WAACNewsletter
May 1999 Volume 21 Number 2


The Archive of Techniques and Working materials Used by Contemporary Artists

by Erich Gantzert-Castrillo, translated by Jeremy Gaines

The following is an excerpt from Mortality/Immortality? a recently published collection of the papers given at the conference on the preservation of contemporary art held at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.


This essay introduces the Archive of Techniques and Working Materials Used by Contemporary Artists1 and describes how it came about, its goals, and its methods.

As chief conservator of the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main, I have been in charge of the archive, which is an artists' archive, since the 1970s. Although the archive functions independently of the museum, the daily routines are very similar, and the two institutions continually benefit from each other.

In 1968, I started work as an art conservator at the Museum Wiesbaden. The museum's collection included artwork from all eras--up to and including contemporary art--but there were large gaps of information regarding techniques and materials used by contemporary artists. Filling these gaps was fundamental to my work. I therefore devised various questionnaires--on painting, sculpture, objects, drawings, and prints, as well as on art in public spaces--and sent them to artists from German-speaking countries. The 140 questionnaires that were completed were compiled and published in 1979 as the first volume of Archiv für Techniken und Arbeitsmaterialien zeitgenössischer Künstler (Archive of Techniques and Working Materials Used by Contemporary Artists).2

The cost of publishing the book was covered by a Wiesbaden art collector,3 and the book went out of print in a relatively short time. To my great surprise, it was of predominant interest to artists, collectors, technical staff in related fields, art teachers, art historians, and nonprofessionals--although it had been intended primarily for conservators.

With very few exceptions, interest among conservators was restrained; no doubt the reason was that, in 1979, museums and collectors had only just become interested in contemporary art, and a large number of restorers were not yet particularly affected by the problems posed by restoring such works. This has subsequently changed completely, given the increased volume of contemporary art collected by various museums, private collectors, and--of equal importance--large corporations. The number of exhibitions is also rising, bringing with it the growing potential for damage during transport. Restorers have gradually come to realize the need for primary data and to recognize how valuable this data can be in finding solutions to the specific problems encountered in conserving and restoring contemporary art.

In subsequent years, I continued to collect information for a second volume but was not able to pursue the matter intensively due to my involvement with the Museum für Moderne Kunst. In 1996, the first volume was reprinted.4

Since then I have continued to expand the archive with the assistance of my wife, Elisabeth Bushart, whose work as a conservator for private collections of contemporary art, such as the Deutsche Bank collection, is a meaningful supplement to the substance of my work.

We run the archive in our free time and, thus far, at our own expense. We have received outside financial support from an art collector and, most recently, from the Cultural Foundation of the State of Hessen (Kulturstiftung Hessen), whose funding has enabled us to expand our range of computer equipment. We have opted, when recording information on techniques and materials, to confine ourselves to a small number of artists; however, we attempt to record the full range of their artistic activity.

These artists all occupy a special position in terms of their respective artistic approach and their choice of techniques and materials. They include sculptors and other artists who work in three-dimensional media, painters, photographers, video, and installation artists. They make use of materials and media such as wood, paper, paint, milk, rice, pollen, wax, plaster, stone, glass, metal, plastics, photos, slides, videos, and computers.

Unlike the Museum für Moderne Kunst's approach to gathering data on artists and their individual works from the collection,5 the archive's intent is to compile information on the entire oeuvre of an artist and to constantly expand and update the data. We have developed a program using FileMakerPro 3.06 that manages and updates the data; a data record is set up for each artwork or work group the artist has produced and is accessed by several masks (or fields or dialogue boxes).

The following data are contained in each field: first and foremost, basic information on the genre (paintings, drawings or prints, photographs, sculptures or other three-dimensional or relief objects, installations, computer-generated works of art); artist, title, and (whenever applicable) the respective work group or part of a work group, as well as the date and measurements; number of parts, edition, publishers, location, and collection; references (catalogue, etc.); illustrations; information on techniques and materials; questions regarding materials, techniques, products, firms, craft workshops; and, finally, substantive questions. Some of these questions are of a general nature. We do, however, adapt them so that they are relevant to the individual artists insofar as materials, techniques, and artistic concepts are concerned.

Examples of general questions are:

Examples of questions of an individual nature are:

The latter series of questions is particularly important in that, in the domain of art, our society has great difficulties in accepting soiled work, patina, and any changes to a work's original appearance.

In additional fields, we indicate, among other things, the forms the aging takes and types of damage, a list of illustrations of the work in question, and film and video documentation. We list photographic documentation using different categories--such as work process, studio setting, and transport situation.

The last field enumerates literature: books and essays on the topic or artwork in question that contain hints on specific conservation or exhibition issues; manufacturers' information on materials; and, above all, statements by the artist, his or her assistants, gallery owners, and collectors, along with quotations by family members, friends, curators, and conservators.

We have known the artists represented in our archive for many years now. The major prerequisite for fruitful collaboration is mutual trust. In the eyes of many artists, the conservator is a critic when it comes to technical issues, and this can prompt rejection. Moreover, artists are sometimes afraid of revealing information on their work to fellow artists. It is sometimes difficult to overcome such hurdles.

The sets of questions we ask are the product of our work with the art itself. Together with artists and with the assistance of existing catalogues and artists' archives, we develop the specific questions and compile the data records on the respective works. These files are then sent to the respective artist, who is then free to change them as he or she sees fit. The way the questions are answered can differ. There are artists who prefer an interview format; others wish to take their time and prefer to answer in writing. Whatever the case, it is a highly time-intensive process.

Different artists' views on this subject can be widely divergent. Reiner Ruthenbeck, for example, offered fundamental views on restoring or renovating his objects:

In most of my creations, the underlying idea is the most important aspect of the object (with a number of exceptions, in particular my less recent sculptures dating from around 1970, and of course my drawings and collages). Because their structure is simple, most of my objects can be restored without any major problems occurring. However, for this very reason a high degree of accuracy is required, since any small changes to the basic structure of the work could possibly falsify it. Treatment of surfaces: painted wood and metal parts; be sure to apply a neutral paint(!), either with a roller or use spray paint. Semi-matte or matte silk finish. Never use gloss paint! Do not use paint that leaves a texture! The surface must be completely smooth! Any soiling or damage should be treated immediately, or the work should be repainted. I wish the occurrence of any patina to be avoided, since this produces the kind of artistic effects I wish to avoid! (I am a sculptor, not a painter.)8

The material used for Ruthenbeck's Verspannung II (1969), consisting of two loose iron plates and a ring of fabric dyed red, had become very yellowed. Ruthenbeck said that he could not accept this state of affairs and that he wanted a new fabric ring to be made. We complied with his request and produced a new piece of material. It was not easy to find a material that matched the old one in color and texture. The "original"-- that is, the first ring of material-- is now in storage.

In another example, Katharina Fritsch used a bleached, printed cotton tablecloth in her Company at Table (1998), which is made of polyester, wood, cotton, and paint. These are Fritsch's comments regarding whether the tablecloth should be, or could be, replaced should disturbing signs of aging become visible:

Of course things are beautiful when they are brand new; and of course I want the work to look new, radiating newness. I am torn on this issue, but I must accept the aging process, just as people must accept that they grow old. I really do not know how the tablecloth could be renewed, or what impact that would have on the overall appearance of the work. We cannot continually conduct cosmetic surgery to ensure that it looks like a woman after countless facelifts. We cannot deny that things age. What is important is how they are treated, [if] . . . there [has] been due care and diligence: the atmospheric conditions must be guaranteed in which the artwork does not sustain damage.9

The artists with whom we have established links are in great demand in the art world, and we sometimes have a difficult time fighting our way up the list of priorities. The attitude of an artist can initially be one of distance; yet again, on occasion we are greeted with open arms. In general, it is fair to say that today's artists are more open-minded when it comes to issues of conservation and restoration. There may be various reasons for this. For them, contact with conservators can be a source of invaluable assistance in their work. They may have had difficulties using one or another material or technique. They know how annoying transportation and exhibition-related damage is, and they are acquainted with the problems that may arise among museums, collectors, and conservators.

In the 1970s, when I started collecting information for the archive, I encountered stiff resistance and strong reservations, particularly among younger artists, regarding archiving the information. This mood was influenced by the ideological divisions of the late 1960s and also by a rejection of the notion of society preserving specific values for posterity, of the idea that artworks were immortal and should be housed in museums. I came across such reservations less among older artists. Artists have tended, meanwhile, to become more open-minded with reference to such archives. And the role of the artist as a producer within the current consumer society has also changed. Artists are now fielding an increasing number of questions on the durability of artworks and they are expected to provide answers to them.

In the course of time, we have ascertained that, alongside compiling information on materials and techniques, the section of our archival work devoted to authentic statements by the artists on substantive issues is becoming increasingly important. These statements are of inestimable value for our daily work and are a key factor in continuing with our work. Published in book format, they potentially reach a wider circle of interested persons. And this circle, it bears mentioning, is of key importance in forming opinions and in expanding an awareness of the specific problems of conservation and restoration work involving Modern and contemporary art.

1. The archive is run by Elisabeth Bushart, a freelance conservator based in Frankfurt am Main, and by the author. It is housed in Offenbach am Main.

2. E. Gantzert-Castrillo, ed., Archiv für Techniken und Arbeitsmaterialien zeitgenössischer Künstler, vol. 1 (Wiesbaden: Harlekin Art, 1979).

3. Michael Berger, of Wiesbaden, Germany, is an art collector and art editor.

4. E. Gantzert-Castrillo, ed., Archiv für Techniken und Arbeitsmaterialien zeitgenössischer Künstler, vol. 1 (1979; reprint, Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke Verlag, 1996).

5. For more information, see: http://www.frankfurt-business.de/mmk/.

6. FileMakerPro 3.0 is produced by Claris. We use Claris FileMakerPro Version 4.0 on a Power Macintosh G3 (FileMaker- Pro 4.0 is also available for Windows). See also E. Gantzert-Castrillo, "Development of a Registration System in the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt," paper presented at the symposium "Modern Art: Who Cares?" Amsterdam, 8-10 September 1997, and forthcoming in Modern Art: Who Cares? (Amsterdam: Netherlands Institute of Cultural Heritage and the Foundation for the Con. of Modern Art).

7. E. Gantzert-Castrillo, "On the Gradual Dissapearance of the Original: How Durable is Video Art? Contributions to Preservation and Restoration of the Audiovisual Works of Art" in "Wie haltbar ist Videokunst?/How Durable is Video Art?" symposium at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, 25 November 1995 (Wolfsburg, Germany: Kunstmuseum Wolfburg, 1997), 49-60.

8. Archive of Techniques and Working Materials Used by Contemporary Artists, Reiner Ruthenbeck entry, unnumbered. Reprinted by permission of the artist.

9. Archive of Techniques and Working Materials Used by Contemporary Artists, Katharina Fritsch entry, unnumbered. Reprinted by permission of the artist.

Mortality/Immortality? is available
from the Getty Conservation Institute.
212 pages. 10 1/2 x 11 inches.
95 color and 3 b/w illustrations.
ISBN 0-89236-528-5. Paper. $39.95

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