AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, May 9, “Treatment of Izhar Patkin’s ‘The Black Paintings’–Collaboration and Compromise” by Jennifer Hickey

Israeli-American artist Izhar Patkin’s work combines traditional painting and sculpture with nontraditional techniques.  In 1986 he completed his work, The Black Paintingsa series of twenty-two pleated neoprene panels painted with images based on Jean Genet’s play, “The Blacks: A clown show.”  The 14′ long panels hang side by side to create a 28′ x 22′ installation.  Recently, the sculpture and painting conservation departments at the Museum of Modern Art in New York collaborated to address the treatment of this work.  Jennifer Hickey presented the challenges, philosophy, and compromises of the project to the Paintings Specialty Group.

When conservators took on The Black Paintings they were met with a host of interesting challenges.  The first set of issues had to do with the materials.  Neoprene is a stable synthetic rubber that maintains its flexibility over time and wide temperature variations.  It is not an ideal substrate for painting because of its flexibility and the size and weight of each panel exacerbated that problem.  The artist was aware of those issues and used spray paint and vinyl paint under the assumption that the spray paint would crack while the vinyl paint would remain flexible.  Unfortunately, the expected interactions of the materials proved false as the entire painted surface cracked and flaked with the stretch of the neoprene.  The cracking and losses were compounded by the handling required to deinstall and reinstall the panels each time they were exhibited.

The physical incompatibility of the neoprene and paint media was not the only problem.  Neoprene is often coated with a talcum-based release agent to keep it from being sticky.  The application of the talc leaves a hazy gray surface that the artist liked so he painted on it without removing the coating or preparing the surface with another material.  Therefore, the release agent that kept the neoprene from being sticky also acted as a release agent for the paint media.

Conservators were also faced with challenges that went beyond the materials.  Izhar Patkin is a living, working artist so conservators were able to consult him during the assessment and planning stages of the project.  This may sound like a blessing if we consider all the times we’ve wished for input on a complicated project from its creator.  However, it can be a double-edged sword and that was the case with The Black Paintings.

As previously mentioned, Patkin was aware that the painted surfaces would deteriorate and enjoyed the nonstatic idea it presented.  He chose his materials to encourage that deterioration and scratched into the paint to initiate the process.  He also appreciated how the heat of the installation space intensified the smell of the neoprene.  Perhaps it was serendipitous that such heat adds to the risk of instability in paint films.  Conversations with the artist allowed conservators to understand where he’d intended damage and deterioration, which guided their treatment decisions.  At the same time they ran into complications during their discussions.  For example, the artist and conservators used the word “craquelure” to describe different phenomena and the conservators had to contend with impractical suggestions from the artist.

In the end the treatment of The Black Paintings was limited to triage with the understanding that maintenance treatment will be required each time the panels are unrolled.  Conservators designed a cleaning system that accounted for the sensitivities of the solvent based paints and avoided heat, which could have compromised the rubber.  The panels were hung and then gradually lowered to a table for access, at which point they were cautiously dry cleaned and a very time consuming consolidation was undertaken using an acrylic emulsion adhesive.  An old interleaving was replaced with finely woven undyed cotton and permanent cleats were secured to the tops of each panel.  At that point the panels were rerolled and stored.  A manual was prepared to instruct all individuals on the proper handling during all future installations and deinstallations.

This was a very complicated project that illustrated many of the issues that arise when dealing with modern and contemporary artworks and the involvement of a living artist.  A question and answer session following the presentation continued to highlight the gray areas surrounding these kinds of treatments.

One conservator asked Ms. Hickey why they chose to roll the panels with the paint side facing inward rather than out because of the added risk it posed to the already unstable paint.  Ms. Hickey explained that the size and weight of the panels necessitated this compromise because they were too large and heavy to flip over once the panel was unrolled.  Rolling them in this way may risk the paint but significantly reduced the level of handling and resulting unavoidable losses.

A second question posed to Ms. Hickey was whether or not they thought of alternatives to the permanent cleats because rolling the paintings with the cleats creates a risk.  When Ms. Hickey explained that the budget of the project would not allow other preferable but more expensive alternatives she was asked if they considered the fact that additional costs at present could maintain value in the piece and curtail future treatment costs.  Ms. Hickey addressed this question with great poise by reminding us all that conservators do not always have the final say when it comes to the cost of a treatment and sometimes we must find the best compromise available within our limitations.

This was an excellent presentation and I hope it will lead to continued discussions regarding the issues that arise in these kinds of complicated projects.