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MoMA

MoMA’S JACKSON POLLOCK CONSERVATION PROJECT—AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION…

MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project—An Ounce of Prevention…

We covered a lot of territory in our last post, documenting Echo’s condition and treating the discolored canvas. Our efforts have produced satisfying results. Using deionized water to remove some of the degradation products from the top section of the canvas, we were able to evenly decrease the yellowing in that area.

Chief Conservator Jim Coddington carefully controls the amount of moisture that is introduced to Echo’s surface

The gradation of discoloration that we originally observed is now barely perceptible under most lighting conditions.

Echo after cleaning

Anything a conservator does to change a painting is referred to as treatment, but there can be a variety of rationales behind the decision to intervene. One of the primary concerns in conservation is the physical stabilization of the artwork. If a painting is in immediate danger of losing material, conservators will take measures to halt the degradation. Other concerns, as with Echo, are focused on the visual changes to the work and thus bring aesthetic judgments to bear on the treatments considered.

Once a work is stable, we evaluate possibilities for damage mitigation and prevention. Choosing to alter the current appearance of an artwork requires consideration of artist’s intent, aesthetic unity, and acceptable change. Treatment that addresses existing problems often involves minimizing visual disruption caused by factors that the artist did not anticipate such as damage, accumulated grime, old restoration, and, as with Echo, differential discoloration of the canvas.

Because the artist is, more often than not, unavailable to speak directly about his or her work, aesthetic treatment decisions are always informed by extensive research and consultation. And, when possible, conservators only add materials that can be easily removed. However, these caveats don’t guarantee a straightforward consensus about a treatment. Within the profession and elsewhere, the philosophical and practical implications of conservators’ actions are continually debated.

Over the past 30-odd years, conservators have increasingly emphasized strategies for preventive care. Preventive conservation is exactly what it sounds like: taking steps to minimize the potential for damage and to slow degradation processes, thereby postponing or entirely avoiding hands-on restoration of the work. This paradigm is most widely manifest as environmental standards for displaying and storing art, but preventive conservation can also take the form of physical intervention.

With Echo, for example, we knew that we were dealing with a smoldering degradation problem. For 60 years, Echo’s canvas has been mounted over a wooden stretcher, and aging wood is acidic. So here’s the equation: wood against canvas over time equals brown, brittle, deteriorated canvas.

This detail shows the back of Echo with the stretcher removed. The canvas has become darkened and brown where it has been in direct contact with the wood stretcher

This detail shows the back of Echo with the stretcher removed. The canvas has become darkened and brown where it has been in direct contact with the wood stretcher

In the case of Echo, this extreme discoloration has begun on the back of the canvas, and, left untended, it would eventually make its way to the front surface. Because Echo doesn’t have a continuous paint layer to hide the degradation, it would become visible on the front of the painting as a brown grid echoing the stretcher.

Over time, pattern of degradation seen here on the back of Echo would migrate to the front of the painting

Over time, pattern of degradation seen here on the back of Echo would migrate to the front of the painting

To prevent this, we chose to isolate the wood from the canvas. We removed Echo from its stretcher and adhered a thin, inert film (Marvelseal) to the wood surfaces that rest against the canvas.

Echo’s stretcher, covered with a barrier layer of Marvelseal

Echo’s stretcher, covered with a barrier layer of Marvelseal

At five mils thick, the film won’t add bulk at the edges of the painting, and, being chemically inert, it provides a barrier that will prevent the two from coming into contact, interacting, and degrading.

Meanwhile, nearby…One  looms large in the conservation studio.

Beginning conservation treatment of One: Number 31, 1950

Beginning conservation treatment of One: Number 31, 1950

Next up we’ll return to One, looking at the similarities that have allowed Echo’s treatment to inform our approach to the big painting and the limits of that comparison.

 

 

Comments

I noticed in one of the photographs a color check. Do you guys photograph the image for digital archiving as well during the restoration process. To have a provenance of restoration for your records?

I just love pollack work… Can you send me more information about this

You could have also just switched to a Basswood stretcher as they don’t have the resin content that pine or poplar do. Therefore they help keep the back of the canvas from yellowing over time. Just look at what’s happened to the Morris Louis paintings. It’s the result of the resin from the Pine weeping into the canvas. If someone would have listened to a woodsmith a long time ago, most of these problems could have been avoided.

Great work !!!

Porque un restaurador de una obra tan importante no usa guantes ni mandil?

Lic Roger Unda
Restaurador Museologo

I concur with Jeffrey Collins: Basswood works well in terms of both dimensional stability and having little resin to stain canvas. I’ve been making my stretchers ( or strainers, if you like ), from basswood for the last 30 years.

Five *millimeters* thick?

You might double-check that one. :D

Just wanted to check one statement: “At five millimeters thick, the film won’t add bulk at the edges of the painting…” – that’s two tenths of an inch! That can’t be what was meant here. Perhaps 5 mil – which would be .005″ is what was intended.

Regarding switching out stretchers: The current stretcher may be the original, chosen by the artist; this choice is evidence of the artist’s working techniques and materials. Therefore, it is important to keep the original stretcher. However, if the original stretcher was damaged or unstable, a new stretcher might be justified. In that case, basswood would be explored as an option for the reasons already described.

re: the thickness of Marvelseal: Many thanks, observant readers, it IS 5 mil. Five millimeters just wouldn’t do.

We do archive the digital photos and the color checker is of course one of the ways we can provide reasonably consistent color archiving. Photos are taken before, during and after treatment.

As a private Easel Paintings Conservator living in Bermuda, I could not agree more with this paragraph, “Over the past 30-odd years, conservators have increasingly emphasized strategies for preventive care. Preventive conservation is exactly what it sounds like: taking steps to minimize the potential for damage and to slow degradation processes, thereby postponing or entirely avoiding hands-on restoration of the work. This paradigm is most widely manifest as environmental standards for displaying and storing art, but preventive conservation can also take the form of physical intervention.” Thanks for sharing!

BASSWOOD.

I believe that the lignin content of the basswood would also be a consideration regardless of a lower resin content. Unless the stretcher/strainer is inherently inert (such as aluminum), a barrier is still a good idea.

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