45th Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, June 1, “Sidewalks, Circles, and Stars: Reviving the Legacy of Sari Dienes,” by Samantha Sheesley

“Marcy,” Sari Dienes, mid-1950s

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.

Samantha Sheesley creates a rubbing of a manhole cover in the style of Dienes

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.

Samantha Sheesley treats “Marcy” at the VMFA

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.

42nd Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, May 30, “The Reconsideration of a Reattribution: Pierre-Edouard Baranowski attributed to Amedeo Modigliani” by Elise Effmann Clifford

Elise Effmann Clifford, Head of Paintings Conservation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), presented a case study dealing with the complex topic of evaluating a painting’s attribution, drawing on the research of psychologists to consider the biases at play when conservators and scholars approach such investigations. The artwork in question was a portrait of Pierre-Edouard Baranowski, which entered the collection of the FAMSF as a painting by Amedeo Modigliani from 1918. After a demotion in attribution in the 1990s, the painting was subsequently reattributed to the artist in recent years. Effmann traced the research trails of both investigations in her talk, evaluating the reasoning of each that led to their opposing conclusions.

Portrait of Pierre-Edouard Baranowski by Amedeo Modigliani, c1918, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.  Photo: art.famsf.org
Portrait of Pierre-Edouard Baranowski by Amedeo Modigliani, c1918, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Photo: art.famsf.org

The first of these investigations began soon after the painting entered the FAMSF collection in the early 1980s, when scholars and dealers first raised doubts over the authenticity of the work. These were based on the existence of another portrait of Baranowski by Modigliani in the collection of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury from 1937-1999, and referred to as the ex-Sainsbury painting in this talk. This work has airtight provenance and little doubt over authorship.  It is painted in a style typical of the artist. Two portraits of Baranowski were mentioned in the earliest catalog of Modigliani’s work, but this states both were on canvas, where the FAMSF painting is on hardboard. Only the ex-Sainsbury painting is mentioned in subsequent catalogs. The provenance of the FAMSF painting was unknown prior to 1953, the year the donor purchased the work. A report from the FAMSF conservation department notes an underlying composition of what appeared to by a figure similar to those in an early series by Modigliani. Early restoration treatments to address flaking paint were noted, as was an early campaign of overpaint in the face. Expert opinions were sought, and at least 7 records from dealers and scholars exist in the curatorial file stating they did not consider the painting to be by the artist, that something was not quite right. The FAMSF painting’s lack of technical similarities to the ex-Sainsbury painting, incomplete provenance, its absence in early catalogs of Modigliani, including the irrefutable Ambrogio Ceroni catalogue raisonne, and the frequency of Modigliani forgeries all contributed to a decision to deattribute the painting. This was made official after the painting was taken to England to compare to the ex-Sainsbury painting in 1994.
Prompted by questions raised by the family of the donor, a technical investigation of the painting began in 2011. Effmann found more information on the unusual underlying painting, finding other similar compositions by the artist, also on hardboard. She found other examples of similar paint application, and discussions with conservators and scholars revealed that the artist showed a great deal of variety in his technique. There were several fingerprints found in the paint, ignored in the earlier investigation. Effmann also traced the provenance almost back to the artist. Current experts were consulted in light of the new information, and the attribution to Modigliani was reinstated.
Effmann notes that in hindsight, the authenticity of the painting seemed obvious. She found herself reflecting on the trajectory of research and reasoning that led to the initial conclusion that the painting was a poor-quality copy, and the role that bias may have played. The idea that such research outcomes may be influenced by cognitive biases has never been examined in the context of conservation, so Effmann turned to psychology, where the topic has been a significant area of research since the 1970s. She discussed the implications of heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts, we make constantly in order to quickly and efficiently process the vast amount of information we encounter. These heuristics usually serve us well, but cognitive psychologists have studied numerous ways in which they can lead to predictable errors or biases. Effmann identified several biases at play, including Attribute Substitution, when a difficult question is unconsciously replaced by a simpler one. Here, the question of ‘is this painting genuine?’ was replaced with ‘does this painting look like the other painting?’ Confirmation Bias (the tendency to favour information that agrees with preconceived hypotheses), Overconfidence Bias (overestimating the accuracy of one’s conclusion), and even Hindsight Bias (feeling as though one ‘knew it all along’) were all at play in the course of these events. (A good introduction into this topic is Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).
When we sit down at our microscopes, don our UV goggles, take endless notes, measurements, and photographs for documentation, it is easy to think we are looking at these artworks objectively. But the reality is: we’re not. Whether we’re embarking on a large-scale research project, or writing a condition report, we are drawing on previous experience and opinion which is necessary to guide us and make sense of the world around us efficiently, but can also lead us astray. Effmann says she’ll continue to research the topic of bias in the future, and I look forward to seeing what she finds. I know that I’ll be considering the reasons behind my reasoning much more carefully from now on.

42nd Annual Meeting – Collection Care Session, May 29, “The Ossabaw Island Workshops – Preventive Conservation Training in a Real Life Setting” by David Bayne

Since 2010, there have been four Preventive Conservation workshops on Ossabaw Island, three of which have been generously funded by FAIC. These workshops have provided a unique training experience for both emerging conservation professionals and pre-program students.
Background and History of the Island
Ossabaw Island is a 26,000-acre remote barrier island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. It has five residents, and may only be accessed by private boat. It is mostly wilderness, but there are some very interesting historic buildings, including some slave cabins of tabby construction (a technique using oyster shells, sand, and water as the mortar ingredients), the Club House (c. 1885) – where lectures take place and participants are housed, and the Torrey-West House or the “Main House” – where the actual work is carried out.
Dr. and Mrs. Torrey bought the island in 1924 and had a house built there to be their family’s winter home to escape the harsh winters of their native Michigan. The house was completed in 1926, and the Torreys spent four months (January – April) there each year afterward. The current owner of the house is Mrs. Eleanor “Sandy” Torrey West, who is the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Torrey and is currently 101 years old.
In 1961, Mrs. West and her husband started an artist colony, where writers, artists, and composers could come stay in the Wests’ home and be inspired by the island’s natural beauty and tranquility. In the 1970s, this evolved into the Genesis Project, where college students and less-established artists came to work on various projects. The Genesis participants were more self-sufficient and built settlements, cooking/dining/washing facilities, and a pottery kiln at an area of the island called “Middle Place.”
With her money running out, Mrs. West decided to sell the island to the state of Georgia in 1978, but she had several stipulations. She wanted the island to remain wild and continue to be a place of inspiration, creativity, and discovery, so the state was not allowed to build a causeway or start a ferry service to the island. They also had to continue encouraging arts and sciences projects/research and allow her to continue living in her house on the island until her death.
The Workshop
The original goals of the workshop were to use the Main House to:
1. Train housekeepers working in historic houses.
2. Professionalize preventive conservation.
3. Expose professional and emerging conservators to a nascent historic house and provide an opportunity for them to take part in its institutionalization.

The living room in the Main House on Ossabaw Island, GA.
The living room in the Main House on Ossabaw Island, GA.

The workshop provides a unique opportunity for participants to learn about preventive conservation and housekeeping practices for a historic house.  The things that make this program so unique are that the house…

  • is still a home in which the current owner is a 101-year-old woman who resides there full-time.
  • is on a remote island, and supplies must be brought out by chartered boat from the mainland.
  • suffers from MANY problems, such as:
    • The environment of the island (heat, humidity, salty ocean air, etc.)
      • Mold and mildew
      • Rotting wood
      • Rusting metal
    • Pests
      • Extensive damage to house, furniture, pillows/cushions, carpets/rugs, books, taxidermy, etc by termites, carpet beetles, silverfish, rodents, and other pests.
    • General neglect
      • As Mrs. West became older, she could not take care of the house by herself, and she could not afford to pay for the amount of repairs and housekeeping that the house required.
    • Arsenic
      • Exotic game heads (a lioness, black rhino, water buffalo, and a few kinds of antelope) have always been a major component of the living room décor, even appearing in the original architect drawings for the house.  These may have been shot by Dr. Torrey himself on a safari hunting trip to Africa.  All of them were treated with an arsenic-based pesticide.  Testing of the heads found that some had arsenic content that was off the charts (>160 ppb).

Though current housekeepers in historic houses were the original target audience, most of the people who have completed the workshop have been pre-program conservation students. A house with such a rich and fascinating history, but so many conservation issues, provides a lot of opportunities for pre-programmers to learn and gain hands-on experience. That is probably the workshop’s greatest achievement: exposing potential conservation students to collections care and preventive conservation.
I was lucky enough to have been one of the participants in the 2013 season. It was not glamorous. We worked hard and got dirty, crawling around on the floors and under cobwebbed furniture, vacuuming, dusting, moving heavy wooden furniture, and examining sticky traps that had caught all sorts of disgusting, multi-legged creatures. Through all of this, we got exposure to integrated pest management (IPM) and the care of furniture, paintings, textiles, books, and works of art on paper. It could be gross, but it was fun and exciting, too. As David said in his presentation, “Everything is an adventure on Ossabaw.”
Another major achievement of the workshop has been in helping emerging conservation professionals by providing third-year students or recent graduates the opportunity to be instructors. In 2013, that included two former WUDPAC students, Stephanie Hulman (paintings) and Emily Schuetz Stryker (textiles). These young professionals play an essential role because they have knowledge of the most recent techniques and advancements in the field and are better able to answer pre-program students’ questions about portfolios and conservation school.

2013 Team - Ossabaw Island Preventive Conservation Workshop
2013 Team – Ossabaw Island Preventive Conservation Workshop

Unfortunately, Emily Schuetz Stryker died suddenly and unexpectedly earlier this year. She was a great instructor, a wonderful person, and the most talented knitter that I have ever met. The Ossabaw workshop would not have been the same without her sense of humor and her wonderful laugh.
RIP Emily Schuetz Stryker (1987 – 2014)