar environments for conservators.

The preservation of material has engaged most professional activity and been the major research focus for conservators. The preservation of ideas, per se, is not, ostensibly, the primary concern of the conservator, and the interpretation of the intellectual and historical components of an artwork has usually been considered the domain of the curator, education officer, or exhibitions staff. The issues raised by the conservation of conceptual art, however, highlight the function of interpretation as a relevant and necessary professional activity for conservators. Treatment of other categories of contemporary art and of indigenous material also requires excellent interpretation skills over and above excellent hands-on skills. In these cases, issues of context and use, not condition, set parameters for the meaning for the object. An item of sacred significance is no less significant because it is no longer in good condition.

The study of context—art historical or iconographic context, materials analysis context, display context, or an intellectual and philosophical context—is an essential preliminary step in all conservation treatment. Without an understanding of context, inappropriate intervention is a real danger. In the case of indigenous sacred or secret material, even inappropriate viewing can destroy the value of the object. Conservators rely on context to provide authority: When treating an archaeological object, it is not appropriate to clean off food remnants; when treating a painting, the removal of food detritus is likely to be a priority. And conservators rely on authority to justify a particular course of action. There is little point in analyzing the paper of a Parr drawing to determine an appropriate treatment for discoloration if the deterioration implied by the discoloration is the main point of the work.

As Ainsworth and Coddington (1995, 16) point out: “Giving priority to any one of these contexts yields a different restoration outcome thereby altering the source of the inquiry, that is the object, itself.” For however much we work to maintain objectivity in the conservation process, “restoration makes plain a set of values, whether formal or cultural” (17). It is critical that in enlisting a set of values we recognize as appropriate (e.g., using low light levels for displaying works on paper, or removing sticky tape and replacing it with an archivally sound material) we do not override values that the artist considers important. Yet determining what the artist considers important may not be easy.

Fig. 1. Mike Parr, Cuban I, 1991, set of 12 prints, 107 × 78 cm each, installation the Ian Potter Gallery, University of Melbourne, 1991. Photograph courtesy of Anna Schwarz Gallery.

Davenport (1995, 51) notes: “We must construct a methodology for conservation of contemporary art that can take this need for an individual approach into account, yet at the same time offer some guidelines. Such guidelines would apply to everyone involved with this sort of work…. The importance of the artist's intent, or the requirements to accurately convey the scope of the idea for a particular work must be kept in the foreground.” The following study of the work of an individual artist can serve as a focus for the examination of wider issues and assist with the development of such guidelines.


With traditional forms of art, it is usually assumed that conservation will involve stabilization or on occasion restitution. It is also assumed that ongoing deterioration is antithetical to the meaning of the work. With contemporary art, however, a broad range of philosophical considerations make this assumption dangerous. In the work of Mike Parr, as with many other contemporary artists, issues of process and signification are much more important than issues of stability and appearance. In fact, stabilizing the work may destroy its meaning.

While such issues are clearly developed in Parr's performance pieces, it is in a series of works known collectively as The Self-Portrait Project that Parr uses traditional drawing methods to explore issues of process and signification. This project uses the artist and images of the artist as the point of departure, beginning in the early 1970s with drawings and later including prints. Parr's works on paper are most often presented to conservators for treatment, but not all works on paper serve the same function in The Self-Portrait Project. To identify an appropriate treatment strategy, the role of the individual work needs to be ascertained.

Many of these works on paper exhibit signs of degradation and active deterioration, so I asked Parr whether this effect on the appearance of the object was likely to be a problem always, or only for certain works, or not at all. He responded by explaining the types of processes that constitute The Self-Portrait Project.

Drawings, for example, serve a number of functions, some of which Parr considers suitable for public display and others that are part of a private archiving process. All the drawings, however, are part of Parr's working methodology, and their value resides in the act of making them, not in the finished object.

I wasn't interested in the idea of likeness. I was interested in turning the whole idea of representing the self, or another, into a problem of process. So I thought of the self-portrait as a kind of container, which was in a sense arbitrary—it was only a field within which various repetitions, various kinds of inadvertent distortions occurred. Because it was only a container, and I was interested in process, I began to realise that a lot of that process could also be accidental. It could be the random interface with the world. I got to the point with a lot of the big drawings where I would (I still do) have heaps of drawings that go on over years and they lie around the studio and … they get very dirty and so on—I find all that rather stimulating (Parr and Slogget, 1991).

It is inappropriate to conserve and stabilize these drawings because they are working methodology that delineates the psychological content of the self-portrait. The drawing is not the self-portrait, the process it signifies is. The act of conservation limits the potential of these works to contribute to The Self-Portrait Project.


Because the works in The Self-Portrait Project exist, among other reasons, to comment on the passage of time and relationships involving this passage, a particular work may be a “tracer” or marker of the ideas and processes that led to its formulation and a signpost to a larger body of work. Because the object may serve to define or mark that which is not an object, it is absolutely critical for the conservator to understand the relation of the object to this idea or process.

This concern with process has been a major focus for artists in the 20th century. Jasper Johns reveals: “My work is in part concerned with the possibility of things being taken for one thing or another—with questionable areas of identification and usage and procedure—with thoughts rather than secure things” (quoted in Rothfus 1993, 270). Adrian Piper expresses a similar concern: “I think because my work is so much about communication and dialogue with the audience that if the conditions of communication are not respected, then the whole point of the work is lost” (quoted in Davenport 1995, 47).

When the artist focuses on issues of “procedure” or “dialogue,” conservation treatment aimed at stabilizing the object may severely limit the development of new possibilities and ultimately the meaning of the work. “Many of Parr's installations refer to paradigmatic systems of definition: the alphabet, the dictionary, language, photography. For if it is through naming and classification that restriction can be implemented, then it is through the transgression of these systems that new paradigms can be proposed” (Gates and Parr 1991, 2).

The conservation process must not limit the formation of new paradigms, result in the emergence of a constant or dominant paradigm with materials conservation as its central construct, or oppose the artist's intention for his or her work. Removing sticky tape, mending tears, removing dirt, or even framing and mounting may all limit the paradigmatic potential of Parr's drawings.

Fig. 2. Mike Parr, Selected Drawings from the Self-Portrait Project, 1983–1990, installation City Gallery, July 1990. Photograph courtesy of Anna Schwarz Gallery.

As a way of illustrating how unintended elements in his drawing contribute to paradigmatic shifts, Parr used the example of a large self-portrait with a wavy yellow line resembling water damage. This mark had occurred when Parr's dog urinated on the drawings in the studio. These marks are, says Parr, “a true random factor and … incredibly important within the context of the drawing…. Because it's so obviously a random factor and given my whole attitude towards drawing, it totally short-circuits the traditional aspects of the work. It's like a Zen master's blow except that it's the dog being territorial, but it's equally abrupt” (Parr and Sloggett 1991). In this case the raw quality, the “Zen master's blow,” evinces the temporality of the work, and leaving the work untreated is the most sympathetic response to the artist's intention.

Sometimes, marks of wear and tear may impose problems that require a conservator's attention but not treatment-based intervention. In describing Word Definition, which he did in 1971, Parr talks about these problems:

It came up in relation to a piece called Word Definition that I did in 1971 that's now owned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. What they've got now is a relic which bears all these marks of decay and change and when the relic was exhibited a year or more ago in an exhibition in Sydney it looked very fascinating, it had these wonderful qualities to it, but given the original intention of the piece I suddenly realised that these were the kinds of qualities, that while very interesting, interfered with the real intentions of the piece, because in a way they were a kind of sentimental pictorial component. That instead of people being confronted with the rigour of a system whose very point was that it demonstrated the alienating aspects of definition and analysis, they saw an image that was humanised by the passage of time and it was the passage of time that was particularly perceptible, in fact much more perceptible. It became a kind of bribe, the work became acceptable or more acceptable, it seemed to acquire a pathos by virtue of this other evidence and other aspects that were false in terms of the intention of the piece…. So then my instruction to the museum was that we should use this piece as a master copy to make a photocopy, and that the photocopy would be the basis for all future production. So that every time it went up it had this aggravating raw quality about it. Thirty years down the track it would still have that quality of just being off the machine, and that was much closer to the original intention of the piece. (Parr and Sloggett 1991).

In this case Parr's solution to the problem of degradation involved a procedural rather than a treatment-based approach. In a work that should, by necessity, be raw and blunt, conservation treatment aimed at stabilizing the object is procedurally wrong. Parr's statement “What is mended is in a sense forgotten or displaced” (from his performance piece Libretto Alphabet/Haemorrhage; see Parr 1993, 41) refers not simply to physical mending as a conservator might understand it but also to psychological and philosophical mending. Any treatment proposal needs to acknowledge the role of such tension in the work.


It would be easy to conclude, on the basis of discussions about the drawings, that conservators should simply take a hands-off approach to Parr's work. Prints, however, raise different, more complex issues. When Parr is working with the plates, then issues of randomness and chance represent the dominant paradigm. However, once the plates are printed, the printed sheet must be preserved in pristine condition to signify the end of the process.

[The] conclusive form [of The Self-Portrait Project] was in the print making, because the plates are always a record of every mark that's gone onto them in some way…. It becomes this kind of archaeological site, and I began to think that the self-portrait really was a record of traces in time, and by turning the copper plates around and working on the back and recycling and reusing them and forgetting them and not knowing what was there and coming back to that surface and scraping them back, that in a sense I was creating a kind of a dig. So here was this dig going on which was the true meaning of portraiture. It seemed to have this relationship to the unconscious almost, that you were excavating all of this content. It was very stimulating for me to try and think about this disorder in relation to the self-portrait as a container…that the self-portrait in the late 20th century has become a kind of fiction—a kind of absence rather than a presence and that the real presence is this collision of chance and intention and layers of process within that container. So it was all best got at by print making. (Parr and Sloggett 1991).

But the image on the plate and the printed image are not the same. The printed image represents a procedural end point, whereas the plate, like the drawing, needs to be able to reflect paradigmatic shifts of process. In this respect the copper plate is closer to the drawings than the drawings are to the printed image, despite the dissimilarity of material. Like drawings, the plates represent a working methodology, not a finished object.

Fig. 3. Mike Parr. Primitive Gifts II, 1991, set of 12 prints, 107 × 78 cm each, installation the Ian Potter Gallery, the University of Melbourne, 1991. Photograph courtesy of Anna Schwarz Gallery

I have a very particular attitude to the plates. I draw not only on the front of the plate, but on the back … and I recycle plates. I scrape drypoint off and then redraw over that surface, which contains a lot of residual random marking, such as scratches, dents and further damage from transport…. I used to like the fact that the prints were sent up to Sydney by a commercial carrier, just taped together with masking tape/packaging tape so they would get scraped and damaged and bent and I would hammer them out when they arrived and just go on drawing. What interested me was that accidental noise as I call it … and I would often draw in relation to it. I would think of it as a kind of primary distortion…. I was interested in those kinds of images that carried a distortion that wasn't expressionistic…. Then I thought all of this noise on the plate was a kind of crucial ground for the image…. I would be drafting something … and it would get deflected by all of these marks in the plate … so once I began to identify that aspect of the process as part of the work it meant that once the print was pulled then that part of the process had to be terminated in order to remain significant. These random marks contradicted the constructed nature of drawing…. A lot of it I wouldn't recognize when it came off the plate, and it was the absence of recognition that really stimulated me. So the process had to be significant. It had to be terminated at that point. It couldn't be added to after the event because that would contradict the emotional surprise of its effect. That would have dismantled the intention of the whole idea. It meant that the prints themselves, the actual sheets, must be properly preserved, that they must be very carefully handled so that the random effects could, as it were, be properly contained. (Parr and Sloggett 1991)

Like drawing, print making reflects a process, but once pulled the print needs to be maintained in good condition. Because the prints are the record of the process, and not part of the process in the way the plates are, it is essential that the prints serve as reliable documents. For Parr the culmination of the process is when John Loane pulls the prints and he and Parr agree on how they are to look.

The whole point is that the print … records very intentionally the state of that plate at a particular point in time in the history of the process…. For that process to be truly perceptible in the print, the print has got to be preserved as it was pulled.

Really for all that disorder that is in the prints, for it to properly signify I can't allow them to deteriorate in a kind of arbitrary way.

I think that it's very important that the prints be stabilised as records of this process, to be accurate. If they start drifting and become dirty and scuffed, they're not stabilised in relation to this process. There's got to be a record, so that I imagine that somewhere down the track—I've already done hundreds, there will be a thousand or more prints that constitute one self-portrait. (Parr and Sloggett 1991).

This sequence of statements highlights one of the problems that can arise if we rely only on artists' statements as an authority on which to base conservation decisions, for if we do not understand specific contexts we can form inappropriate conclusions. Parr's statements about the drawings will not help in determining appropriate responses to the prints. It is the knowledge of the process, and what constitutes the end of the process, that enables the conservator to understand at what stage, if at all, conservation treatment is appropriate for a particular object. For prints the end of the process is when they are pulled. For drawings, however, the process is different and the intention, and therefore the conservator's intervention and interaction, must be adjusted accordingly. For Word Definition, photocopying provided a solution to the problems raised by the humanizing aspects of wear and tear, but we cannot assume all photocopies will always be the solution.

At one stage I would go to a lot of trouble to do drawings, … photocopy them and destroy the original and … the photocopy becomes as precious as the original work, it becomes in a sense original, so those particular photocopies raise all kinds of problems that are quite distinct from the ones where I keep the original and the photocopy is like a print. But then there's different categories of those, too. There's a set of photocopies where the original has been destroyed and where the photocopy has been made by working at the dark limit of the machine and … the machine turned to its limit enacted a process of erasure while simultaneously reproducing the work…. What I really want is an image of the reproduction and disintegration of the image so that the necessity of preserving the record requires that it be photocopied again, thus that process can only add to the meaning of the original intention. And if in fact you had to do it 10 times over a period of 20 years and finally you end up with an image which to all intents and purposes was an image of complete disintegration and chaos, simply an image of the machine's limitation, then … the intention of the original impulse is fully met…. In other cases, … the photocopy is a particular kind of print and is meant to bear the same kind of stability in relation to the original moment that a print taken off a copper plate is meant to bear, so that in those instances you would have to go back and photocopy the original if the copy was damaged rather than working from the copy. And these intentions are generally identified as part of the comprehendible intention of the piece. (Parr and Sloggett 1991)

Understanding context is critical. In Parr's oeuvre marks of wear and tear may represent an important part of the work, linking issues of displacement, randomness and temporality with issues of intention and authority; or they may be impositions that interfere with our understanding of the process. While the conservator may consider that fingermarks on a print and fingermarks on a drawing require the same treatment (usually removal), discussions with Parr indicate that is not a safe assumption.


As Albano (1996) notes there is an almost implicit assumption in responses to 20th-century art that because artists are experimenting or are concerned with issues other than permanence they are not interested in materials. But Parr's use of randomness and chance as contributing components does not limit or overshadow his very real concerns with his choice of materials. Parr explained this issue when describing Word Situations, (Variation 2), a work undertaken in 1977–78 that used a yellow typewriter ribbon as the medium. “So yellow completes the primary triad and makes possible the admixture of colours that allows the full search. I need materials parameters, to precipitate the search through the dictionary as it were. It's always got to be correlated back to some material or literal base” (quoted in Bromfield 1991, 159).

Parr's printing paper—Hahn Muhla, chosen because of its tactile qualities, greenish cast, and position as a traditional German etching paper, with a pedigree to Albrecht Dürer—indicates these concerns with materials. As Parr says: “You know this pedigree, it stimulated me, it's like doing drawings on the back of a well-bred poodle. It presents with its own kind of tradition. It's a certification, for an image that's as provisional as my images are” (Parr and Sloggett 1991).

The choice of materials therefore is a critical factor in Parr's working methodology.

My first drawings were done on photographic backdrop paper and I was able to really expand. Then I got some paper through a guy in Sydney, got it in from the West Coast actually, acid free, archival paper. Well I thought I was made, but actually I was totally inhibited by this stuff. Every time I set up a wall of paper to begin drawing all I could think of was this was $150 worth of paper if I made a mistake, so I went back to backdrop paper. So that I think there is something to do with materials. An effect like “Oh isn't this looking nice” and suddenly that kind of gels with “Oh I'm a really serious artist now … look at the good paper.” This question of materials, and substances that have the same kind of incoherence and fundamental quality as the situation you're trying to represent, actually help to precipitate the possibilities and sensibilities of the situation. (Parr and Sloggett 1991)

A study of Parr's choice of materials also assists in understanding the historical background to his artistic development. Parr commenced drawing because he was unable to continue on an emotional and physical level with his performances of the 1970s. “I was doing these incredibly intensely cathartic things before an audience and I got to the point where I couldn't physically do this anymore … and in a kind of state of desperation I began to draw … and before I knew it I began to become involved in something that was as dynamic and as intense as the process of the performances” (Parr and Sloggett 1991).

In Self-Portrait as a Pear (1983), charcoal is smudged with margarine, the fruit directly drawn with his fingers. “By touching it directly he was immediately involved with ‘totem and taboo’ and his own ‘touching’ performances. His drawing replayed the ‘attenuation’ of touch produced in the performances. It also referred to the play on the sense of touch, language and skin in Word Situations (Variations 2) 1977” (Bromfield 1995, 234).

This relationship between individual pieces (including performance) is a key element in most artists' oevre, and for the conservator supporting and enabling the proper attenuation of this relationship can be a key issue.


Conservators make assessments of “artist's intention” and take action on the basis of judgments they have made about it. However, the question “What did the artist intend to mean?” cannot safely be taken to mean “How did the artist intend the work to look?” Although appearance is important to Parr, it would be wrong to assume that appearance defines the meaning of the work. Rather, appearance and condition (good and bad) are signposts to those broader issues that form the core of the artist's intent. Dykstra (1996, 200) acknowledges the complexities of such issues: “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.”

In fact, artwork is rarely bound by intention. Many works posit critical meanings the artist did not intend but are nevertheless important and relevant. In additioin while “purposes, aims, goals, and objectives … in a psychological arena … do not decompose or deteriorate,” they are subject to shifts and a certain fluidity. Using them as a base on which to posit authority can be no less problematic than positing authority on the physical manifestation of “purposes, aims, goals and objectives.”

Where shifts in meaning are part of the work, the conservator engaged in treating the work should ensure these shifts in reading and meaning are available to the audience. As Parr notes:

Really your best way of preserving the work is (a) to be able to understand my intention or generally the intention of the conceptual artist, and that (b) if you can give a clear account of that intention and underscore its trajectory in relation to the problems of conserving an object then you best preserve the work, since the work is about ideas rather than about objects. So that in a sense as the image becomes more and more ambiguous and obscure, if you are able as a conservator by understanding the intentions of the artist, to come up with a note that makes perfectly clear the significance of the process and a note that links the results of the process to the intention of the artists, then you would more truly be conserving the work than if you were to put your efforts into arresting at some arbitrary point the process of the decay of the image. (Parr and Sloggett 1991)

The responsibility of the conservator is clear.

If these problems [of the extraordinary tension of antithetical forces that become visible in terms of materials which posit the work as a dynamic form of meaning] aren't properly appreciated and understood, you actually destroy that work rather than conserve it…. That's the whole point, that within a severely delimited image, it becomes the basis for tensioning a kind of disaster, which is the material interface with the world, and somehow or other for that work to survive in time the tension of that disaster has to remain visible…. If the work is stabilized too much then in fact it loses its meaning. (Parr and Sloggett 1991)

So the role of the conservator is twofold: to seek a proper and full account of the artist's intention and the process that makes clear this intention, and to provide a full and proper account of the artist's intention and the role of process in fulfilling this intention. This provision of a full and proper account may involve treatment to enable the work to be read properly, or it may involve explanations of why the work is deteriorating; both are valid conservation strategies.

“If I'm not there then the institution has to do the research. It's possible to establish my intention,” Parr says (Parr and Sloggett 1991).

You see the other thing I do is keep extended diaries, which talk about these intentions, to embody in their construction many of the systems that lie behind the works. For example just writing things down and crossing them when I've done them and the crossing out still being legible. In fact I've been arguing this recently that a lot of conceptual art can be only understood in relation to the processing of archiving its intention. I think it's important in a sense that there be this dialogue that accompanies the work. (Parr and Sloggett 1991)

The responsibility of the conservator is thus well defined, perhaps best described as establishing an effective “dialogue,” both between the artist and conservator, and between conservator and public.

Because Parr's work is about process, his position on his role as conservator or restorer is very clear: he cannot not fix anything that is damaged because this would interfere with The Self-Portrait Project as a process of accumulating meaning.

[W]ithin The Self-Portrait Project I have this enormous array of material. Some I just sit down and draw from photographs and they're very stiff and grided up and I do them like doodles, and sometimes I copy earlier images and I'm interested in the slight shift and I'm interested in the days I can't draw very well—I mean I used to get very disturbed when I would sit down and I'd start to draw and suddenly the proportions wouldn't be right…. But it's psychological—this is content—so in order for all of this to be legible I can't interfere with the evidence. It means in effect that a bad drawing has got this absolutely specific aspect in relation to time and in relation to the impulse. In a sense it can't be duplicated. And if I copy as I often do then what I'm interested in is the shift and it's the shift in a way that will precipitate the work. So I would be really worried about a situation in which I tried to fix up a damaged image … because that would become another work. You would have to accept that it would be another work, because I'm interested in these kinds of shifts and diffraction patterns…. If I fix it, … something would get psychologically concealed. Whereas if you were to fix it I would accept that as simply a state of the original. So that would be an important point for me. (Parr and Sloggett 1991)

The complex issues raised by Parr's work are somewhat simplified once a work has been purchased by an institution or collector because the agreement on the purchase represents for Parr an agreement on the necessity of preservation, “with mitigating aspects,” and responsibility for the work then rests with the institution.


The issues discussed here confront all conservators undertaking all treatments. They are exemplified in questions such as: What did this originally look like? Did the artist intend this to happen? Is it appropriate to reinstate loss/stabilize/inpaint/clean? What is the best method to use? In dealing with contemporary art, the literature is firmly in favor of using the artist's statements and interviews as a guiding authority, perhaps stemming from disappointment that there is no handy statement by J.M.W. Turner or Joshua Reynolds, for example, to answer a thorny question raised by their use of materials. However, as these discussions with Parr indicate, a statement out of context or extrapolated to another context is a dangerous statement indeed, leading perhaps to intervention when the work should be left alone (drawings), or nonintervention when intervention is required (prints).

Davenport (1995, 40) notes: “Though many works from 1945 to the present pose new conservation questions, the problem of determining artists' intents for works not even fifty years old may not seem difficult. When the artists are living, it is common sense just to ask them. If they have died there may be others still living who worked with them or who are well acquainted with the artists' intentions.” This advice sounds simple but may in fact be extremely problematic. Goist (1980, 29) refers to a series of articles in Art News in the 1950s and 1960s in which artists talk about their work but cautions, “Information in the articles may not be accurate for conservation purposes.” Fred Sandback acknowledges shifts in authority: “Who should be the primary source in determining how a work should look over time? Well sure, I should be…. But the question becomes interesting as I begin to fade out of the picture” (quoted in Davenport 1995, 51). Dykstra (1996, 200) cautions: “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.”

Statements out of context can be problematic, and context is often difficult to assess. Should Parr's work, for example, be understood in terms of the actions that created it, or in terms of its relationship to the audience? How do we know we have asked the right question to elicit an appropriate response? Has the artist “faded out of the picture” enough for another authority to take precedence?


All these issues turn on this question: Who has the authority to determine which context is the most significant—the artist, the artist's next of kin, the owner, the curator, the conservator? But this question, in turn, is predicated on questions of what constitutes authority. For more traditional art, historical inquiry and scientific investigation are often used to provide such authority, but usually only to determine what the artist originally intended (and often this inquiry is formulated only to provide answers to the question, What did this work originally look like?).

As broad interdisciplinarians, conservators usually employ a number of reference points to develop an authoritative base from which to formulate treatment proposals. Althofer (1981, 81/11/1–4) describes the attraction and dangers for conservators in providing technical solutions to problems of deterioration and degeneration and argues for a “philosophy of abstinence” and “of relinquishing an exclusively detail-focussed technological treatment of a problem” (81/11/1–3). As he argues, conservators tend to rely on tools provided through art historical inquiry and scientific analysis rather than developing broader philosophical attitudes. Goist (1980, 29) demonstrates problems with relying on artists' statements, arguing that “facts clearly describing painting materials and techniques are rare and often inaccurate in contemporary art criticism. Even when the artist is still alive, availability and accuracy of memory are often additional problems.” Goist (1980) points to the value of scientific analysis in recording surface characteristics. Dykstra (1996, 203) notes: “A strict technologically driven approach achieved only a scientific bona fide presentation of authentic material—a presentation that did not necessarily reveal the artist's original creation, support conventions of connoisseurship, or fulfill art historical research and precedent.”

In some cases the conservator may consider it important to respond to other values that a work has developed, such as value for research or education, and may require an authority beyond the artist. Davenport (1995, 40) observes: “The object's worth as an education resource may lend weight to preservation of the work within an art historical framework, that is, keeping the signs of the object's history, rather than attempting to preserve its original condition.” Derrick, Stulik, and Ordonez (1993) discuss these issues in relation to their treatment of plastics used by Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner. Gabo is quoted as claiming that his works embodied four dimensions “because time was expressed through rhythm” (quoted in Derrick, Stulik, and Ordonez 1993, 169), and “I did a great deal of work in plastics for only one reason: to accentuate the transparent character of space (178). While it is obvious that Gabo approved of the treatment program for these plastics (by taking part in it), it is also clear that these objects are now more historic documents than objects capable of accentuating “the transparent character of space.” A discussion of Gabo's response to this change would have been as interesting a historic document, and perhaps as relevant a conservation approach, as treatment of the objects themselves. Gabo's “authority to proceed” has given us no more insight into the artist's intent than would have been provided by a didactic panel explaining his use of plastic.


Professional conservation codes of ethics provide guidelines for the manner, method, and extent to which conservators can intervene when treating an object, with emphasis on providing a proper contextual study of the object through appropriate historical inquiry and scientific analysis. Increasingly the conservation profession is becoming aware of, and interested in, broader approaches to the discipline—approaches that rely not only on materials analysis and art historical studies, but also on an examination of the aesthetic and philosophical constructs. (See, for example, the range of issues raised in van de Wetering and van Wegen 1987.) shifts in our understanding and attitudes to the treatment of indigenous material, as well as the issues raised by 20th-century art, have broadened the contextual parameters for conservation with an increasing interest in developing philosophical or intellectual tools—such as the collection of artists' statements—to deal with issues of treatment, storage, and display.

However, there is still a tendency to impose museological and conservation “authority” over the authority of the artist and to make general assumptions from specific descriptions of intention. The conservation process has the potential to introduce an obtrusive layer between audience and artist, presenting a translation (good or bad) of the artist to the audience. As Albano (1996, 183) asks somewhat ironically: “Should our function as conservators, then, be to impose our own perspective concerning durability onto the creative process of the artist? The odd result would be the ideals of the conservator taking precedence over those of the artist, as an attempt is made to permanently lock a work of art into a single moment in time.”

Often it is the conservator, however, and not the artist, who is approached to provide authority when decisions are being made about display, purchase, or treatment. This request can raise complex issues for the conservator, hence the attraction in having access to a properly constructed dialogue with the artist. This is not to say that every conservator must have a close working relationship with every artist whose work he or she may be called upon to treat. But access to a body of factual information about the artist's aesthetic and his or her working methodology is important. Guidelines are needed for recording and circulating such information, with discussion of the limitations of the methods of collection, distribution, or extrapolation of the data. Pomerantz (1980, 15) examined the ways in which conservators take action to ensure best outcomes for artists, curators, and educators. One way is to seek information directly from the artist, the artist's family or friends through a fact or date sheet or interview. Davenport (1995, 52) gives examples of questions that may be appropriate. Such questions may relate to installation and display: On or off a pedestal? How much space around it? What level of lighting? Or they may relate to conservation: How should it be maintained? If a piece is damaged, can it be repaired, replaced with a new piece, or simply left “retired”? She is not alone in her exhortation that: “A greater emphasis should be placed on cooperative effort among artists, curators, and conservators” (Davenport 1995, 52). Pomerantz (1980, 16) emphasizes the value of artists' marking the backs of their work with information relevant to their intentions such as whether the work should be varnished. Wilson and Nairne (1980, 17) add: “It is necessary to discover from the artist what his attitude to these auxiliaries is—are they themselves a distinct part of the art work, or is it only the effect which is essential to the work? … Accurate documentation of the assembled state, together with all necessary instruction on how to achieve it, is vital and an ‘installation’ work does not exist without it.”

Unfortunately much conservation research is discussed in terms of “materials and techniques,” and although “techniques” is a generic term and may well cover issues of intention and appropriateness, there is still a tendency to consider it to be more closely linked to material than to philosophy.


Artists' statements on their own do not necessarily provide adequate or sufficient authority to proceed with a particular conservation procedure. For a number of reasons, some but not all of which are discussed in this article, an artist may not be the best source of authority. In addition, there may be problems with methods of the collection or distribution of the information contained in the statement that affect its relevance or veracity. Often our interest is in relationships of ideas and processes, and we need to ensure that the statement reflects relevant complexities. It is important not only to ask questions about a particular work but to be able to judge whether that answer is specific to that object or can later be extrapolated to include other works. Simply amassing statements does not deal with issues of verification, context, and appropriateness.

If we are using artists' statements as a way of securing authority, we also need to consider the practicalities and problems of both collecting and distributing this information. It is important to be able to ascertain whether the interviewer has asked appropriate questions. It is important to be able to identify sarcasm and irony in an artist's reply. It is important to be in a position to judge when a statement is out of context and how important context is to the meaning of the statement. We do not want to impose a new meaning every time we pass on the artist's statement for use in a new context. Are there criteria we can use to judge the validity of a conclusion based on dialogue, in the way that we can judge a scientific conclusion valid? In collecting artists' statements, conservators need to consider the practical problems of such an exercise, including determining collection methods that reflect the meaning of the original statement. Taping with transcription is the method I used with Parr; videotaping the artist in front of his or her work is another. Being in a position to test a statement in a range of contexts would appear to be important. The use of the Internet and the World Wide Web opens up a range of possibilities not yet discussed in the literature. One useful tool would be the development of a directory of the addresses of artists, curators, and conservators who are interested in and willing to engage in dialogue. But the level of discussion and the tools conservators develop in order to make use and sense of these discussions need to be sophisticated. In this project it became clear that: (1) the context of the statement is critical; (2) dialogue is much more useful than statements; and (3) an artist's questionnaire sheet would have presented issues out of context and would have been so cursory as to be irrelevant.

All research relies on developing an appropriate skills base. These discussions with Mike Parr indicate the value of having research skills in aesthetics and philosophy, not just art history and scientific analysis. As a profession, conservators are actively seeking dialogue with artists. Dialogue brings up issues of authenticity, verification, and authority, and if we are to use artists' statements these are issues that need to concern us as a profession, as much as solvent mixes and determining original paint. There also needs to be close liaison with curators. It may be that a treatment report would read: “The primary concern of the artist for this work is the signification of process evinced through decay. The work should not be mounted or protected and should not have treatment to arrest decay and deterioration.” But a context for a conclusion such as this would also need to be recorded.


With Parr's work the point of aesthetic interest often takes place in an area of tension, and this tension is often exhibited through materials degradation, so I asked Parr: “How much do you think that you should seek that out [“the tension of that disaster,” as he calls it] and how much does explanation of the importance of that tension, as part of the archiving, become part of your modus operandi?” And by implication, that of the conservator.

Parr replied:

Well, because you're talking about systems that are completely open and insist this is their form, it's important to try and give an account of that openness. Then all of these conversations that I might have and everything that I write down about them is only a part of the process of the dialogue that this openness can precipitate. So it's not exhaustive in any sense. There's always a kind of domain of implication and inference that has to be completed by someone else, since that's the point at which the works cross that membrane between self and other, self and culture. But the important thing I really would want to say is that the relationship between self and other, and self and culture in order to be meaningful must remain dynamic, so it's very important that we continue to talk to museum people and curators and conservators and everyone to do with the support structure, because they've got to take that on board, and the physical problems that the work has is simply the work being like a child, staying alive by calling out. It's making inconvenient noises, but these are signs of life. (Parr and Sloggett 1991).

For a conservator, schooled and skilled in the preservation of the object, the need to establish a modus operandi based on the object was overwhelming, so I said to Parr: “Even if you are an intellectual craftsman, I don't think you should ever be able to turn your back on the need to be able to craft as competently as possible, whether that's with the object or intellectually, and I think that's the mark of a good artist, that they're crafting competently somewhere.”

Parr replied: “Yes, but conceptual artists try to craft competently at the level of meaning, and their meanings are dependent for their vitality on the provisionality of their construct, so good craftsmanship in their case would be tantamount to bad craftsmanship.”

I insisted: “Well, it depends on the tools, doesn't it?”

Parr replied: “No, it depends on the problem of meaning” (Parr and Sloggett 1991).


The author would like to thank Mike Parr for his time and effort in explaining and discussing his work and his thoughts on the role of conservation, and for reading and commenting on drafts on this topic. Anna Schwarz Gallery, the artist's dealer, has been particularly helpful in providing access to written and photographic material, and for providing the photographs accompanying this text. The reviewers and associate editors of JAIC have provided valuable criticism and insightful comments on this article, and the author is very grateful for their contribution and support.


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ROBYN SLOGGETT is chief conservator at the University of Melbourne's Conservation Service and is an associate of the Department of Fine Arts. She is a graduate of the Materials Conservation course at the University of Canberra and has a B.A. Combined Honours majoring in Fine Arts and Philosophy. Her research interests currently include Raman spectroscopic analysis of manuscript material and forgery and identification issues relating to the materials and techniques of 19th-century Australian artists. Address: University of Melbourne Conservation Service, Ian Potter Art Conservation Centre, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, Australia, 3052

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