New York Times
February 14, 2007
Paints’ Mysteries Challenge Protectors of Modern Art (Abridged)
By RANDY KENNEDY
LOS ANGELES — In a sprawling, white-on-white lab here that looks like a set from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a British scientist named Thomas Learner recently lifted the top from a small box of slides, the kind that usually contain microscopic samples of bacteria or chemicals.
But this was a different kind of lab, and the slides were coated with dozens of shades of dried acrylic paint, at once as ordinary as house paint and as precious as rare isotopes. This is because the acrylics had been taken from the Santa Monica studio of Sam Francis, the abstract painter, who died in 1994 and who, like many artists of his generation, had largely abandoned the oils that had been the medium of painting for at least five centuries. Instead, he turned to their modern successors: acrylics, enamels, alkyds and many other substances that are more synthetic than organic.
The new paints, which began to emerge in the 1930s and made their way into many studios by the 1950s, allowed artists to do things they couldn’t do with oil. Morris Louis used thinned acrylic to stain, rather than coat, canvases, creating an ethereal effect. Jackson Pollock used gloss enamel because it poured and dripped the way he wanted. Bridget Riley and Frank Stella both used ordinary house paints, Mr. Stella because they “had the nice dead kind of color” that he wanted, right out of the can.
But while conservators have inherited generations’ worth of knowledge about oil paints, they know comparatively little about synthetics and how to protect the masterpieces created by using them, many of which are rapidly approaching the half-century mark.
Acrylics, for example, can leave surfaces softer than oil paints do, and so dust and dirt stick to them more easily. The surfaces can also be breeding grounds for mold. How should they be cleaned? Or transported? What should the temperature and humidity be in the museums where they are displayed? And what can institutions do — besides panic or weep — if real problems arise, if a deep red on a Mark Rothko painting slowly becomes a pale blue, for example, or if cracks appear in a Pollock easily worth tens of millions of dollars? (These two crises have arisen in recent years.)
In 2002 the Getty Conservation Institute here, working with the Tate in London and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, began an ambitious project called Modern Paints to answer such questions. It is only one part of a much larger undertaking for conservators of modern art, who now must deal with painting, sculpture and installation materials as strange and fragile as latex, old cathode ray tubes, whale-bone dust, fluorescent tubes, preserved sheep and at least one shaggy, taxidermied angora goat.
Over the last few years, in its labs perched high in the hills of Brentwood, the Getty has brought complex technology costing millions of dollars to bear on modern paints, building up a database of thousands of kinds of pigments, solvents, chemical binders and other substances. In the process it has helped cast light not only on better ways to clean, care for and transport modern paintings, but also on the ways that artists — some, like Morris Louis, highly reclusive — worked.
As just one reminder of the kind of lab this was, a cardboard storage box sitting on one table was emblazoned with the hand-lettered warning: “Beware!! Works of Art Below.”
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