Marketing Mondays: Here Today, But What About Tomorrow? Who's Thinking Archivally?

The iconic Flag has been well cared for. Here it is included in Focus: Jasper Johns in the second floor galleries at MoMA, February 2009

Jasper Johns is said to have remarked: "If I were the conservator of my paintings instead of the painter, I would be a far richer man."

While he's either understating his wealth or overstating the amount of work his paintings have needed, it's no secret that his early paintings have undergone significant conservational intervention.
As a young artist, Johns adopted encaustic without knowing fully how to use it. Gluing newsprint to canvas and then painting on it with wax is not the most archival way to use any of those materials. Newsprint starts to disintegrate as soon as it comes off the press, wax is relatively brittle, and canvas has a boing factor—nice if you want that particular resistance against the brush, but not so good if your medium needs the stiffness of a panel. With each boing, the newsprint and wax vibrated. Cracks ensued. Then whole sections dis-attached from the canvas.
Fortunately Johns became famous at a young age, so those early paintings have been restored in the best possible way by conservators at the best museums. Most artists will never get this kind of treatment.

Detail of Flag, above: Field of blue, cracks in the wax (in the "torso" of the star)

The more materials you employ in one work, each with its own reaction to heat, humidity and various stresses, the greater the archival load. Here's an almost verbatim description of one artist's process, as told to me by the artist: " I build up the painting with acrylic and then switch to oil. Then I add tar and cold wax [not to be confused with encaustic]. When I think it's ready for the last step, I throw some turp on it and torch it."
I asked if she had good health insurance for herself and fire coverage for her studio. As for the paintings themselves, big question mark, but I wouldn't be surprised at a worst-case scenario.

Mondrian's classic grids are riddled with cracks, some of which you can begin to discern on the (presumably conserved) Broadway Boogie Woogie, a detail of which is shown left. The blockbuster Mondrian show at MoMA in 1995-1996 included a surprising number of works in which the helter skelter net of hairline cracks vied with the rectilinearity and rhythm of the composition. Given the artist's singlemindedness with geometric precision, those cracks were surely not meant to be in the picture. Indeed, it was likely the artist's obsession with painting and repainting the composition--all those successive layers--that likely caused the crazing.
Visit any exhibition by Anselm Keifer and you'll see mud, straw, seeds and other organic materials on the floor in front of his enormous paintings, ephemeral ghost works created as the paintings disintegrate. In a quiet gallery you can even hear the seeds drop, as I did at the San Francisco Museum of Art a couple of years ago.
And of course there are the latex sculptures of Eva Hesse. Once so translucent and pliable, they are now yellowed and brittle some 40 years later, a fact all too apparent at the show of her work, Eva Hesse: Sculpture, at the Jewish Museum in 2006. In an audio accompaniment to the show—poignant because we hear her voice in almost every entry—she expresses little concern for how the materials will age. I don’t have notes, but my recollection is that she was not concerned with deterioriation, that it was part of her work. (Of course, one might ask if it was youth rather than prescience that prompted the sentiment.)

Above: Hesse standing in front of Expanded Expansion in the late 60s, in which the resin she used for the work was creamy white and translucent
Below,a more recent shot of the work, which has yellowed and become brittle over time. The was the condition of the work I saw at The Jewish Museum in November 2006

The work in museum collections can be conserved and then stored in perfectly archival conditions. There's a budget for this kind of care. Pity the artists and the collectors of modest means who don't have those options at their disposal.
In a recent post on this blog, I referred to articles that reported on the alarming disintegration of relatively recent artworks made from some early plastics. In response to those stories, reader Matthew Beall asked, "Who is responsible when a piece of art falls apart. Is it the artist? Is it the maker of the products/materials? Is it the gallery that sold the work? Does it even matter?"
With Beall's questions in mind, I'm elaborating a bit to noodge you into telling all. Here are a few prompts:
. Are you working archivally?
. Do you employ classic materials and methods properly? If you’re using new materials, do you research them before you use them?
. Has a work changed significantly? How have you dealt with it?
. Who is responsible when a work of yours that is sold has fallen apart? Is it you? Or is it, as Beall asks, the responsibility of the gallery or the product manufacturer? Is it the collector?
Does it matter to you?

Recent related links:
. Ed Winkleman on Artwork Health Care
. Hrag Vartanian on Swoon
. C-Monster's Ask the Art Nurse


Sophie Munns said...

great post Joanne!
thanks for the info. I have addressed most concerns...but not thought at length about combining materials in mixed media which I dont do a lot of ...but I'd like to think some more about this!

Hylla Evans said...

We do our best professionally on all levels as a matter of integrity. That's what I was taught and try to impart to students and customers.
Anything less is performance art: consciously prepared to be that (and gallerists/customers notified) or accidentally, which leaves others assuming that we were shoddy in work habits. As a collector, I don't knowingly buy art work that is fleeting. If an artist tells me that her work has lasted five or ten years so that's good enough for her, you can be sure I won't purchase the work at any price.
How can a potential buyer take impermanent work seriously?
On that note, "mixed media" should include a more specific explanation if the buyer asks. I feel it's the gallerist's job to make sure that explanation is available, as a sign that she too cares about longevity.

Anonymous said...

Joanne: "Who is responsible when a work of yours that is sold has fallen apart? Is it you? Or is it, as Beall asks, the responsibility of the gallery or the product manufacturer?"

Interesting that Joanne does not mention the collector. But as I mentioned when this topic came up on EW's blog, the average home may not have optimal storage conditions. I try to keep my little collection away from direct light, out of the kitchen and bathroom where there is most humidity, at a fairly steady temperature, and I have a few pairs of art-handling gloves for when I am hanging a piece on the wall. Yet I don't have track lighting or constant temperature/humidity control like a gallery or museum. (Fortunately for my art, my apartment is not bathed in a lot of bright sunlight. But I have to turn on the lights sometime. And to be honest, I've been in galleries that had no AC on humid summer days, had lots of bright light coming in, where the staff touched the surface of a work with bare hands, etc.)

I think it would help if there were some easily consulted guidelines for all people involved, so everyone knows the basic requirements.

Rico said...

I've spent more time reading the Mayer handbook than is probably healthy. I employ classic sizing and grounding techniques to all my paintings and a single canvas can take a month to prepare. I make everything to last 200 years, and if it indeed lasts that long then there will be people paid to preserve it.

Often, people are surprised by this because my work is so loose and abstract in its final form. But that relation to and respect for my materials is fundamental to my process. When I use oil, I'm making very specific historical and cultural references that aren't present when I'm using acrylic. Similarly, the choice of surface has underlying but no less important connotations apart from the perceived content of the final paintings. I'm always exploring, but I also keep a lot of experiments around in the studio for a few years to see how the materials are responding to each other.

It's been said a lot recently that this economic downturn will weed out the art world, and that quality will survive -regardless of style. So I hope we're seeing a shift towards artists developing a greater understanding of their materials. I think about some of my early works, which have been lost (I experimented with latex early on), and how they are gone forever because I didn't know what I was doing. Real technical mastery of one's materials isn't sexy conversation to most, but ultimately it frees the artist to let go with confidence.

Joanne Mattera said...


Sorry, leaving the collector out of my question was an oversight. I've rectified that in the post. As Heidi might say, "You're in."

It sounds as if you are caring for the work in your collection. That's what a conscientious artist hopes for: a caring collector.

When I saw the Herb and Dorothy film ( I cringed when I saw where they had placed work--in the kitchen, for instance, and how they had stored it: packed tight. The Vogels' collection is now in the Smithsonian where it being stored archivally and cared for by a team of conservators as necessary.

When visiting, I have occasionally asked a collector if I could buff their work (I paint with wax), and once I drove some distance to a gallery to repair a small chip on a large paintgng that had just sold and was about to be shipped out of the country. I had a responsibility to the dealer and the collector and, well, to myself.

The only time I walked away from a problem was when a collector, who had obviously mistreated the work by storing my painting flat (!) with heavy boxes on top of it (!)complained to the dealer, after 10 years (!) that it was "damaged." It sure was. There were dozens of stress cracks from the pressure of all that weight. I wonder: If she'd driven her car into a wall some years after purchasing it, would she have thought to complain to the dealer that is has a dent?

jami said...

Great Post!
While on a plane to NY last may I picked up a copy of “The New Yorker” (may 11, 2009), and read an eye opening article by Rebecca Mead titled “The Art Doctor”. This fascinating profile of Christian Scheidermann and his team of art “doctors” made me realize just how important it is to think about the integrity and conservation of my art making materials.

In the past I worked in traditional materials such as bronze, marble, and oil on canvas, so I was aware of their archival qualities. Recently I have been incorporating ink jet prints into my painted surface and so there is the concern for how this will hold up over time. I have taken steps to inform myself on how to prepare the surfaces properly to maintain their integrity (I hope!). I also keep samples of any materials I have used over the past 20 years whether in sculpture or painting to monitor how they endure conditions of time.

This article also made me realize the importance of chronicling every process and material used in the making of an individual work. I keep this information on file with each image I archive. Now if I could only be so lucky as to have my work, worthy of the services of Mr Scheidermann.

Portion of the article may be seen here.

Larry said...

Joanne: When I saw the Herb and Dorothy film ( I cringed when I saw where they had placed work--in the kitchen, for instance, and how they had stored it: packed tight. The Vogels' collection is now in the Smithsonian where it being stored archivally and cared for by a team of conservators as necessary.

Joanne, I do the best I can. But I was pretty shocked at the Vogels too (for example, when Dorothy unpacked Herb's old canvases that had been folded for years on end, and even more about how the bed steadily rose in height as more pieces had been accumulated underneath it. Actually, I can't share the hagiographic attitude one hears about the Vogels; they struck me in the film as distinctly meshuginah, and they seemed to be collecting as much for the sake of collecting as for a love of art.)

I think the collector who has purchased a work has in fact the greatest obligation, because once bought, the work is likely to spend most of its life in the purchaser's care.

I signed in before as Anon by mistake; it's just me.

Joanne Mattera said...

Larry says: "I think the collector who has purchased a work has in fact the greatest obligation, because once bought, the work is likely to spend most of its life in the purchaser's care."

Such an enlightened attitude 0:-)
(That's a halo over the eyes, by the way . . .)

And Hylla, Rico and Jami: So responsible. I love that! I wonder if age has anything to do with your attitude toward the work. In art school I learned how to stratch a canvas, about fat over lean, about proper grounds. There was some presentation of archival practices. Now I'm not so sure.

All you emerging artists out there: In art ashool did you learn about painting materials and practices?

Eva said...

The older you get, the more careful you learn to be about your work. But I did learn all about the technical aspects at the Art Students League, how to build a painting and they have held up well. I varnish too (Gamvar by Gamblin, my favorite by far) and so if there is a scratch, it's on the varnish, not the painting. The works on paper (photomontage, collage), especially from the 70s and 80s - are what I worry about the most. So they are kept in portfolios (in the dark!) and in a room with little variation in heat/cold. That's the real ticket and not so easy to achieve....

KRCampbellArt said...

I was thinking as I read the comments just what Eva has said. The old I get the more careful I am about how the work is made. In the early days I wanted to get the idea down by any means necessary. The finished work and how it appeared at the moment was my only concern, not because I didn't want to be concerned about its longevity but it just didn't occur to me. In art classes in college we were lectured on not becoming too precious about our work, which can be good for the early stages when you are experimenting and need to know it is okay to fail but not when producing art for sale.

Philip Koch said...

Excellent comments- I especially appreciate Joanne's note that Johns' work is fortunate he became famous when he was young so the wealthy owners will have them restored. So many other artists, including perhaps the most worthy of our time may not be so lucky.

I have made great efforts over the years to make my paintings permanent. Even so accidents happen, and we may all be in for unpleasant surprises. Let's all join in a collective crossing of our fingers.

The counterposed photos of the Eva Hesse sculpture make me gulp- the darker color it is now lends it a "heavy" quality that is most troublesome.

I saw a Wayne Thiebaud show a few years ago at the Phillips Collection in DC. Almost all of the earlier paintings had terrible cracking where his thick pigment had received impacts over the years. It was really sobering to see.

I did get to see the conservator at the Baltimore Museum of Art laboring to fill in cracks in a big but very subtle George Inness landscape the museum had just purchased. At the time I thought it was a hopeless case. Much to my surprise the next year when it went up in their galleries I couldn't believe my eyes the restoration was so good. Maybe there is such a thing as modern magic sometimes.

jen d said...

thank you for bringing up a great topic! i'm a younger, emerging artist who references my mayer handbook (4th edition!) at least a few times each week. i didn't attend art school, but did apprentice with a museum-collected artist who taught me how to create archivally-sound works (stretching my own canvas, applying gesso correctly, fat over lean, etc etc.). i feel very lucky that i got this education early on.

i am currently experimenting with new materials, techniques, etc., and since i am committed to making works that last well past when i'm gone, i spend a lot of time researching etc. to make sure the new works/methods still fall within proven parameters of being archivally sound. sometimes i think this self-imposed requirement hinders my exploration a bit, but i keep coming back to the fact that it's more important for the work to last.

Hylla Evans said...

We all seem to be on the same page, which means the people who comment are not representative of the majority out there.
What is the dealer's responsibility when bringing work into a gallery (not just at selling)? Is there a dealer who won't carry an artist's work if it isn't created with sound practices? Collectors should not be made victims by whatever happens prior to their acquisition in the chain of creation and selling.
For the most part, collectors seems to take care of their pieces in direct proportion to what they paid for them.
All this raises questions about how art professionals could institute some quality controls and certifications. Anyone have ideas?

Joanne Mattera said...

Hylla, you raise some interesting issues. Personally, the last thing I'd want is to have to subject my work to quality control. Not that it isn't archivally sound, but because I don't want someone telling me how to make a painting.

You are right that collectors shouldn't fall victim to bad work. But, as my own anecdote above suggests, collectors must also be responsible for the work in their care. And I'd suggest that they be realistic about what they're acquiring. This is where artist, dealer and collector need to have a conversation (or artist and dealer, then dealer and collector). Don't get a watercolor wet, don't poke the canvas, keep the work out of sunlight, etc.

One piece--I'm not remembering the details, but it was in a New York museum in a temporary installation, required a fried egg each morning to be placed in a certain spot. Imagine: a chef for your artwork.

Unknown said...

Are you working archivally?

Great question - I sure hope so. Whenever this topic comes up the first person I think of is Emily Carr and remember reading a book about her work years ago that noted a period of time when due to financial circumstances, perhaps during the depression, that she painted with house paint and gasoline. She painted because she had to because that's what artists do - and they create with whatever tools and materials are available to them. Was she concerned about her paintings lasting 200 years? Maybe - but at that moment - it didn't matter - she still had to paint.

I count on my manufacturers, R&F, Evans, Daniel Smith, Sennilier, Golden, etc to do the research for me and I study and keep current in my field and mediums via workshops, books and organizations and hope that what I have learned and what my manufacturers provide me, combined, create an archival piece of work - but do I worry about it or consider it with every piece of work I create? Hell no - I just have to paint!

mel prest said...

Great post and comments!

I paint and I teach. I am very strict with my students about using archival materials and practices in making paintings. I tell them horror stories about a friend in grad school whose recently sold painting developed a giant "bubble" or my own undergrad oil works on cardboard that became an oil-stained blob. Or how turpentine will eat through a thick plastic tumbler in less than a week. The students remember these anecdotes and laugh and don't mix their oils and acrylics!

I believe that a part of painting is the work that it takes to make sure it will remain stable.

Claire Scherzinger said...

Wow! Like Jen said, thank you for bringing up a great topic, Joanne. I'm going to be starting university at the Ontario College of Art and Design on the 8th and this post really made me consider the importance of materials, made me think about a lot of things.

What I have to ask though is what is the buyer paying for when they purchase a piece of work? Sure, I would tend to agree that they are paying for a piece of work that stands the test of longevity, but the purchaser, I personally believe, is buying the value of the image that decorates the canvas. I think the latter outweighs how long a piece of work lasts.

I think that the buyer has to realize that the 20th and 21st centuries have experienced a major paradigm shift in art where visually enticing images are produced like plastic Mattel Barbies. The markets are flooded with visual culture, so, naturally the price of a painting/piece of art decreases in monetary value.

Since I've taken such a capitalist approach to this idea, I want to also point out that it is the buyer that is responsible for making a wise investment.

What I mean when I say "wise investment" is that they need to realize the value of the image that decorates the canvas, not what it is made of. Since technology has advanced to the point that we can make prints of paintings in our sleep, I think that any buyer would realize that there are bound to be prints of any piece of work floating around in the artistic spectrum. Even though countless reproductions of a piece of work would potentially decrease its value, if it is truly original, then it doesn’t matter how many prints there are. Thus, there is this paradigm shift of mass consumption and the concept of longevity no longer really exists, or is as valuable compared to what is actually on the canvas.

It is the artist’s job to wield their creativity and technical skill to create something original. It is not their job to worry about how long it lasts. That is probably why there is a lot of money to be made as an art doctor. So, my answer would be, no. It doesn’t really matter. The longevity of a painting would have definitely mattered during the Renaissance, but that was before people could chew and digest images at the speed of light.

So, sorry for the long rant…hopefully it made sense. I haven’t even started university yet and there are a lot of things to consider!! Very interesting post though. Thanks for the food for thought.

Larry said...

I cannot agree with most of Claire's remarks, and would be surprised if her instructors at OCAD would support what strikes me as a cavalier attitude towards her materials and potential purchasers. As a collector, I purchase a work that is in a certain condition. I note in my records any deviation from what was presumably mint condition (such as cracking of paint, slight creases in a piece of paper, possible fading), and I then do whatever I can to maintain the piece in the same condition.

I don't think an artist can or should divorce the image from the medium used to create the image. Look at those Eva Hesse pieces displayed above. Where is the image now, if after just 40 years it has yellowed and become so brittle? Or think back to the ancient Greek or medieval sculptors, whose work was supposedly brightly painted. We see none of this, only bare wood or marble. Obviously in those times artists had no concept of long-term preservation, but to the degree that artists do today, they have in my opinion the responsibility to create something that will survive as best as possible so long as the collector takes in turn the best care of it that he or she can.

I passed on the chance to buy a gouache from an artist I admire that was listed as having been painted on "vintage paper" - which sounds suspiciously to me like that brittle acidy paper that was used for paperbound books in the early 20th century. I have some of these old books and they have deteriorated considerably. I do not want, nor do I think it my responsibility, to pay hundreds of dollars additional to arrest or reverse the deterioration when the artist himself could have used an acid-free paper to start with.

As for digital reproductions, yes of course they can be made, but they don't have the presence and impact of the original. Anyone for example who saw the Shane Hope exhibit at Ed Winkleman last month knows that the JPEGs on his website barely hinted at the detail in those pieces.

Joanne Mattera said...

Claire says: "The markets are flooded with visual culture, so, naturally the price of a painting/piece of art decreases in monetary value."

You are selling yourself and your work short. You are selling your colleagues short. Not to be overly harsh, but I hope you'll see things differently after you've gotten an education.

S.A. said...

Great post Joanne -- and very interesting discussion. I want to come to Claire's defense a bit -- as a painter and an educator -- this issue is not so cut & dried as the comments here would suggest. Yes, of course artists have to be masters of their materials, and have to have a sense of longevity as they construct pieces. But each material has its own specificity, its own meaning. If we only choose materials for their durability, we are depriving ourselves of some wonderful possibilities -- the alchemical materiality of artmaking. Would Johns' Flag be less important as a painting if it had fallen apart 20 years ago? I don't know the answer to that. Would he have even made the Flag if he had been worried about archival quality? Lots of great stuff has been made with archivally suspect or cruddy materials -- works that could only exist in those materials (I could site examples, but there are too many).

This issue is particularly sticky in artschool -- of course students have to gain a clear and thorough understanding of their materials, and the time-tested processes. But when it comes to actually making their work -- as students, it is much more important that they get the idea out there, than that they worry about how long the piece will last. I would much rather a student make twenty paintings that might disintegrate next year than spend half the term preparing surfaces and only execute a few ideas. Those 20 paintings will likely foster much more valuable development -- and by next semester they will be obsolete -- we don't really need more archivally sound student paintings.
As they develop from students into artists, or when they go on to grad school, they can decide how long their work needs to last.

At the professional level, it is important to give your dealer something that won't compromise his/her credibility. But it is the collector's job to take care of the work once it leaves the gallery. Time is a powerful force -- we all get a bit brittle and yellowed as we go along.

Larry said...

S.A.: as students, it is much more important that they get the idea out there, than that they worry about how long the piece will last. I would much rather a student make twenty paintings that might disintegrate next year than spend half the term preparing surfaces and only execute a few ideas.

That may be fine for student work. But once one becomes a professional, the stakes change. If a gallery is charging $10,000 for a sculpture or painting, I think the artist has an obligation to use a state-of-the-art approach to their materials.

Hylla Evans said...

I'm with S.A. and Larry on this as there is common ground. Student work which is identified as such commands a minimal price and expectations are lower about permanence. Professional work should be identified at every step of its capitalist changing of hands. Truth in advertising is critical. A buyer should really ask a gallerist how permanent the work is and get a serious, informed answer. That gallerist should have gotten clear information on the subject before she chose to show the work. An artist even in school should have good records of materials used and any practices that could compromise the work over time. What is school for if not to improve one's perceptions and judgements and broaden one's scope? So yes, Joanne, let's hope that Claire sees the big picture when she's ready to sell professional work.
Claire has good points about the image being important and sometimes that's what sells despite other structural concerns. If I just want the image and not the energy embodied in an original work, then I can buy a reproduction and get what I pay for -- a fleeting picture of the original.

j. d. hastings said...

Regarding Eva Hesse's attitude towards her use of fragile materials, I've always taken it as a statement of her own near mortality at the time she made them. In itself that may be a sign of how youth deals with their impending departure, but its always added a poignance to her work for me. Its vulnerability makes it more precious.

Maybe not a strategy I'd recommend, but having happened, I appreciate it.

That entire generation of artists, also including Johns, Rauschenberg et al. were extraordinary for their willingness to break rules and take risks that could result in grand failure. There is something fitting (and predictable) to the maintenance it has taken to preserve these works against the consequences of the risks taken. However, as the years have passed, the lessons of these experiments should be internalized by the artists that follow and hopefully we can learn to embhrace the spontenaity while allowing a stability to the pieces themselves.

Unfortunately, I think most young artists, especially the untrained, never realize that this is an issue at all. The paint dries solid, so they imagine it will stay that way forever. Your essay is a great resource to get us all to think this through, to the extent we hope our works will last at least as long as ourselves.

Unknown said...

If you've noticed your numbers increasing on the blog , I have assigned two of my classes to follow along this semester. This topic on archival materials was a perfect start. I have two 3D foundations classes and the first project is using "temporal" materials. SO, with your topic and thread, we had a good discussion. Especially after I had shown the Eva Hesse "Expanded Expansion" in class and your blog showed the comparison of then and now. It got them to thinking about issues they really had not explored.

Joanne Mattera said...

I hope your students will comment on the blog. Better still, I hope they will make a blog of their own. I notice that Blogger has added some new features, and it's possible for a group to create and maintain a blog together.

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