Morning Presentations

Morning Session

Jeff NesinOpening Remarks

In his opening remarks, Jeff Nesin, Provost of School of Visual Arts, recounted two historical anecdotes that could serve as the origin myth of the contemporary issues that compelled this symposium. One was about Willem de Kooning achieving that “gloopy” surface of his paintings with mayonnaise in the 1950s: an unusual and highly perishable addition to Art, perhaps the beginning of a new world of conservation problems that now range from the chemical and biological to the digital.  The second was about Robert Rauschenberg, his cardboard constructions in the early 1970s, and his response to an incredulous collector who said, “I’m supposed to invest in that?!” –according to Nesin, Rauschenberg replied, “How much did you pay for your car? How long do you expect it to last?”

Nesin pointed out two aspects of this symposium that make it unique and constructive: the interpellation of value in the discussion of contemporary art conservation and the curatorial perspective of a private practice studio. Furthermore, as a symposium that addresses the “life of an artwork”— as Christian Scheidemann would describe next—it is apt that the event be hosted by School of Visual Arts.  It represents the point where art is conceived, made and its trajectory begun; and in some cases during its life, destined to find itself in a conservation studio.

Christian ScheidemannThe New Role of the Conservator

The curator of the symposium and its first speaker, Christian Scheidemann introduced the day’s themes as well as some key issues arising from Contemporary Conservation’s experience in the studio.

Scheidemann presented a diagram illustrating the “life of the artwork,” from the object’s initial creation through its often transitory life: traveling with art handlers, being displayed at gallery exhibitions, being bought by collectors or by museum collections. The arrow of time runs through this life, as the object accumulates history—“contemporary” definition notwithstanding. The conservator’s role is represented by the arc that spans the life of the artwork—and Scheidemann made the important point that artworks most often come to the studio during a change of ownership.

In an effort to reconsider the pejorative character of the word “damage,” sometimes “doing it wrong” makes it “come out right,” Scheidemann remarked, referring to the work of Ryan Sullivan. He also invoked Walead Beshty’s Copper Surrogates series, in which the “damage”—the oxidation of copper surfaces due to extended contact with the administrative team of the gallery, as they used them as desks—was part of the work itself. For Kelly Walker, damage is relative, and there can be better kinds of damage than others: was the work nibbled at by mice, for example, or treated carelessly by a collector? 

In terms of art, the expanse of time that is still understood as “contemporary” was given nuance by Scheidemann’s discussion of “contemporary historical” works, especially those for which a specific function was crucial to the work’s authenticity. In some cases the failure to maintain an artwork’s function as it ages kills both the operation and the spirit of the work—such as in the case of Joseph Beuys’ 1985 Capri-Batterie, in which a real lemon had been replaced by a plastic one in a certain museum installation.

Dana CranmerModern Art and Patina: Negotiating Expectations in Conservation Treatments

Dana Cranmer drew from decades of experience as a conservator in New York to give a capsule history of modern art conservation in the city and a brief account of postgraduate conservation programs in American universities. Private practice conservation grew out of museum conservation departments, partly because institutional salaries were poor and side jobs were taken on to supplement income. Cranmer tracked both empirical changes in the profession—an increasing emphasis on scientific lab research for example—but also changes to the way that modern and contemporary art conservation is perceived, noting an increasing interest in conservation to the art-viewing public.

Cranmer’s discussion of the writing of condition reports was a flashpoint for discussion that followed her talk among conservators in attendance. Condition is paramount for high-value works’ aesthetic and market viability; condition reports have become, as she put it, a “capitalist tool.” Writing them has become a high-risk task for conservators, subject to pressure from stakeholders to use specific phrasing. Her advice to other conservators was to resist the pressure, and while writing, keep an image in mind of a group of lawyers combing through each word.
Related to the mania for perfection, Cranmer spoke of the “total loss” as a failure of the system, and advocated for acceptance of craquelure and other perceived imperfections in Modern and Minimalist paintings. She pointed out the irony that the less an artwork has been treated, the better for its market value over time. 

Ingrid SchaffnerInherent Vice: A Curatorial Case Study

In her talk, Inherent Vice: A Curatorial Case Study, Schaffner gave an account of the traveling exhibition Jason Rhoades: Four Roads that she curated originally for the ICA in Philadelphia. The four works, which spanned Rhoades’ tragically short career—Cherry Makita (1993), Creation Myth (1998), Sutter’s Mill (2000) and My Medinah: in pursuit of my ‘ermitage (2004-13)—Schaffner approached as a “live set of problems.” Her talk went far in elucidating a particularly cogent example of the complex of materiality and artist’s intention.  

The care and (re)installation of Rhoades’ contiguous, densely ordered works, each composed of dozens, hundreds or thousands of “elements” was a “whole universe of conservation issues unto itself,” for “the functionality of the work is really part of the work, and to show the work you have to use it.” Every turn of the installation of Creation Myth, for example, reinforced the basic question: when to replace and when to restore works of art? This is so acutely felt in the case of Rhoades’ work in general because his early death removed the possibility of his answering these types of questions.

Co-conspirators and assistants of Rhoades, as well as the Rhoades estate, have been instrumental in passing on knowledge about how to document, maintain and install a Rhoades work to technicians, curatorial teams and handlers, such that Schaffner spoke of a “culture of work” created around Rhoades’ art. As the scale and complexity of Rhoades’ works increased through his career—and began to take on a more autonomous life—Rhoades and his gallerists began to compile instruction binders (though they were closer to aide-memoires than manuals).
Schaffner remarked on the unexpected emphasis on gesture and the hand in Rhoades’ work, particularly the formal intuition needed to properly drape the jungle of orange extension cords in My Medinah: “Without that learned feel for the artist’s intentions, the work is inert, forensic, dead.” At the same time, as Rhoades’ former assistant Rick Baker observed, each agent who worked on the installation brought his or her own interpretations of Rhoades’ intentions. In this way, too, the energy and spirit of Rhoades’ art can be regenerated each time. The question of the visually verbatim in terms of conservation and re-installation arose again in the panel on artist’s estates.

Matthew Barney and Christian Scheidemann: Material, Process and Entropy.

The conversation and presentation between Christian Scheidemann and Matthew Barney was conducted over Skype, between the theater in New York and the Walla Walla foundry where Barney was completing recent works. In the first segment, Scheidemann and Barney discussed the artist’s earlier works and their development through experimentation, failure and unexpected results. Barney’s Hubris Pills and their display in the vitrine was discussed as exemplary of the artist’s early interest in ritual and reliquary. (These ideas have become more dynamic in subsequent works, described by our colleague Louise Cone as “relics coming directly from the action, or hybrids becoming more object-like.”)

             Barney cited the making of Cremaster 3 as a beginning point of interest in the failure of materials and making that failure explicit—Richard Serra is filmed hurling petroleum jelly at the wall, re-enacting his famous earlier work where the material had been molten lead—or “asking a material to do something it doesn’t want to do,” for which a massive quantity of petroleum jelly was poured into forms, resulting in a violently melted sub-architectural mass when those supports were removed.
             The rainy conditions of the casting events at Detroit (The River of Fundament, 2014) had inspired an inquiry into water-casting; in the second section, Matthew and his team had produced several short videos that depicted recent studio tests and the larger-scale processes of water-casting in the foundry.  The studio tests included molten zinc pours into various states of water (such as dry ice), a clay slurry, or wax.

The goal at the Walla Walla foundry was to produce large-scale water castings whose resulting forms captured the gesture of the pour. Up to a ton of molten bronze was poured into Bentonite clay vats at varying speeds—with sometimes explosive results, depending on the amount of water present in the clay.
             Barney remarked, “As experimental as [these pieces] are, the problems are very classical in terms of how to display the pieces, how to make them stand, how to create a foot for a relatively fragile but very heavy object so that it will stand, and last.”