Debate: Should artists have final say on conservation?

Published 12 November 2015

Is how an artist’s work is conserved part of their remit as its creator, or is it a decision for those caring for and interpreting the work for the public? An artist and an art historian go head to head.

  • Yes...

    Convservation is a matter of taste and so the artist should be the arbiter, says sculptor Phillip King PPRA

    Art, by its very nature, is prone to change, although we now find it bizarre that certain ancient works, such as Greek sculpture, would once have been painted, and until recently it was felt necessary to keep the dark tones of old paintings, even though their discoloration was due to light-sensitive varnish.

    Change is also built into the whole process of appreciating art. Our unconscious likes and dislikes, formed since childhood, continue to evolve and shape our attitudes to art, forming what is usually called our “taste”.

    Our attitude to conservation is equally subject to our taste. The artist Marcel Duchamp was one of art’s most influential taste-makers, and by laying emphasis on the concept rather than the object, he made it possible to accept change due to deterioration or misuse. For instance, he welcomed the fact that his work In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915), a shovel he purchased and signed, was used by a museum caretaker to clear snow in Minnesota, and even saw the work thereby improved.

    I began making sculpture with little concern for its permanence, concentrating on the making and thereby achieving a kind of facility with the medium that gave me the freedom to make decisions on the hoof according to the requirements of the work in hand. I would always question how I could speed up a given textbook technique or find an alternative process. One of my least successful tryouts was using steel mesh instead of fibreglass to improve the strength of plastic resin – a total disaster, as the resin and the steel had different expansion rates, which meant the steel would forever be cracking the resin.

    It was only later, in the late 1960s, when I began working solely in steel that I was forced to give serious thought to the permanence of the work in progress. For a start, steel rusts and is heavy. This means certain things have to be done to preserve its state as shown on exhibition, and there is pressure on the artist to ensure the work does not age in a manner that completely alters the look of the work.

  • I encouraged new owners to repaint the work on a regular basis, and I countered negative attitudes towards repainting by asserting my rights as an artist

    Phillip King PPRA

  • The answer for me was to use paints that could be reproduced. In the cases when I mixed colours, I would keep an account of the mixes for the potential owners of the work. Steel can easily be scratched unless handled in a particular way, so I encouraged new owners to repaint the work on a regular basis, especially after transport, and I countered negative attitudes towards the repainting of a work by asserting my rights as an artist. For me, the artist’s opinion about any changes done to his or her work, by wear and tear or even by alteration by an owner, remains paramount, and a key factor when considering the artistic merit of any work of art.

    I have been very impressed, even astonished, with the work of institutional conservators, especially at Tate, which has a policy of preserving the state of a work as it joins the collection, even to the extent of discarding the artist’s opinion if it is contrary to gallery policy. They are able to use far more resources than I am to preserve or bring back my work to a certain state, and I am reticent as an artist to contest that policy. There are no doubt many artists who, on seeing one of their works in a public place years after it was made, would wish to make some alteration, and I can see why there is a need for public institutions to create such rules. Nevertheless to my mind the artist remains the last arbiter in deciding how his work should be preserved for posterity.

  • No...

    The artist’s intention remains in flux, complicating matters of conservation, argues art historian Alison Bracker.

    At the heart of conservation lies unqualified respect for artists. Honouring their intent and choice of materials plays a key role in the ethical care and documentation of their artworks. Upon acquiring a work by a living artist, museums, collectors, curators and conservators think about how best to record the artist’s views on the look of the object and the significance of its materials.

    However, there are other considerations, for once a museum or collector acquires the artwork, it enters a domain that invites interpretation by viewers and allows for the vested interests of those who purchased the object, as well as those on whose behalf it was purchased. Conservation must therefore serve not only the artist’s wishes, but also those of collectors, museums, viewers and, crucially, the work of art itself.

    To serve all of these stakeholders, conservators gather as much primary, historical and scientific interpretive material as possible about the object. What is the ‘original’ object or, phrased another way, when is the artwork completed? Do we accept Sigmar Polke’s contention that the artwork is finished when it has been sold? How do we define, make visible and recover artistic intention when it remains in flux, may not always be conscious at the time of making, or may be misremembered by the artist later? What elements define the artwork? If it is a conceptual piece, does fidelity to the concept or the work’s materiality take precedence? As Damien Hirst once said, “Are you looking for the original object, is that what you want to preserve, or do you want to communicate the idea that was originally intended?”

    The experience of conservator Rachel Barker in conserving Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963-65) illustrates both the complexities arising from Hirst’s question and the issues at stake when artists determine conservation decisions. Haacke’s work comprises a void within a Perspex enclosure. As the ambient temperature around the cube rises, a small amount of water saturates the air inside the cube’s cool interior, causing condensation, which in turn creates beautiful rivulets. Yet over time, the Perspex cube became scratched, discoloured and invaded by mould, and thus ineffective at communicating Haacke’s original concept of physical exchange between the viewer, the gallery environment and what was transpiring inside the cube.

  • Conservation must serve not only the artist's wishes but also those of the viewers and the work of art itself

    Alison Bracker

  • As a work of conceptual art, Condensation Cube’s underlying idea should, in theory, carry greater significance than its materials, shape or colour – the concept’s vehicle. The curators therefore wanted the Perspex cube replaced. But Barker decided to contact the artist to discuss the original artwork. Surprisingly, Haacke’s original intentions for the work had become subservient to his sentimental attachment to it. The artist had made Condensation Cube in Germany prior to migrating to America, and it represented to him his thought processes at the time. He declared his wish to preserve and display the original enclosure, so Barker eliminated the mould and reduced the scratches through polishing. Accordingly, should an artist’s original intentions or their current feelings prevail in conservation decisions? And if that decision contradicts the original artwork’s concepts or materiality, have the object and its viewers, both contemporaneous and future, been best served?

    There is no doubt that discussions between artists and conservators forge kinships that empower conservation. Strategic planning, documentation and successful reinstallation of artworks depend upon conservators engaging practically and conceptually with artists. Yet this collaborative process demands continued re-evaluation by conservators, curators, art historians and viewers, to ensure the artist’s voice does not dominate the voices of others.

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