Written by CIMA 2019 intern Deborah Bosa
On November 13th 2019 CIMA members had the unique opportunity to visit the Whitney Museum of American Art’s conservation department. Founded in 2001, the Whitney’s conservation department engages in the preservation and long-term care of works of art in the Museum’s collection. Designed with a multi-faceted approach to conservation, to the treatment and technical study of works of contemporary and modern art including historical and scientific research, technical examination, and artist interviews. Founded in 1930 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the museum focuses on 20th- and 21st-century American art. Its permanent collection comprises more than 23,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, films and videos of new media by more than 3,400 artists. The Museum has a particular emphasis on exhibiting the work of living artists as well as maintaining an extensive permanent collection of important pieces from the first half of the last century. The museum’s Annual and Biennial exhibitions have long been a venue for younger and lesser-known artists. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was an art collector and in 1918 she created an exhibition space to promote the works of avant-garde and unrecognized American artists. Throughout the years, the Whitney collected nearly 700 works of American art. In 1929, she offered to donate over 500 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the museum declined the gift. This fact, led Whitney to start her own museum, exclusively for American Art. As we know the beautiful building was designed by the most famous Italian architect Renzo Piano.
The our visit to the Conservation Studio was led by Carol Mancusi Ungaro, director of the conservation and research department, and Matthew Skopek, associate conservator. The conservation department is a big space, and we had the opportunity to see five rooms. One of the most interesting things that we learned during the tour, was how different experts collaborate here: art historians, chemists and restorers work together to give new life to works of art. The first work that Carol Mancusi Ungaro showed to us during the tour was a Rothko masterpiece, Untitled, 1945. Mark Rothko was an American painter of Jewish descent. Although Rothko himself refused to adhere to any art movement, he is generally identified as an abstract expressionist. This painting, Untitled, was made in 1945, during his stay in Long Island. Our guide showed us how the painting is not in very good condition, and explained how a team of researchers is trying to get it back to its best shape. The team of conservators and restorers is attempting to resurface the artist’s signature, even though the colours were strong and very dark–because Rothko put a lot of pressure on the canvas–they were starting to increase their intensity. Over time, accumulated dirt and discoloured paint can obscure the layers of paint. But thanks to technology, new materials and experts in the field, there are new solutions to restore the canvas.
Another work of art that was discussed was a monochrome panel by Brice Marden. Marden is an American artist, generally described as Minimalist, although his work may be hard to categorize. During the late 1960s and early ’70s, Marden gained international fame as the ‘master of the monochrome panel.’ His early monochromatic paintings are single panels, diptychs and triptychs. In his works the artist painted slabs of dense yet nuanced colour on three adjoined canvas panels, using oil paint mixed on the spot with melted beeswax and turpentine, and applied with a knife and spatula. In this case, we saw a late work by Brice Marden, from 1983. The artist created very intense colours for these panels, the blue that we saw in the panel is derived from a mix of colours and horizontal and vertical strokes. The restorers divided the monochrome into two sections, so that they could work individually on each of them.
The tour continued in the rooms where the team of conservators and restorers work. Carol Mancusi Ungaro explained how important teamwork and collaboration between experts are. The Whitney’s conservation department constantly collaborates and dialogues with artists, and listens to all the questions and needs that an artist has for conservation. The conservation studio always works looking to the future, trying to guarantee the best possible maintenance of the works of art. We were shown the materials with which the Whitney’s staff works: pigments, temperas and protective jelly, for the paintings and sculptures. We also saw all the media with which the staff preserve video, film and documentaries housed in the museum’s archive.
Lastly, Carol Mancusi Ungaro explained to us that Conservators of contemporary art face unique challenges. Contemporary works of art are often materially ephemeral, time-based, interactive, or conceptual. In preserving these, conservators rely heavily on documentation of an artist’s materials, techniques, and intent, frequently needing to consult the artist directly. When an artist is no longer living, the available information can become quite scarce. Conservators must always be very careful, because every type of work (painting, sculpture, film) has a different need that must be identified.