Artists make art and conservators preserve that art for posterity. The creative impulses differ but the engagement with material, sensitive regard for appearance, exquisite play with intention, and flat-out work bear a comfortable familiarity that enables intellectual interplay between them. This visceral understanding is crucial if a conservator is to preserve the essence of the maker’s spirit and artistic investment.
Years ago I started a project that has since come to be known as the “Artist Documentation Program” (adp.menil.org). The objective was modest—to film artists discussing the construction, current appearance, and future preservation of their art in front of their work. Although direct in design, the result was anything but routine, because addressing how and by whom a work of art should be physically treated over time invariably involves the ethos and methodology of its making. A few examples come to mind.
Cy Twombly was an artist who was notably reclusive but whose work embodied every aspect of his being. The paintings are explosions of intensity that convey a quickness of hand in response to a depth of feeling. Any detailed pernickety intervention would be out of place in Cy’s work and would be immediately recognizable. The same is true of Jackson Pollock, whom I never interviewed but whose work I have treated. The strength of the overall impression is so commanding that the challenge is to understand the underlying order and work to preserve that above all else. Detailed conversations about how to treat a particular condition would probably interest, but in the end, bore each artist.
The pitch is different with two sculptors whose materials and techniques are not only keenly aligned with content but are central to it. I have interviewed Mel Chin twice, separated by 20 years, and both times I have been struck by the insistent intellectual grip he has on the choice of material, its meaning beyond appearance, and the importance of his own engagement with it. I could not imagine treating a seriously damaged work of Mel’s without his physical engagement. In fact to this day, he prefers to do it himself. The same force of involvement can be found in the work of Dario Robleto. Again, each material is chosen not only for its visual enticement but, more importantly, for its former life. For example, I once described to Dario how I would treat a broken element in one of his works with a material that looked the same, and he retorted that the material had to be from a vinyl recording of James Brown’s “Sex Machine.” I was clearly unaware of the ramifications of my proposal and could potentially have compromised this serious artist’s work.
Finally, the words of Sol LeWitt keep reverberating in my ear. In an interview, not long before his death, when I asked about preservation issues, his response was crystal clear: “No falsification of time.” That directive applied not only to his wall drawings but to his sculpture as well. As a conceptual artist, it made sense but still, in his concise brilliance, Sol made me stop dead in my tracks and question the degree to which I engage with all works of art. I’m not doubting the need, which is increasingly more challenging and arguably urgent today, but rather the approach. Although daunting at times to achieve, that carefully wrought synergy between the artist’s voice and the conservator’s expertise enriches our cultural heritage, and that alone warrants the effort.