Barnett Newman was fairly private about his technique, and until recently, much less was known about his methods and materials than many other artists from the same era. Over the last few years, Dr. Corina Rogge and Bradford Epley have conducted an extensive study of Newman’s technique centered on the 2015 Menil Collection exhibit Barnett Newman: The Late Work, which included paintings drawn from the Menil and collections across the United States and Europe. By analyzing each of the paintings brought together for the show along with studio materials and Newman ephemera, the Menil team were able to learn a great deal about Newman’s working method, and Dr. Rogge’s presentation on the second day of the PSG sessions explored his loyal use of paints produced by Leonard Bocour.
Bocour began producing paint in the early 1930s, opening a storefront in Manhattan which quickly became a hang-out spot for AbEx artists. In 1947, Bocour Artist Colors introduced the solvent-borne acrylic Magna, and in 1963, the water-borne acrylic Aqua-Tec, which was a favorite of Newman’s. In addition to these and other lines, Bocour often produced bespoke colors for his artists, and Newman himself often hand-mixed pigments and other additives into Bocour paints, complicating the issue when trying to understand which paints are present on Newman’s various works.
Dr. Rogge highlighted some of the idiosyncrasies of Bocour’s paints, such as the fact that the names of colors don’t necessarily correspond to the actual colorants in the paint. For instance, she found that Bocour Hand Ground Oil Ultramarine Red was colored with manganese violet pigment, while his Bellini Oil Colors Cobalt Blue was actually ultramarine. Generally, these misleading names aren’t too much of an issue, but in certain colors synthetic organic dyes – which Bocour referred to as “toners” – were added, and this is where things get dicey. His so-called cadmium colors like red and yellow contained a mixture of (not necessarily cadmium-based) inorganic pigments and organic dyes, which causes them to be light-sensitive and susceptible to fading or color shifts. She also found that the paint formulas went through changes in their colorants, binders, and additives over their years of production, and offered this handy tip: the address listed on the tube will indicate the period from which it originates – Bocour tubes initially listed simply “New York City,” and then, in 1943, there’s the addition of a two-letter postal zone, and the addition of the newly created five-digit zip code in 1963-64.
The Menil team collaborated with the National Gallery to analyze the historic Bocour materials in their Art Materials Research and Study Center, and with Harvard Art Museum’s Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art to analyze the Newman studio paints in their collection. They also received a timely gift: sculptor Robert Murray, a friend and sometimes studio assistant of Newman’s, was an invited lecturer and guest at the Menil symposium accompanying the exhibition of Newman’s late works. Murray then donated to the Menil paints from Newman’s studio, including many Bocour products. By analyzing the pigment ratios of Newman’s hand-mixed additions to the standard Bocour colors, Dr. Rogge was able to group certain paintings together as having been created at the same time.
Rogge and Epley’s broad study of Barnett Newman’s work has benefitted from some excellent collaboration and has highlighted the great value of our national study centers for historic artists’ materials. Their study is allowing scholars to understand the chronology and evolution of his late works, many of which were simply found in his studio after his passing. Her presentation emphasized the fact that the apparent aesthetic simplicity of Newman’s canvases belies not only the surprising complexity of his working method but also his fervent commitment to technical excellence and the physical longevity of his work.
For the last talk of the first PSG session, Jessica Ford (Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in paintings conservation, Brooklyn Museum) presented an in-depth look at the technique and legacy of Stuart Davis (1892-1964). This talk is timely considering the renewed interest in Davis – the retrospective Stuart Davis: In Full Swing is currently on view at the Whitney Museum of Art through September 25. A loan request prompted Jessica’s study of The Mellow Pad (1945-51), and a subsequent grant from the Bank of America Conservation Fund supported not only the pre-exhibition treatment, but also a technical study of the painting and some envy-inducing technology upgrades for the BKM conservation department.
Davis’s art centers on his interaction with color and space, and was heavily influenced by American jazz. He approached his compositions in the same way jazz musicians of the time approached theirs, often riffing on a past theme to arrive at a new result. The Mellow Pad is a riff on a work he began more than a decade before – 1931’s House and Street. In her talk, Jessica illustrated the work’s origin and evolution, even finding old studio photos that showed previous iterations of the work, manipulating and overlaying them to understand how the layers were built up over the long period that Davis worked on this painting.
Jessica took the non-destructive technical study to new heights with the help of the BoA grant, acquiring for the museum a multi-spectral imaging (MSI) setup, reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) equipment, and a fiber optic reflectance spectroscopy (FORS) system. She also collaborated with Nottingham Trent University to bring optical coherence tomography (OCT) to the museum to elucidate questions of layering in the paint without removing a sample. The graphics showing a moving optical cross-section and the feature where you can essentially fall into the paint layer were especially enthralling to this OCT newbie.
The wax-lined painting in its pre-treatment state had significant interlayer cleavage with resulting lifting, due to interlayer chalk from the artist’s technique, zinc-containing pigments, interlayer dirt from the long period of creation, or unstable binding media – or, more likely, some fearsome combination thereof. Jessica performed an admirable feat of BEVA consolidation, captured in this time-lapse video, which I highly recommend you watch because it’s weirdly satisfying to see an immense consolidation job vanquished in 43 seconds. Another condition concern was the discoloration that seemed to only affect paints that were layered in a certain way – a magenta stripe fading only where layered over a certain type of black. This problem is still under study and Jessica included a call-for-commiseration to anyone who might have seen this phenomenon on another Davis painting.
Davis’s work has gone through cycles of interest, and it’s nice to see it’s on the uptick, though there is still significantly less known about his working method than many other American artists of his era. Jessica’s presentation contributed to the aim of increasing our knowledge of Davis’s technique while simultaneously serving as a reminder that there is a lot left to be learned from this artist. I hope this fascinating study spurs more interesting collaborations among the author, the BKM, and other conservators and art historians studying his work.