As a library conservator, I enjoy breaking out of my niche by attending art-related talks, because it gets me back in touch with my roots as an artist once upon a time. I knew Samantha’s talk was not to be missed. She has shown through previous research that the conservation of modern and contemporary art on paper is exciting, as you often have a more direct link to the artists when treating their work. While the Hungarian-born artist Sari Dienes (1898-1992) is no longer living, I was confident Samantha would still get to know the intricacies of this unique artist thoroughly. There has never been a better, more urgent time to focus on the influence and mastery of women artists as it is now, in our current political climate, where suppression of the female voice rises as a concern once again. Samantha’s timely and engaging talk grabbed my attention not only for its focus on an unsung 20th century female artist but for the way Samantha, paper conservator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), throws herself into her projects wholeheartedly.
By now many colleagues have heard about Samantha’s research and treatment of original artwork by the tattoo artist “Sailor Jerry” during her time as paper conservator at CCAHA. I admired how much her work on this project became a part of her, literally and professionally. The tattoos she took away as a permanent “souvenir” of this work, on her own skin, really left an impact on me. Having overlapped with her in grad school at Buffalo, I remember how much Samantha loves her work and shows a special curiosity. Samantha’s project on Sari Dienes’ large-scale rubbings was no exception.
While Dienes worked in many mediums and styles throughout her lifetime, Samantha presented Dienes’ rubbings of manhole covers, which she created using brayer-applied ink on Webril – a material used in the medical field as padding between skin and cast. While Webril today is commonly 100% cotton, it was not in the past, and the fiber composition of the Webril Dienes used was not recorded. True to her immersive spirit, Samantha travelled to the Sari Dienes Foundation in Pomona, NY, where she was able to collect historic samples of materials from the artist’s collection to use for testing and analysis. She explained that identification is not resolved as she seeks colleagues with fiber samples she might use for comparison, since her reference library did not provide a match to her FTIR analysis.
In her presentation, Samantha led the audience on a manhole scavenger hunt through the streets of NYC, where she traced Dienes’ steps at the artist’s preferred working time, Sundays at 5am. Samantha wondered how Dienes navigated the city streets with all her required bulky supplies, and explained that Jasper Johns sometimes served as her assistant. Dienes would talk to people passing by on the street as she worked, which is inevitable in the extroverted city of New York. To get a sense of the physical work required, Samantha produced rubbings in the same manner as the artist.
It’s impressive how well-connected Dienes was to artists of the time, but because she was a woman, she was not well-liked or accepted by the many of her male contemporaries. Jackson Pollock spoke poorly of her, but she collaborated with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg for an exhibit in the Bonwit Teller department store in 1955. The VMFA acquired two of the manhole rubbings that were at Bonwit Teller, which were in poor condition. One of the pieces Samantha focused on is titled “Marcy.” It was stapled to an acidic cardboard backing, which subsequently discolored the Webril, along with displaying many other condition problems.
The goal was to repair Dienes’ work in order to restore her legacy and display all the manhole rubbings together again. After much testing on samples, Samantha decided to wash the delicate Webril supports using wet Tech Wipe, and created over 70 inserts using acrylic-toned Hanji adhered with methyl cellulose. Pastel pencils were used for visual integration. The work was logistically challenging and time consuming, to say the least, but the audience was able to see clearly how much care was taken with excellent results depicted in Samantha’s treatment photos.
I was thrilled to be exposed to an artist I never heard of, but who was in fact so very influential. Samantha explained that Dienes’ work not only influenced Rauschenberg and Johns, but was associated with Fluxus artists such as a personal favorite, Naim June Paik. Dienes believed any material could be used to create a work of art and to end her presentation, Samantha shared an inspiring Dienes quote that deserves to be passed along: “Spirit lives in everything. It has no age, no color, no sex.” Samantha should feel proud of sharing the life and work of a woman who influenced many, while standing in the shadows of history. One of our greatest responsibilities and joys as conservators is to repair artifacts so that silenced voices can be heard once again. Samantha continues this charge with admirable determination.