Living artists and the conservation of contemporary objects: Preserving an aesthetic of decay

John T. Campbell


The artist/ conservator collaborative process is an important and emerging area of conservation focus. The purpose of this paper is to examine the conservation of contemporary works in the context of the artist/ conservator collaboration with the goal of preserving an artist’s legacy.

First, an overview of common opportunities and challenges facing contemporary object conservators who work with living artists will be presented. For example, the artist can be used as a primary source when researching treatment options, providing insight into intention, aesthetic, and materials. Direct contact with the artist may alleviate guesswork inherent to the practice of conservation. However, artists returning to works created several decades earlier may incorporate current thought about aesthetics and construction in their advice. The conservator must strive to utilize the artist’s input without altering the original intent of the object.

Next, specific materials issues will be discussed using the work of James Magee as a case study. Magee is a Texas-based artist known primarily for a decades-long project called The Hill – a site-specific architectural installation in the desert outside of El Paso providing a sensorial experience for the viewer. The Hill is composed of a wide array of materials, including local shale, steel, bone, lead shot, hibiscus and found objects. Thus, The Hill, as well as Magee’s smaller objects, provides a unique opportunity to examine the role of the conservator in preserving the material aspect of a body of work – one that aims to explore beauty through the process and product of decay-by an artist who recognizes that maintenance is a distinct aspect of his work. Another area common for contemporary conservators is preserving the immaterial aspect of works. In Magee’s case, the titles of objects, often pages in length, are integral to the viewers’ experience of the piece itself. The conservators’ role in documenting (e.g. recordings, textual description) and maintaining these essential “spoken word” elements of the work is discussed. The collaboration between the conservator and artist is also examined based on ethical issues that arise.

The paper concludes with a special emphasis on documentation as a tool to bridge the caretaker roles of the conservator and the living artist.

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2013 | Indianapolis | Volume 20