Material and Method in Modern Art: A Collaborative Challenge
Associate Director of Conservation and Research
Whitney Museum of American Art
Director, Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art
Harvard Univesity Art Museums
Recently I reacquainted myself with an illuminating interview of Jasper Johns by one of the more important interviewers of American artists in our time, David Sylvester. I knew the interview well. However, this particular rereading occurred as I was reexamining in a more thoughtful way Johns’s encaustic works in the Whitney Museum of American Art, including Three Flags (1958), White Target (1957), and Double White Map (1965). Despite my familiarity with the discussion, there was something that the artist said in the 1965 interview that gave me pause in 2003 and forced me to reconsider the nature of our collective professional charge to elucidate and care for works of art.
In addressing the now famous paintings of flags and letters, Sylvester asked Johns about the objects with which he begins. Johns, seeking clarification, asked, “The empty canvas?” “No,” replied Sylvester, “Not only the empty canvas: well, the motif, if you like, such as the letters, the Flag and so on, or whatever it may be.” Johns said soberly, “I think it’s just a way of beginning.” Clearly surprised, Sylvester persisted, “In other words the painting is not about the elements with which you have begun.” Johns explained, “No more than it is about the elements which enter it at any moment. Say, the painting of a flag is always about a flag, but it is no more about a flag than it is about a brush-stroke or about a colour or about the physicality of the paint, I think.” Struck by the candor of this artist, who had obviously given enormous thought to the role of materiality in his art, I eagerly awaited clarification of his view, which came a few sentences later. He explained, “What I think this means is that, say in a painting, the processes involved in the painting are of greater certainty and of, I believe, greater meaning than the referential aspects of the painting. I think the processes involved in the
painting in themselves mean as much or more than any reference value that the painting has.” “And what would their meaning be?” asks Sylvester. “Visual, intellectual activity, perhaps recreation,” answers Johns.1
Is Johns saying that the making of the work of art is its most relevant aspect? If so, does that mean that we can understand the painting only if we elucidate the process? Is the artist by implication suggesting that a conservator and a museum scientist must readily be at hand with explanations in order for a viewer to comprehend fully a work of art? As tantalizing as we may find that proposition, I believe it oversimplifies what the artist had in mind. Indeed, the cited passage may elicit diverse interpretations of Johns’s view, and his attitude may not necessarily be shared by other artists. In our context Johns’s comments focus attention on a relevant distinction that shapes the way we think about art. Clarifying his thoughts, the artist explained further, “And I think the experience of looking at a painting is different from the experience of planning a painting or of painting a painting. And I think the statements one makes about finished work are different from the statements one can make about the experience of making it.”2
Conservators, museum scientists, and art historians usually come upon the finished work of art. Although some of us may occasionally be a part of the making, generally our roles crystallize once the work of art is complete. After Pollock puts down his stick, Rothko retires his brush, Newman takes off his painting hat, and Johns exhausts his interest, the work of art moves away from the maker and into a realm of the viewer. As researchers interested in how substance and process affect the visual statement, conservators seek to enrich the aesthetic experience through elucidation of the process, while art historians considering primarily what is seen may posit and assess that information in a cultural context. The third collaborative component is the museum scientist who may not only affirm the nature of materials present but through analytic review may also reconfigure historical perspective. From different points of reference that shape different types of statement, as predicted by Johns, each inevitably seeks to resolve the visual and intellectual activity of the process insofar as it affects the meaning of the work of art.
The conservation of the Rothko Chapel paintings, which engaged over 20 years of my professional life, provides a personal case in point. Created between 1964 and 1967 by Mark Rothko for a chapel he designed in Houston, Texas, the predominantly black and plum, so-called black-form, paintings had begun to develop a whitening on their surfaces less than five years after their installation in 1971. Over time the whitish films developed into crystals that gathered into dis-
tinct patterns on the surfaces of the paintings. The patterns interfered with the unified, monochromatic nature of the paintings and certainly bore no relation to the final scheme for the chapel as determined by art scholars and as presumably intended by Rothko. For this reason conservators and conservation scientists were called upon to treat what was widely considered an inexplicable condition problem.
In the literature, art historians and critics had focused on the dark palette and sharp contours of the chapel paintings as opposed to the bright amorphous coloration of his earlier paintings and even his earlier commissions, namely the Seagram murals of 1958-1959 and the Harvard panels of 1962. Although a resonance certainly existed among the seven black-form paintings and the seven plum paintings that comprised the whole of the chapel, no mention was made in the literature of the facture of the paint or the particular physical properties that shaped it. Rothko, who died before the chapel was consecrated, had been interviewed throughout his career, but none of the discussion focused on the materiality of these enigmatic paintings.
My investigation began with the customary conservator’s question of how the paintings were made. To that end we sought and located one of Rothko’s assistants for the project, and he and I painted out simulations, using the same materials and processes that the artist had employed. Although our simulations certainly did not recall the originals, the material effect was close enough to confirm the ingredients of the mixture as whole eggs, tube oil paint, damar resin, and turpentine. Through analysis of the whitening conducted by local scientists at the Shell Oil Company, we were able to attribute the exudate to the migration of fatty acids from the paint, and ultimately we devised a treatment that enabled its removal. The strange patterns of rectangles formed by the exudate were explained by differential amounts of egg in a day’s mixture or by the buildup of media in consecutively layered forms. Ultimately, working drawings provided by the Rothko Foundation offered an astonishing correspondence to the patterns of whitening and thereby confirmed the relationship between the development of the condition and the unfolding of the creative act.
What had begun as a conservator’s customary question of “what” were we looking at ended up providing insight into Rothko’s creative process and an explanation of “why” he chose to employ the particular materials that he did. In sum, the technical study offered information that had much broader ramifications for the history of the art. For example, a thoughtful appraisal of the drawings in graphite on black paper indicated that they were more than recordings of process. Throughout, what distinguished the line was not color but reflection. Indeed, in certain light the drawing was hardly visible. Rothko could have used white chalk instead of graphite on the black paper, but he did not. Rather, by his choice of materials the artist acknowledged that differences in reflectivity could be as legible as differences in contrast. Thought of in this way the studies fortified our developing notion of Rothko’s keen regard for nuances of surface as docu-
mented also by the variable reflectance of the plum borders and black forms.3 Reference to his earlier work confirmed that the artist had been engaged with these issues throughout his career, but had brought them to fruition in part by eliminating vivid color in the chapel’s paintings. The technical analysis had informed the process that in turn directed the treatment and affected our regard for Rothko’s later work.
Although statements about the experience of making art differ from statements about the finished work, they should inform each other. In the world of modern art this discourse could begin with closer scrutiny of its most common descriptive rubric, namely, “mixed media.” This term, which abounds not only on museum label copy but also in catalogues, is as familiar to postwar art scholars as “oil on canvas” is to those who study old-master painting. Walter Hopps, founding director of the Menil Collection, predicted the emergence one day of, in his terms, a “mixed media morass.”4 That era has arrived, but in some ways it is not a new phenomenon, considering that “oil on canvas” is the official description of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Captain Robert Orne (1756), as well as Willem de Kooning’s Door to the River (1960). Given the visual range of these works of art and the investigative capability of our technological age, one overriding descriptive term seems woefully inadequate for both old-master painting and modern art. In a recent interview Wayne Thiebaud mentioned that he added Zec, a brand name for a substance that added girth to his oil paint, in order to create the creamy “icings” on his cakes. Willem de Kooning apparently did not add Zec, but we know from technical investigations that he did add vegetable oils to his media in order to achieve carefully sought-after working properties and effects that we value in his paintings.5
It is encouraging that recent studies of paintings by Pollock, de Kooning, Jacob Lawrence and Mark Rothko, among others, have identified materials by scientific analysis in the context of technique and have thereby broadened our understanding. Such analysis has also debunked prevailing myths, such as de Kooning’s alleged use of mayonnaise in his paint, and undoubtedly will substantiate others. These exemplary studies have also offered insight into the intellectual activity of the artist and that contribution about the making has broadened our understanding of the seen. Once that information becomes an integral part of how a work of art is discussed in the literature at large, we may begin to confront
the disorder of the “mixed media morass” that confounds our scholarship. The importance of analytic review in this process cannot be overestimated.
Generally, technical questions about modern art cannot be framed in the context of what we know about practice from artists’ treatises or the precepts of a guild system. Rather, they are often shaped by anecdotal information provided by artists or their assistants. Inevitably we have had to rely on art historical precedent and our eyes to assess the credibility of the information. That is not a bad combination, but it is not enough at a time when analytic confirmation is possible. Precise technical information may surface, but depending upon the source and context, its certainty may not be assured.
In 1982 I wrote a short technical note about Yves Klein’s materials in a catalogue for a posthumous retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work. I based my information on interviews conducted in Paris with Klein’s former associates and on a patent that the artist had secured in 1960 for “International Klein Blue,” his preferred painting medium. The mixture consisted of dry pigments in polyvinyl acetate and industrial solvents, formulated by Rhône-Poulenc. Klein’s description of the medium in the patent actually differed from that provided by the company and seemed incompatible with the working properties necessary for its sundry applications. Nonetheless, the reason for my note was not to draw attention to a possible error in Klein’s application for a patent but rather to try to describe how his choice of material permitted widely diverse processes. Despite my conclusion that “though quantifiable, this quintessence of unencumbered color owes its vitality and beauty to the magic of the artistic endeavor—a factor that can never be measured or duplicated”—there arose a concern that I had demystified Klein’s art by describing its making.6
Considering that allegation with regard to our work, I am reminded of an esteemed engineer, Peter Rice, who once spoke about the role of Iago in Othello. He said, “Iago, if you remember, destroys the love of Othello and Desdemona by rational argument, by applying reason all the way through to every act which, particularly, Desdemona undertakes. And in the eyes of many, the Iago role is the role given to the engineer in modern life and in modern architecture of actually reducing by reason, to destroy or to undermine the kind of unreasonable and soaring ideas that architects may have.”7 I suspect the same could be said of museum scientists who decipher the material ambiguity of works of art. Admittedly the danger is there when the scientist is given a chip of paint in isolation and is asked to identify it. Out of context, devoid of its visual significance not to mention its role in artistic creation, the sample may be reduced to a fact that may not undermine the “soaring ideas” but certainly does little to enhance them.
Providing the data is one thing but explaining it in context is quite another. Cross-sections certainly help explicate the process in specific areas, and simulations can inform the overall technique; however, anyone who has observed an artist looking at a cross-section or tried to make a simulation of a work of art knows that deconstruction of substance and process is informative but far from art. There is the intangible element of the artist’s intent in manipulating tangible material that must be considered. Although associates or even studio assistants of an artist may not comprehend this factor, artists invariably do, because they appreciate the complexity of their undertaking.
In part because we share a natural affinity for how substance and process affect the visual statement, I began interviewing artists in front of their work over 12 years ago. I intentionally chose an open interview style that was captured on film because in the presence of the works of art, artists invariably reveal through approach and reaction their relationships to the materials. Alternatively, museums often ask artists to complete questionnaires about technique when a work of art is acquired. If returned, these forms can impart important information. When asked about the materials she used in For the Light (1978-1979), for instance, Susan Rothenberg carefully listed the various media she had employed: Liquitex gesso-ground, Liquitex Matte Medium, and LeFranc and Bourgeois Flashe (vinyl paint made in France). She further noted, “All 3 used in conjunction with matte medium for both gesso + flashe.”8 When asked on the following page about the subject of the work, the ideas expressed and the circumstances under which it was executed, she replied with an emphatically drawn explanation point and question mark. The point is, of course, as Johns postulated years earlier, there is greater certainty about the processes than about the referential aspects. It is not so much a question of relative importance as it is of relative surety.
From the outset it was clear to me that my questions would inevitably reflect the concerns of my own time and might therefore not provide answers to the problems that might confront future conservators. What I had hoped to document was not merely a discussion of materials and technique but, more than that, a solid sense of the artists’ concerns about what they were looking at and its future preservation. Naturally, artists’ relationships to their materials and thoughts about the future care of the art are as varied as their personalities. For instance, James Rosenquist may be concerned about the sinking in of his oil medium over time, while Brice Marden worries more about the proper treatment of a localized damage to one of his monochromatic works. The artists’ concerns may be narrow or broad in scope. Yet, inevitably their involvement adds another dimension to the investigation by posing questions unimagined by researchers and thereby enriching the pursuit in unexpected ways.
After the Menil Collection acquired Ed Kienholz’s John Doe (1959), the artist came to the museum to discuss the piece. Having carefully surveyed the surface of the sculpture, he opened the drawer and removed a portion of flute pipe from within. I had noted powdery debris in the bottom of the drawer, but I had not initially associated it with the industrial ductwork (Figure 1). Eventually Kienholz explained that the flute pipe represented the mannequin’s male private part and that the dust in the drawer was what remained of its head that had been fashioned from a rubber mask. Evidently the original Halloween mask had totally disintegrated over 30 years, but without the artist’s intervention I doubt we would have known about the change. Archival photographs of John Doe had unfortunately only documented the sculpture with the contents of the drawer locked within. Obligingly Kienholz took the appendage with him to Los Angeles and returned months later with a completed part fashioned out of a new rubber mask (Figure 2).
This albeit extreme example raises two issues concerning preservation. First, instances of disintegrating industrial materials unfortunately comprise many important works of modern art, among them John Chamberlain’s foam sculptures of the 1970s. The challenge to preserve the physicality of these objects is enormous. Since the unstable material is central to the works of art and the sculptures cannot be properly viewed encased, it seems the only reasonable course is to restrict periods of exhibition as well as to require proactive storage containment. In this scenario more rigorous research might focus on the object in storage so that storage rooms become de facto laboratories wherein technical solutions are executed without regard for exhibition parameters or other customary restrictions. This approach to a limited degree has been adopted in some institutions, but it should become standard practice.
The second issue concerns the broader philosophical question of what to do with the sculpture in the future when the current replacement disintegrates. The more expedient approach, of course, would be to replace the mask yet again, as did Kienholz. Once the artist has died, however, it is unlikely that anyone would be eager to refashion a new part without the artist’s hand. A conservator and a scientist’s approach might be to make a mold of the current form and then cast it in a more permanent material. An art historian could rightly object to the idea of a cast form replacing a found object because it counters Kienholz’s notion of materiality. One wonders if replacement parts are ever appropriate? I had to confront that question once when I made a new white wedding dress to replace the discolored and irreparably stained original on Kienholz’s Jane Doe (1960). I was asked to treat the work in this way by a curator because the aged dress offered a tawdry view of marriage that countered the deceased artist’s expressed intent. These two replacements, undertaken as treatments, were couched in terms that reflect the central importance of the artist’s intent—an elusive concept that defies quantification yet rests at the heart of our collective pursuit.
When the artist is still alive, the complicated but key questions regarding intent are often more readily identified. A recent exchange involving two sculptures of a man and a woman by Kiki Smith at the Whitney Museum of American Art comes to mind. Dated 1990, they had been intermittently on exhibition for over a decade but had also spent a fair amount of time in storage. Recent observation revealed patterns of white crystals in the beeswax that seemed to mimic the battens that held the pieces secure in their crates. Upon close examination the disfigurement and its probable cause were obvious to the scientist who sampled the material and the conservator who had begun to consider treatment options. In an impromptu interview the artist offered a totally unexpected assessment of the objects’ physical state. It seems what disturbed her most was not the exudate that commanded our attention, which she summarily dismissed, but rather a reddened pallor that had overcome the male figure. In her view the red wax that underlay the uppermost visible layer and had been used to offer skin tone had somehow become dominant. That condition problem, which had eluded us, far outweighed any other in terms of importance to her. By affirming the certainty of process, which Johns had observed, Smith not only left us with a better understanding of the nature of the problem but also of the work of art itself. Without her intervention would the fundamental alteration in the material have even elicited a question from us?
Thoughts about the artist’s intent affect what conservators do with the facts that museum scientists uncover. A discussion of how the material is used and to what artistic end is as important as, if not more important than, what the material is. Analytic investigation is crucial, as are other types of review that take into account art history, criticism, and connoisseurship. All play a part in affirming artistic intent, especially after the artist has died. From their particular perspective scientists offer valuable insight in this debate by evaluating statements about the finished work in light of statements about the experience of making. Beyond naming the material and thinking logically in terms of questions and answers, they bring to the discussion diverse patterns of thinking. That contribution affects the tensions between “reason and intuition, certainty and uncertainty, deliberation and spontaneity,” the precise qualities that shape our reasoned comprehension of the illogical artifacts of human expression in our care.9
It is only through intense collaboration among the distinct but related disciplines that consider works of art that we can attempt to frame and pose the relevant technical questions. By digesting the experience of looking as well as the experience of making, we can assign meaning to the chips of paint that are analyzed, offer definition to the “mixed media morass,” and discern the artist’s intent as it relates to materiality. Only in collaboration can we begin to offer the indeterminate work of art the rigorous yet insightful review it deserves.