Afternoon Presentations

Reinhard BekWhen Contemporary Art Works

Through four case studies that span five decades of contemporary art: Max Neuhaus’ Sound Figure (2007), Darren Almond’s Diary (2000), Jean Tinguely’s Radio No. 1 (1960), and Bruce Nauman’s ANTHRO/SOCIO (Rinde Facing), (1991), Bek addressed the challenges and concerns of the conservation of artworks that have a kinetic or media component.

Obsolescence or accelerated wear and tear is the inexorable condition of works with a media or movable component. As Bek pointed out, some of the artists anticipated such issues; Neuhaus, for example, had sought to integrate a self-monitoring system for his underground audio work, and also put the notation of the work on his homepage. Tinguely, too, foresaw the preservation issue and suggested the implementation of repair services on his radio work (which, interestingly, no longer performs as well in any case, as there are far fewer radio waves in the air today as in the 1960s). On the other hand, the programmed time release of Darren Almond’s Diary, which is a “clock” of the days of the week, is powered by a non-exchangeable battery with a ten-year life.

Replacing components may not be possible, as life cycles of their availability may be at odds with those comprising the work. Media migration, which entails a replacement of the technology, or equipment modification, runs counter to the conservator’s ethic, which is based on the belief that each work is anchored in its own time. A compromise is often achieved by using newer technology for the artwork to work, but retaining the original equipment as an archival element and documenting the changes made to the work, such as was done to Bruce Nauman’s 1991 work—what Bek called “active preservation.”

Not all elements can be sustained; keeping all original elements ensures the “authenticity” of the work in the material sense, but this also means that the work no longer “works,” and therefore no longer performs its intended function. This was especially pertinent to the Tinguely work: as Martha Buskirk asked following the talk, could a “non-functional” Tinguely stand alone as a sculpture—or would it rather become a relic?

Renée VaraThe Art Market Today

In her densely informative presentation on the damage and loss process in art—i.e., the legal processes involved with claim payouts—Renée Vara set a foundation for beginning to understand the highly complex issues of her occupation.

Vara is an art advisor and appraiser. The appraiser’s task is to determine the degree of devaluation to a damaged artwork, a process for which there are few protocols and little consensus. USPAP (Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice) is the only codified methodology from which to base an evaluation. In the way that Bek emphasized documentation of the conservation and modification processes of the kinetic works under his care, Vara underscored the necessity of being transparent about the appraisal criteria she chooses for each case. Appraisers are necessarily distant from insurance decisions, which are made by the insurance adjuster, who determines the amount to be paid out, and the insurance company, which writes the check. The broker advises the client. However, the system is not normalized; insurance companies’ protocols vary according to who they’re dealing with.

Vara described the partial loss—in which there is a partial payout and the work is devalued to some extent—and total loss, in which there is a total payout to the owner and the work generally is transferred to the insurance company. It is subsequently branded “salvage,” theoretically and practically speaking devoid of monetary value—though the question of its historical and aesthetic value remains. 

Referring to the collector who insists that “the magic is gone” when a work in their collection is damaged, Vara sought to unpack what the “magic” means and to suggest that expectations for perfection are unrealistic. Damage devaluation decreases over time—that is, the older a work is, the more acceptable its imperfections are deemed to be. It is as though a new artwork needs to survive the perfection gauntlet of a decade or more, in order to earn the right to be imperfect. As Vara points out, rarity drives the market so powerfully that historical works have the advantage. This connects with Dana Cranmer’s earlier remark that a work will accrue greater value over time the less it has been conserved or restored. 

John CahillThe Rights and Obligations of the Artist and Collector

Art attorney John Cahill set out to answer the question: what are moral rights vis-à-vis art? That is, what rights does an artist retain of his or her work throughout its lifetime, regardless of ownership, and what is an owner of a work of art allowed to do, and not do? Like Renée Vara, Cahill made no attempt to gloss over the complexity of both the issues that precipitate legal proceedings and the laws that are in place to address them, which are far from prescriptive and always subject to interpretation.
The Visual Artists Rights Act, or VARA (instituted 1991) goes some way in making the rights and obligations of artist and collector more concrete. Compelled by the controversy surrounding Richard Serra’s 1981 Tilted Arc, VARA is a Federal statute in Section 106 of the US Code, the same section that describes copyright law. Its main function is to protect the integrity of works of art and their attribution. For example, the artist can forbid the use of their name to attribute a work of art “in the event of a distortion, mutilation or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation.” He gave the case concerning Cady Noland’s work Milking: Sotheby’s had removed the work from auction when the artist complained about its condition; the owner of the work subsequently sued the auction house; but the action was dismissed: Sotheby’s ability to withdraw works is written into their contract with the seller. Cahill noted that contracts—in writing—trump VARA rights, on both sides of a dispute. 

The Statute only applies to works made or owned after 1991; at the same time, it quickly shows its limitations in adequately addressing the spectrum of materials, circumstances of installation, and stakeholder concerns that characterize art production and the market today. Artists very often waive VARA rights during sale of a work to museums—one wonders if we could we see a practice emerge of selling one’s VARA rights as a separate clause in a transaction.
The question of an artist’s right in the case of a poorly interpreted installation was raised in the audience discussion, as well as the suggestion made by Bek that Serra’s Tilted Arc might have been saved by landmarking the work. 

Panel:  Artists’ Estates: Maintaining the Integrity of the Work

The panel was moderated by Martha Buskirk (Montserrat College of Art) and formed by a diverse range of representatives to the artist(s): John Hogan (Sol LeWitt Estate), Debbie Taylor (Al Taylor Estate), Ted Bonin (Alexander and Bonin Gallery; represents estates of Ree Morton and Paul Thek).

Of the four artists represented, the decisions faced by the LeWitt estate initially seem the clearest to make: for LeWitt the art was the concept, explained in the certificate, not the art-object itself. Thus the physical object, as dictated by LeWitt, must be refabricated if damaged. However the exchange of Sol LeWitt objects on the art market triggers the inherent discrepancy between art-as-concept and art-as-object, because the market trades in things, not ideas. Moreover the artist's estate does not have jurisdiction over conservation or refabrication decisions once the work has been sold. The example of Sol LeWitt raised questions from Buskirk and audience members about the potential over-dependency upon the artist’s statements, the status of a work’s historicity, and the creative license of collaborators/interpreters in contemporary installations—a certain open-endedness that LeWitt himself built into this work and instructions.

Debbie Taylor, the widow of artist Al Taylor, has strived for a balance between being faithful in appearance, matter and spirit to Taylor’s work, while not over-determining what can only ever be an interpretation of his work. His three-dimensional works have been most often re-assembled using Al Taylor’s own Polaroids as references—though, as Taylor admitted, the artist would never remake a work of his own while he was alive. She spoke elegantly of this tension between her intimate relationship with Al Taylor—and by extension, his work—and the need to let some of it lapse into the past.
Ted Bonin spoke sensitively about the challenges of (re)installing works of Ree Morton and Paul Thek, two artists who had died mid-career leaving little documentation and who often created ephemeral installations using materials from past works. This makes identification of works and the creation of inventories a difficult but a crucial task. Bonin spoke of the choice not to recreate installations of Thek’s work verbatim, searching instead, as Debbie Taylor was also doing in her way, for the spirit and intention of the artist and work.