Delia Müller-Wüsten / Giuliana Moretto
The conservation of contemporary art, in private practice in New York City, operates within a vibrant and fast-paced art market. Contemporary Conservation Ltd. is daily challenged to strike a balance between the artist’s intent, the unavoidable physical changes that materials undergo, and the satisfaction of our clients. Artworks entering the studio cannot be treated as if they exist in a vacuum. The decision-making process is guided by all parties involved, which can include: artists, galleries, auction houses, private collectors, insurance agencies, and appraisers. Treatment solutions need to be developed quickly with everyone’s consent, while adhering to a framework of practices of conservation ethics.
Works made of modern materials – especially plastics with industrially finished surfaces – are deceivingly considered robust and unbreakable. An artwork made of unstable material can be subject to rapid unintentional deterioration, while lack of material knowledge may damage the work during handling and transportation. Restoring industrially finished surfaces is often challenging and requires extensive testing and research. However, conservators in private practice lack the resources available to museums, dedicated time and an allocated budget for research. Therefore, a more treatment-based approach is needed and solutions are often achieved by trial and error.
These two case studies on the conservation of artworks made of plastics illustrate this decision-making process, arising material challenges and the limits of physical treatment within private practice.
Since the1970s the prolific John McCracken (1934-2011) created highly polished polyester columns and planks. The pristine surfaces of these sculptures scratch easily, resulting in an overall dull appearance, which diminishes the experience of the artwork and compromises its authenticity. Over six years 20 works have come into the studio demanding a systematic approach – the refinement of a polishing technique that allowed treating large surfaces in an adequate time frame. During the course of several months, research was carried out and an exhaustive list of materials and techniques were tested until a well-balanced result was achieved.
Between 2004 and 2012, Seth Price (b. 1973), a multi-disciplinary artist, created wall reliefs made of thermoformed high-impact polystyrene (HIPS) sheets. Due to the inherent brittleness of polystyrene and the tension induced during the production process, a number of these panels have developed cracks, which are not only visually disturbing but also structurally weaken the artwork. An immediate stabilization method for the cracks was necessary to prevent further exacerbation before it reaches a condition beyond recovery.
Further research and testing is currently being carried out in order to assess and optimize the method. Meanwhile the degradation of the polystyrene will unavoidably progress and the shelf life of these artworks will always remain in question.
Much can be gained by comparing the approach these two specific sets of problems present. With the current high turnover rate in the contemporary art market, it is becoming increasingly important to take the time to reflect on the quality of our treatments, their longevity, reversibility and how these actions preserve the artists’ or artworks’ legacy.