With the Best of Intentions

All paintings begin to disintegrate right after you do them,” artist Robert Ryman admitted in a panel discussion at the Museum of Modern Art last night. “But as long as things are on the wall, they’re pretty safe.”

The rest of the time, artists’ paintings and other pieces are under the care of the sorts of collectors, gallerists, curators, and conservators that filled the audience for the event, to listen to Ryman, fellow artists Tony Feher and Jim Hodges, and Yale University Art Gallery director Jock Reynolds discuss the role of artists’ intent in making conservation decisions.

Such conservation choices are becoming increasingly complicated as contemporary work made from unusual materials begins to age. PaceWildenstein’s new endeavor Artifex Press, which organized the event, has been able to harness technology for its mission of preserving online “catalogues raisonnés”, but there are not always easy solutions to the problems posed by the rotting food, decaying plastic, and obsolete electronic equipment that make up so much contemporary art.

As Tony Feher — who uses objects like bottles, glass jars, and sticky-notes in his work — admitted, the most commonplace objects are sometimes the most difficult to maintain. “Nothing but disaster follows me around,” he joked, before regaling the crowd with horrific tales of artwork annihilation. He recalled how visitors repeatedly damaged an installation of Fanta bottles hanging on trees in a public park. “I call it the piñata effect,” he said. “If you have something that’s hanging in front of you, and it starts swaying, men just have to hit that.” Feher reported that one man even walked through, popped open a bottle, and enjoyed a refreshing beverage. Check also this Must See Seattle Art Shows post.

Unusual art objects can also inspire indifference and complacency in caretakers. Feher explained that one sculpture exploded after a buyer sat it directly before a sunlit window. “Just because it’s made of concrete and a vodka bottle doesn’t mean it should be given less consideration!” he exclaimed with a mixture of amusement and exasperation. The collector wanted a replacement, but he refused. “If you buy a vase at Tiffany’s and break it two years later, they’re not going to give you a new one,” he explained. “I expect my work to be handled with the same kind of care and consideration you would give a painting or a piece of cast bronze.”

Not all works of art inevitably degrade, though. Some art pieces will improve with very careful conservation. Reynolds points to a video of the installation of the massive wall drawing show Sol LeWitt at MASS MoCA. As it shows a dedicated team with paint masks carefully sanding a wall, he related to conditions in Paula Copper’s SoHo gallery (1968) when the artist completed the first-ever wall drawing. “That wall was far from but smooth, un-pockmarked, or perfectly sanded,” he said. Reynolds additionally remarked that quite a few of LeWitt’s draftsmen have become specialists in specific techniques, becoming something like “samurai warriors” in their own crafts. LeWitt’s works skillfully executed today, dwarf the quality of the things the artist himself produced on a regular basis.

Robert Ryman, who possesses a calm tranquility befitting an artist who has made a career of creating all-white paintings, seemed less concerned than Feher about preservation. “Paintings take on a thin patina of grime over time,” he explained. “It’s just a natural thing. It adds to some paintings. Of course, when the grime becomes so dense that it interferes with the aesthetic, it needs to be cleaned.” Though of course when to clean works and how much to protect them are highly subjective decisions. See also this Seattle Art Museum Review.

According to Ryman, many museums are too aggressive in their decisions. “Some paintings are over-preserved so drastically that they don’t have any life anymore,” he said sadly. “I remember when Picasso’s Guernica was at the Modern. You could go up and breathe on it.” “Or spray paint on it!” a voice chimed from the back — a reference to Tony Shafrazi’s 1974 attack on the painting, during which he scrawled “KILL LIES ALL” on the work. The comment belonged to painter Chuck Close, who seemed to support Ryman’s concerns about overzealous conservators.

“The most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Close said, “was about a Haim Steinbach that had cheese doodles in it. The cheese doodles got maggots, and they were trying to decide whether to inject formaldehyde into the cheese doodles or replace it with new cheese doodles. That seems like an easy question, as long as cheese doodles exist.”

Close noted that art also changes in more subtle ways after its creation. “When you look at Rauschenberg’s work, the early combines bare no resemblance to what they looked like when they were first made,” he said, looking pleased. Reynolds was quick to agree. “I think we need to accept a certain amount of risk that things are going to change as they age, just as we all do,” he said. “We wouldn’t be interesting if we stayed the same forever and ever.”

Ryman seemed prepared to accept any hardships with Zen-like grace. He mentioned a collector who loaned one of his paintings to a touring exhibition and was relieved when it was returned in pristine condition. “He was putting it back on his wall, and he dropped it. It broke.” Ryman paused. “Such is life.”