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




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.

Copyright 1998 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works