Loss compensation in contemporary sculpture

Rosa Lowinger and Donna Williams


Compensation of losses in contemporary works of art usually raises philosophical and ethical questions in addition to questions of aesthetics and reversibility. Many contemporary works of art are made of non-traditional materials that are combined by the artist in ways not originally intended by manufacturers. More often than not, these materials change in unexpected ways, particularly when the pieces are situated outdoors or in uncontrolled environments. Compensation of a loss in a work of art that is made of a material whose aging cannot be predicted presents particular problems. The restoration must be viewed as a treatment that has a high probability of needing retreatment in the future. In some ways the compensation of a loss becomes a part of regular maintenance.

Contemporary materials often have specific properties that make the bonding of other elements difficult. Rubbers, plastics and resins with differing elastomeric properties require the use of compensation material that is similarly flexible. Often only the same material will produce the desired effect, making it difficult to separate the compensation from the original.

Because of their relative newness, contemporary works of art are often subject to rigorous aesthetic standards. Even minor abrasions or color change become completely unacceptable. This is particularly true with minimalist or conceptual pieces, where the idea of perfection is the main aspect of the work. At the other extreme are works made of found materials, where losses exist in the works and the artists themselves do not accept compensation as a reasonable approach to treatment. In some cases, the artist prefers the loss to be left. Compensation on both of these types of works becomes extremely difficult.

Working with a living artist also poses special problems for compensation of these works. Often the artist is wedded to an aesthetic produced by an inherently unstable material. In other cases, the compensation involves complete replacement of a damaged element, or some deterioration is actually desired by the artist as the work ages. In one treatment recently carried out, the artist communicated that he actually hoped that the patina would rub off to expose bare metal as the piece was “sat on, touched and rubbed.”

Examples of these problems will be illustrated with treatments recently executed on the work of some contemporary artists such as Billy AI Bengston, Susan Rankaitis, Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg, and Tom Otterness.

Download full article

1994 | Nashville | Volume 2