Conserving Contemporary Art at the Getty
By Laura Gatewood
The 20th century witnessed a revolution in which objects can be considered works of art. The long establishment of canvas and bronze as the standard materials was usurped by infamous toilet bowls, fluorescent lights, and in some cases, helium balloons.
The critical reaction to the modern generation of artists who declared that concept is as relevant as object was a maelstrom of opinion that has only recently calmed. And now that the dust has settled around the redefinition of art as what the artist says it is, a new set of challenges has arisen, namely in the methods of conservation. In light of the many media being used today, from industrial paint based on synthetic resins to digital video, the major question is: How does a conservator preserve the value of the object without sacrificing the integrity of an artist’s concept?
The daunting weight of this challenge has been taken up by a team of dedicated conservators at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), one of the four major organizations under the Getty Trust’s umbrella but often overshadowed by the more publicly exposed Museum. A recent conversation with GCI employees Tom Learner and Alan Phenix revealed an underground movement of conservators working to improve the study of modern and contemporary art conservation. In 2008, Learner organized a symposium at The Getty, titled “The Object in Transition”, which aimed to build an infrastructure of guidelines on how to conserve 20th and 21st century art materials. An international group of conservators, artists, and museum curators and directors were in attendance, including artist Paul McCarthy, curator Lynn Cooke, and conservator Pip Laurenson from the Tate.
The panel discussed a variety of case studies that reveal the complexity of contemporary art conservation and the mind-boggling multitude of non-traditional materials in use today. A video by Bruce Nauman, a set of steel cubes by Sol LeWitt, and a light installation by James Turrell all went under the microscope of analysis. The entire conference can be viewed online.
Learner head of contemporary art research at the GCI, says that
the number of materials used by artists over the last century isinfinite and impossible to quantify. It would be a far simpler exercise to identify those materials that have not been used in works of art. What we do know, however, is that each one of those materials is likely to age in diverse ways and require different approaches to their conservation.”
The intriguing dialogue about contemporary art conservation is still in its infancy but with the foresight and determination of the Getty Conservation Institute and other major institutions, conclusive guidelines for current and future preservation of modern and contemporary art will be established. The conservators currently navigating the technological and art historical issues to reach universal conservation precepts should be regarded as the unsung heroes of the art world.
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Tags: art conservation, Bruce Nauman, conservator, contemporary art conservation, GCI, Getty Conversation Institute, James Turrell, Object in Transition symposium, Sol LeWitt