39th Annual Meeting – Painting Session, June 2, “When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It: Two Directions for the Conservation of an Anselm Kiefer” by Per Knutas, Chief Conservator, Cincinnati Art Museum

This fascinating talk explored some of the challenges presented by contemporary artworks that embrace physical change over time.

ICA Art Conservation was contacted after a large scale mixed media Anselm Kiefer painting was severely damaged in transport. Director Al Albano had interviewed the artist previously and was familiar with his materials, which included acrylic paint, lead, straw and two large steel objects mounted with cleats. The artist’s working methods were described as follows: paint applied to the support, then covered with hot lead and more paint, then intentional tearing and scraping, with areas of lead pulled up to reveal the paint below.

On site examination of the work revealed a 25 x 15 inch lead fragment at the bottom of the travel crate. The relatively straightforward problem of how to reattach this fragment was complicated when photo details from two previous exhibition catalogs revealed discrepancies in the area of damage. Apparently, the artist’s assistants had made emergency repairs at each venue of a traveling exhibition. Four campaigns of staples and three different colored silicone adhesives attested to the alterations. To further complicate matters, the painting’s original state was undocumented, and the owner didn’t want the artist to be contacted.

Initial repositioning of the fragment no longer corresponded to its previous placement due to a ball-like lead distortion and to previously applied red silicone adhesive. After “endless discussion about how to move forward,” three different approaches for reattachment of the lead fragment were suggested:

1.  Attempt to return the lead fragment to its original appearance by rejoining it to form an unsupported fold as seen in the earliest photo documentation. This option was considered too invasive and thought to lack structural integrity.

2. Re-attach fragment as per photo detail in the 1987 catalog. Unfortunately, the ball-like lead distortion didn’t correspond to photo documentation, and a “tube” shape that was visible in the photo detail had gone missing.

3. Flatten the lead fragment and re-attach over existing ball-like shape. This option was ruled out as too free an interpretation.

Option 2 was considered to be the most viable course of action. In subsequent treatment, the ball-shaped lead component had to be removed from the work and repositioned to allow for a more precise fit of the lead fragment. Silicone adhesive was then custom formulated for color match, tensile strength and working time by a local Ohio manufacturer.  Happily, when the ball-shaped lead was unraveled, it turned out to be the missing tube shape as seen in photo details. The lead fragment was flattened and reattached with final results far exceeding expectations. The treatment was considered to be a great success.

Daisy Craddock

Craddock Painting Conservation