Editor’s Note: The following text has been excerpted with permission and adapted from Dwell Time: A Memoir of Art, Exile, and Repair by Rosa Lowinger, published by Row House Publishing on October 10 and available online and in bookstores.
I am often asked why contemporary art needs conservation. Sounds like a fair question. All works of art were once contemporary, and many were conserved within years of being made. There are records that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was cleaned within a half-century of its creation. Paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Titian were also restored during their lifetimes. The work was necessary then for the same reason it is today. Because everything gets dirty and accidents happen. Varnishes discolor from the smoke of candlelight and hearth fires. Certain colors darken; others fade. The dust that settles on your floor and coffee table also clings to sculptures and canvases. And people step where they shouldn’t. More than likely once upon a time, some doge in Venice must have put his elbow through a Titian or a Veronese, just as casino magnate Steve Wynn did to Picasso’s 1932 painting “La Rêve,” days before he was going to sell it.
That said, artworks from the late 20th and early 21st centuries present a range of new problems. They’re made of strange materials, like plastics, that don’t always behave the way we expect them to. Contemporary artists also have wildly varying aesthetic requirements. Some artists produce polished metal sculptures that are expected to remain completely pristine, without a scratch, fingerprint, or any sort of blemish. Others fabricate work out of detritus — rusted metal, decaying Styrofoam, blistered acrylic, and broken glass. This begs the questions for conservators: How much flaking paint can be allowed to fall off a rusted I beam of a Mark di Suvero whose paint was flaking to begin with? Do we replace the images in moving picture sculptures by Nam June Paik with digital versions or amass a cache of solid-state tubes (as MoMA has done) to keep repairing the television sets? Contemporary art is a veritable minestrone soup of varying and conflicting aesthetics. Nowadays, there is a quasi-cult over the need to interview artists, to record their every idea and notion as the basis for the care of their works. That’s fine, if you are confident that the artists in question understand the realities of their material choices. Also, artists change their minds and rewrite their own histories. As their careers evolve, they move on, their memories just as porous as ours. And like the rest of us, artists will say and do one thing when they’re experimenting with their own creative processes, and quite another when they have to go on record with a curator or journalist.
In the mid-1980s, when I worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), my days were delicious delves into these philosophical considerations. Those of us working on the new Anderson Wing talked constantly about how to conserve the works of Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson, Bruce Nauman, and Ed Kienholz, to name but a few of the modern masters that were going to be displayed in the new building. I also got to participate in a silver-polishing project led by a fellow conservator named Glenn Wharton. This was the first time since my conservation internship at the Penn Museum that I had been part of a team. I loved the measured and meticulous way we recorded the effects of polishing — which homemade slurries scratched, which were most efficient at removing the tarnish without altering the contrast of decorative undercuts.
The objects we were treating were part of the Gilbert Collection of silver at LACMA. This group of 18th- and 19th-century decorative objects was on long-term loan to the museum from a collector who had been born Abraham Bernstein in London and changed his name to Arthur Gilbert after marriage. In 1949, Gilbert retired to Los Angeles. There he discovered a new passion for collecting lavish European decorative art objects, among them Renaissance micro-mosaics, which can have up to 3,000 tiny stones per square inch. Most of the Gilbert silver pieces had been made by French Protestant smiths who had fled Paris for London in 1685 after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes that had allowed them to freely practice their religion. Some of the pieces were encrusted with jewels; others stood higher than I did at five feet three inches. My mother would have loved them, but to me they looked like 18th-century versions of the furnishings at Graceland — overwrought punch lines of self-importance, items a person collects to show off aristocratic taste. More than once, we conservators giggled when these monstrosities were rolled into the lab on padded rubber carts.
In some ways, Arthur Gilbert’s longing for reinvention felt familiar to me. I’d thought of conservation as a transformative profession, but even though I loved the work at LACMA, Los Angeles felt off, the ocean too cold, the time zone wrong. These might seem like minor complaints to someone who’s always had a place called home, but home for me was a moving target. I already had a warm place with palm trees to call home. Los Angeles was similar to Miami, but just different enough to be an uncomfortable fit, like a dress that was almost, but not quite, the same as another that you’d owned and loved as opposed to an entirely different piece of clothing.
I was fidgety and restless. A neighbor suggested I take acting classes (it was Los Angeles, after all). I got into one of those so-called exclusive workshops, and spent every Wednesday night being pummeled by an irascible acting guru for what she said was my “inability to stay in the present.” Was that ever an understatement. If she only could hear the spinning in my head, the worrying about the next problem coming my way. As much as Los Angeles wasn’t right, I dreaded the prospect of Charleston. I had no reason to loathe South Carolina, but my stomach sank every time I thought of living there.
The last and final part of the silver project aimed to find out how well lacquers really worked at reducing tarnish. Lacquers are clear synthetic coatings used to keep metal surfaces from oxidizing and darkening. Though tarnish is not in itself damaging, unlike, say, rust on steel, it makes silver look grungy. Lacquers slow that process and keep us from having to remove more and more material each time we polish.
But lacquers are not perfect solutions. They’re hard to apply without seeing streaks or a bumpy pattern known as “orange peel.” They’re porous on a microscopic level, so they don’t actually seal anything over the long term. If you don’t get full coverage when you apply them by spraying or brushing, you get an exposed area that darkens at an accelerated level, and even leads to pitting, because of the way the corrosion potential of the metal concentrates in the exposed spot. People love to claim that lacquers are “sealants” that completely protect surfaces from the elements. That’s not true. Nothing fully seals anything. Epoxies come close, but there the cure is worse than the disease, because epoxies yellow and they are difficult to remove without harsh chemicals. I’m always amazed by claims of a miracle solution that keeps surfaces from reacting to the elements. If only life worked that way. It just doesn’t. At least not yet.