43rd Annual Meeting- General Session: Practical Philosophy, May 14th, “Philosophical and Practical Conservation in the Installation, Re-Treatment, and Storage of a Rubber Sculpture by Richard Serra”, Presented by Emily Hamilton.

Like many artists working in the 60s, sculptor Richard Serra was drawn to the possibilities of natural rubber prior to his more recent steel installations.  Like many conservators working in modern and contemporary conservation, Emily Hamilton was faced with the arduous task of conserving it in an ethical, stable, artist approved way for display for a museum expansion.  I was drawn to Emily’s talk for several reasons, as the issue of stabilizing rubbers works keeps popping up in my career.  In 2003, I was gearing up for graduation at Washington University in St. Louis, when across the park, conservators at the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) were preparing ‘Untitled’ an oversized sculpture of three overlapping panels for a major Serra exhibition. The treatment while well guided with methylcellulose patches, something I could not readily detect at the time, did not maintain its desired appearance or stability in the decade that followed while it in storage.  In 2014, Emily would get a chance to try the treatment again following the museums renovation.

Degradation and separation of latex, and previously rolled storage that exacerbated the problem.
Degradation and separation of latex, and previously rolled storage that exacerbated the problem.

The basis of both the 2004 and 2014 treatments were from research conducted by Michelle Barger at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), which she presented at the 2008 ‘The Object in Transition’ at the Getty I had been fortunate enough to attend during my internship year at the Museum of Modern Art.  (Free to Stream).  The talk focused on the conservation of Eva Hesse’s ”Expanded Expansion” made of similar materials at the same time as Serra’s piece.  Michelle’s work not only focused on the technique of applying cheesecloth patches with methylcellulose, but also the ethicacy conserving a work that had deviated so far from its initial appearance and stability without the help of a living artist to give advice.
Working with Michelle’s research, Emily Hamilton created a modified innovative approach to the treatment, using the previous 2004 treatment as a facing to stabilize the structure from the front so she could apply patches from the back and ultimately remove the discolored 2004 patches.  With assistance from the installation staff, she was able to perform treatment in situ on a support that allowed for adequate rolling and flipping with Tyvek and a large diameter tube.   Emily’s practical approach is evidence that its not just the treatment materials we use, but how we choose to use them based on the object.  The final push to provide flat storage for these objects is most definitely a win for natural rubber artwork overall, I just wish I could convince my private clients to do the same.  As a final thought Emily offered the possibility of restoring some of the three dimensional qualities to the work in the future, so it would look closer to its intended appearance and convey some of the verbs Serra had chosen to invoke.  Previous time constraints and the fragile nature of the piece did not lend this possibility.   Fortunately her treatment and storage solution, along with a living artist to consult, just may allow for that possibility in the future.
An image of Serra's 'Untitled' at the time of creation in 1968 vs, the appearance in 2014 following treatment.
An image of Serra’s ‘Untitled’ at the time of creation in 1968 vs, the appearance in 2014 following treatment.

43rd Annual Meeting- General Session: Practical Philosophy, May 15th, “After the Fall: The Treatment of Tullio Lombardo's 'Adam' ”, Presented by Carolyn Riccardelli; Lawrence Becker, Michael Morris, Jack Soultanian, Ron Street, George Wheeler.

Image 1
Image 1: Major and Minor fragments

I have a confession….  I’ve had a secret crush on ‘Adam’ since I first started my graduate training at Buffalo State College back in 2005.   I first met Tullio Lombardo’s 1490-95 monumental Renaissance sculpture when I had just completed my first year of study.  I had heard of this major conservation project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the ambitious Carolyn Riccardelli who had just been selected to take on what was in fact a monumental task.  On my way back to begin my second year of study, I stopped by the Met where Carolyn was kind enough to show me the 28 large pieces and hundreds of small fragments (Image 1) that once made up what was a nearly pristine prime example Italian Renaissance sculpture in North America prior to its fall in October 2002.  While tragic, it also presented an unprecedented opportunity to study and treat such a work on American soil using modern technology and materials which would be best suited for the repair.
Carolyn and other members of ‘Team Tullio’, a collection of conservators, conservation scientists, material scientists and engineers, explained the 3D laser scanning of each piece and the virtual reconstruction they were able to do with the technology to minimize damage to the fragile clean break edges.  It was later that year as I was pursuing my own graduate research on calcareous stone, that I found myself back at the Metropolitan Museum of Art meeting with George Wheeler, a member of the research team who was performing tests on viable adhesives and pinning materials which were previously presented at meetings prior to this talk.
The results of this material testing were combined with the initial 3D scans using a new tool to conservation based in structural engineering called ‘Finite Element Analysis’.(Image 2)
Image 2:  Results of 3D scanning and Finite Elemental Aaalysis
Image 2: Results of 3D scanning and Finite Elemental Analysis

This tool allowed the team to virtually see the areas of stress/strain in the sculpture, and determine the best and most minimal areas to use fiberglass rods for pinning along with the selected adhesive cocktail (B72:B48N, 3:1 in acetone).  This theoretical research was then put into practice on a large scale sculpture similar in size, stance and material to ‘Adam’, but definitely not of the same value (a replica of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ from wishihadthat.com).  ‘David’ posing as ‘Adam’ was broken in similar locations and subjected to what was my favorite aspect of the project, an external armature system used for clamping during the reconstruction).  The armature allowed for the pieces to be joined and held in place with precision as the often overlooked 2 week evaporation period of the solvents took place to insure maximum adhesion and reducing creep.
Finally, after over a decade of research and practice, the team implemented the treatment of ‘Adam’ in what can only be described as mesmerizing .  Now if only it were that easy and fast.  Carolyn’s talk concluded with a well-deserved standing ovation, something I had never witnessed before at a talk, but gladly jumped in with full support of the team.  This project truly was monumental and the research is something I am very fortunate to have witnessed during my graduate training and beyond.   For the Metropolitan Museum’s Report  (source of all images included) Or you could just go see it for yourself at The Met!

AIC Member Research Trip to Cuba 2011

Plaza de San Francisco in Havana

When I first heard of AIC’s Members Research trip to Cuba, my initial reaction was ‘Why Cuba?’  Of all the places to experience conservation, what would a Caribbean island that has been isolated from the outside world have to offer?   Not knowing what to expect, and curious to learn more about a place that was restricted for Americans, I along with some 30 other AIC members, signed up and put myself in the hands of our fearless leader Rosa Lowinger.  Rosa, a well respected conservator (and author), was born in Cuba and relocated to the US following the embargo.  She was an ideal resource and had planned an ambitious schedule covering museums, conservation labs, local artists, architecture, as well as an Angels Project in Historic Trinidad.

A well maintained and adored 1950s Plymouth taxi.

To really understand the allure of Cuba for a conservator, look no further than the iconic 50s cars that rumble down the street. Despite the embargo and a lack of supplies, the Cubans have managed to keep their beloved American made Buicks, Pontiacs, and Fords in working condition over 50 years since they were produced.  As I sat in the back of an electric blue 50s Plymouth taxi, I listened to the driver speak passionately about how his grandfather, father, and now he, had maintained it over the years using only original Plymouth parts.  The same holds true for conservation in the country.  Although basic supplies like paint brushes and B-72 are difficult to obtain, conservators in Cuba take pride in their history and have managed to preserve it over the years.

A paintings student shows us his research project.

Conservators are well respected in Cuba.  Similar to the American training programs Cuban conservators train at the graduate level with internships/fellowships along the way.  There are also highly skilled craftsmen who attend trade schools with apprenticeships.  The Cuban government funds all conservation projects and established National Center for Conservation, Restoration and Museology in Havana (CENCREM). We visited the well equipped labs which included Paintings, Paper, Objects, and Book conservation along with Conservation Sciences (for more pictures).  The most impressive aspect of the labs for me was a Biological Lab, set aside to identify and address two of the biggest problems faced by conservators in Cuba:  mold and termites.  However as impressive as the CENCREM labs were, not everywhere in Cuba was so well equipped.

A Graduate Student shows us the Paper Lab.

A ceramics conservator shows us his inpainting media for porcelain.
Rosa Lowinger pictured with Trinidad conservator Nancy Benitez overlooking Valley of the Sugar Mills

On the 5th day of our trip, we hit the road for a four hour bus journey to Trinidad, designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1988, and the site of our Angels Project.  Trinidad, located near the Valley of the Sugar mills, was a major center for the sugar trade until the 1850s when it was surpassed by nearby Cienfuegos.  From 1850 until the 1950s, Trinidad experienced a period of isolation and incidentally did not experience the growth of hotels and other buildings like Havana.  Instead Trinidad is a well preserved testament of Colonial Cuban architecture and art.  Conservators in Trinidad were trained like those in Havana and had labs for Paintings, Objects, and Archaeological conservation (Paper was done elsewhere). However conservators in Trinidad were very limited in resources and supplies in comparison to CENCREM.   The aim of our Angels project in Trinidad was to learn how conservators there dealt with these limited resources and aid them with the donation of supplies and suggestions from our own experiences.

A typical scene on the cobble stone streets of Trinidad.

The Plaza Mayor in Trinidad
Supplies donated by AIC members to Trinidad Conservators.

The conservators in Trinidad received donated books, publications, emergency management tools, inpainting brushes, gilding supplies, dry pigments, small hand tools, a large jar of B-72, along with other helpful supplies.  The group divided amongst ourselves into areas of specialties and went to address projects the conservators there were working on.  I, as an objects conservator, went to the archeological lab where there were objects labeled in boxes on shelves and large objects in a tub desalinating from burial in distilled water.  The conservators were interested in finding ways to reduce the water changes since distilled water was not the easiest to find.  Nancy Odegaard took a trip to the chemical room and came back with a simple spot test for chlorides recently presented and published with WAAC.

Other helpful advice came from the architectural and outdoor sculpture conservators who helped design a mount to elevate a colonial canon that was currently stored on the ground. Paintings conservators examined and suggested treatment procedures for a large canvas with tears, and paper/book conservators worked together with ethnographic conservators to address a painting on damaged leather. By the end of the day both the Cuban and American conservators felt a lot had been gained from our visit, and are hopeful that future collaboration will be possible.

AIC Paintings conservators examine a large oil on canvas in Trinidad.

The end of a successful Angels Project, and the beginning of collaboration with Cuban conservators.

For more pictures and video from the our visit to the Guanabacoa Museum,  click here,  and see AIC’s photos.

39th Annual Meeting, ASG Morning Session, June 2nd, Student Papers, “Rediscovering an American Master: The analysis and proposed treatment of the decorative plaster ceiling of Robert Winthrop Chanler’s Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Studio, New York” Lauren Vollono Drapala, University of Pennsylvania

Lauren’s presentation introduced me to a true treasure hiding out in my downtown New York City neighborhood at 8 West 8th Street on Washington Square. In what was once the original location of the Whitney Museum lays the intimate studio retreat of patroness to the arts, Gertrude Vanderbilt.  Lauren’s focus on this room was to conduct historic research, assessment, analysis and documentation of the decorative ceiling created by artist Robert Winthrop Chanler.  What first appears as textured white plaster ceiling is actually a highly detailed bas relief plaster composition that still has some indications of paint. [PHOTO].   Like Angela’s Curmi’s talk before, Lauren knew there was an original decorative finish below the surface based on similar works by the artist, documentation, and cross-sectional analysis, but was having problems with accessibility to the paint after the ceiling had been overpainted white, most likely due to unaddressed failings of the plaster and paint over time.  Lauren’s goal was to eventually discover a means to safely remove the overpaint  and conserve the original paint below. I was rooting for her!


After creating high res photodocumentation of the ceiling, including an overall raking light image to accent the relief, Lauren mapped the condition and motif of the ceiling to aid with her investigation.  Lauren also visited other sites with similar work by the artist at Peebles Island and Vizcaya Museum to note pigments and decorative effects he employed at a similar time.  Lauren’s paint analysis [PHOTO]revealed that the newer layers of paint were bound more strongly to the original paint than the original paint was bound to its plaster substrate; the removal of the overpaint was not looking favorable.  Lauren was even given a detached portion of the ceiling to test  overpaint removal gels on, unfortunately with little success.


Following what looked to be a disappointing end to all of her hard work, Lauren took it a step further.  She made mock up panels of the ceiling based on her research and analysis to get a better idea of the surface then combined that information from her analysis to propose what it “May have once looked like”.  Here is the initial result of her efforts [PHOTO].  I’m still rooting for this project.  In the meantime if you are interested in learning more, read Lauren’s thesis: http://repository.upenn.edu/hp_theses/151/

39th Annual Meeting, ASG Morning Session, June 2nd, Student Papers, “Non-Destructive Investigation of Concealed Gilding in Architecture” by Angela Curmi, Columbia University

As an objects conservator, I tend to overlook the decorative walls of a historic house, focusing instead on the surrounding 3D aspects.  Angela’s talk really made me stop and think about the walls, as not only a significant work in themselves, but also as a record for changes in style and taste.  However the problem becomes, how do you look at certain aspects of previous wall decoration without removing the layers of historic paint?  Furthermore, how do you look at the overall motif of an entire room, without removing paint from the entire room?  Angela’s thesis from her studies at Columbia University focused on non-destructive methods of detecting gilding under layers of paint.


For her research, Angela created mock-ups of gilding motifs using gold, silver, and aluminum leaf under 3-5 layers of various paints (enough to provide visual coverage) and relied on infrared reflectography, infrared thermography, and eddy currents to see if gilding could be detected non-destructively.  The pigments of the paints can interfere with the ability to image so Angela chose historic lead white paint,  calcimite paint, and modern ‘Latex Paint’ along with burnt sienna, chromium oxide, yellow ochre, and Prussian blue [PHOTO ] on prepared wood panels [PHOTO].  For equipment Angela used a modified Kinamax nightvision webcam, modified Nikon Coolpix IR Camera, and Indigo Systems INGaAs NIR camera to test the Infrared Reflectography, as well asFLIR ThermaCAM P640 and FLIR Inframetrics InfraCAM to test the Infrared Themography [PHOTO].


Several years ago I had to attend a conference on IR imaging in an attempt to find the most practical model for my lab, so I empathized with the literature and technical data that Angela must have had to sieve through in order to find an appropriate model for her imaging.  Her results were much like I experienced, there is no ‘best’ suited for a conservator’s needs.  As Angela stated there were drawbacks to all systems, either in their range of wavelengths, ease of software use, or the quality of the image produced.   She did not find success with Thermography, mostly because of the inefficiency of heating a large space evenly to get the image.  Reflectography was more promising with the best results achieved with the Indigo INGaAs NIR camera, though its use is not necessarily practical based on cost.  The most practical model appeared to be the Kinamax model, an affordable, easily used modified web camera, the result of collaborative research from Elizabeth Nunan and Greg Smith at Buffalo State College.  For more information and purchasing of your own model go to Elizabeth’s website:  http://www.aandnartconservation.com/infraredsensitivewebcam.html


39th Annual Meeting, ASG Morning Session, June 2nd, Student Papers “A Technical Study and Conservation Proposal for the Glass Mosaic Decoration of Villa Caparra in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico” by Yaritza Hernandez Nieves, University of Pennsylvania

I had never heard of the Villa Caparra before Yaritza’s talk.  Yet, after her presentation I was left with the urge to take a summer vacation to Puerto Rico to see this beautiful example of cement embedded glass mosaics; both for their personal design elements, and their intriguing conservation issues.  Yaritza presented her thesis from the University of Pennsylvania in which she ambitiously investigated the materials, fabrication, installation, and conservation issues associated with this 20th century architect’s designed home and studio.  What was once a showcase home, had become the victim of urban encroachment and overall neglect.  With a new interest by Puerto Rico in making this location a historic museum, Yaritza’s research and documentation will certainly ensure conservation intervention will be a success.


All of the mosaics were comprised of glass tesserae laid in a reinforced concrete substrate, which at the 1927 construction was a considered a modern material and new technique.   Yaritza surveyed the mosaics, classifying 3 types of flat glass used, their mosaic techniques, the location within the building’s structure, and the conditions of the glass in these areas.  As an objects conservator the amount of information from this survey seemed overwhelming at first, but Yaritza quantified her data with mapping software then combined XRF/SEM analysis to determine what the conservation problems [PHOTO] were, and her recommended for treatment.


The main damage was from the Portland cement substrate, whose caustic components were solubilizing the silica components of the glass.  This problem was only exacerbated by compression cracking and losses of the tesserae, which provided addition inlets and outlet s for water infiltration and evaporation. The movement of water resulted in the movement of the caustic cement components and ultimately the deterioration of the vitreous  glass.  Yaritza concluded by giving a few initial recommendations of conservation treatment [PHOTO] as well as avenues for additional research. This was a really a well researched paper that presented a wealth of research in a very limited talk time.  Well done Yaritza!  See you all in Puerto Rico soon!