Sunday, April 4, 2010

Modern and Contemporary Art -- Martinek

("Spiral Jetty", Robert Smithson)

“Nature,” as Robert Smithson put it, “does not proceed in a straight line…it is rather a sprawling development. Nature is never finished” (Kennedy).

The same can be said for contemporary art, and the role that conservators play in its preservation and transmission. This week’s articles introduced us to the conservator as a “surrogate artist” (Davies); we see artists not only pushing the boundaries of what art means, but we see conservators assuming more and more of the creative role once the original piece has been crafted. But how much responsibility is too much? How can we determine this?

In their article, “The Challenge of Installation Art”, Glenn Wharton and Harvey Molotch break down the main defining factors that a conservator must consider when working with contemporary art: the physical context of the installation, the varying and changing values of its pieces, its physical transformations, documentation and collaborators available each time all contribute to the definition of the art. These factors can all change quickly and drastically. While the article focuses on installation pieces, these factors are important issues in all contemporary art (and in all other art as well, although in comparison, traditional art and conservation have a much narrower set of rules applied to changes that in most cases aren’t quite as time sensitive). “Meaning and materiality cannot be fixed,” Wharton and Molotch state, “the capacity to perpetuate the art, in some way or another, depends on capacities and conditions in the present moment and not just on those in the past”.

But even if a conservator understands and embraces these factors, how do they account for constant change and settle on a course of action? When an artist is available the conservator can look to them for advice, but what happens if the artist is not, or it is difficult to follow their wishes? Should the conservator prioritize the artist’s input over everything else? I liked Christian Scheidemann’s position in “The Art Doctor” (by Rebecca Mead) about being “responsible to the artwork, not to the artist or to the collector”. But what exactly does that mean? The artwork is brainchild of the artist – without their idea the piece obviously would not exist. So how can it be separated as an entity in its own right? Even with the collector or the public viewing the piece, the physical piece is tied to their individual interpretations, which are crucial for the definition and transmission of its message.

("M.K.N.Y.", conserved by Scheidemann)

In “The Art Doctor” Mead highlights the changes in conservation attitudes from the sixteenth century – a focus on “contemporary” practices with disregard for “the aesthetics of antiquity” – to today’s union of contemporary attitudes and acknowledgment of the passage of time. As Wharton and Molotch point out, “the process continues along a two-way street of adjustment” between conservators expanding to fit the limitless imaginations of the artists, and artists acknowledging to a certain degree a need to fit their pieces within the facilities of conservationists. This two-way street reflects Scheidemann’s position of tailoring to the needs of the artwork – a product of all parties involved and therefore a compromise between the artist’s intent and conservation abilities/general understanding.

But again, how do we define the terms of this compromise, and who facilitates it? In “Meaning Matters” Laura Davies and Jackie Heuman point out that sometimes a conservator might think they have come to a compromise that works for all parties, when in reality they may have overstepped their bounds. After reading about Gallacio’s “Now the Day is Over”, do you think the conservators were too involved? Was the final product at all true to Gallacio’s intent?

Did the conservators consider all aspects enough to make an educated decision? Obviously as collaborators they considered different views, and before the piece was actually made there wasn’t much documentation, but what about how the floor was supposed to fit into its physical context? The importance of the smell of sugar? How the piece was supposed to change over time?

Stepping into Scheidemann’s shoes, did the conservationists protect the integrity of the artwork itself?

Artist Bill Viola reminds us that “it is easy to forget about the true inner life of art objects, the private knowledge that artists have put into these works”. How involved can a conservator be in the creative part of the process before disregarding these crucial concepts?

Spiral Jetty



  1. Carambelas: I was also confused about what Christian Scheidmann’s meant when we said that we are “responsible to the artwork, not to the artist or to the collector.” Certainly the work couldn’t exist without the artist, so how can one remove him or her from the equation when evaluation a work? I was wondering if Scheidmann was referring to an artist changing his or her mind, like Joseph Bueys for example, forcing the conservator to select one perspective to work with. My second thought was that Scheidmann was referring to a balance between the artist and collector/owner and not ignoring one’s input over the other. However, this is an obvious point that no conservator should have to remind him or herself of; it would hopefully be second nature. Could it possibly be that Scheidmann was referring to an artwork having rights, as we briefly talked about last week in class? I think we all agreed that works don’t have rights like humans, but could they have other rights, such as the right to be repaired; or would this be the owner’s right to have something repaired (if, for example, the artist preferred the altered piece?)

  2. Ashton: I interpreted Scheidmann's remark about being "responsible to the artwork" to mean that the artwork itself does have rights. The concept with which the artwork was created is the basis for respecting the work's rights. This protects the artwork from changes by the artist who dislikes his or her work after it was completed and wishes for the work to be destroyed or altered completely. It also protects the artwork from collectors who might wish to alter the work to make it more profitable, make it last longer or other changes that are not in accordance with the original intent for the artwork. Kennedy recognizes that to Smithson there might have been a difference between nature’s effects on Spiral Jetty and the man-made changes to it that come as a result of its fame. For example, Kennedy notes that individuals have created their own small spirals near the original work, and others have taken rocks from the work as souvenirs. Such considerations as these is what makes me think that artwork should have its own right – independent of collectors and artists, whose motivations may not always be in the best interests of the original artwork’s intent.

  3. I agree with Emily. While modern art certainly has pushed the conservation field into unknown territory from replacing a piece of dung to fumigating a tree stump to saving media works onto digital forms to preserving a tiger shark, the extent that professionals can protect the artists' intents is unclear as the works defy convention and test feasibility. Modern art, particularly relies on the setting. Certain pieces such as the pyramid of candy, sugar walkway, and Spiral Jetty face a naturally speedy deterioration and in the case of the walkway bring bugs. Scheidmann himself said that he could only restore these artworks for twenty years until the next generation and their technology could better preserve them. Contemporary art stresses ideas and originality so the artist's input matters considerably. Conservators must care for the pieces but ultimately art is meant to convey an artist's feeling and serve viewers.

  4. Novik: I was most strongly drawn to a description of Mead's conservation mentality. "One of his great qualities is this acceptance of a work of art, and the state of a work of art that is right for itself, rather than some imposed standard of what good condition ought to be." This quote brings up the issue of the 'right' of the object, and how much value should be placed on the concept. The work of art has a right to be, but I am not sure one can say that it has a right to be conserved. The piece is nothing without the creator, and therefore it is always their opinion that should be most highly valued.
    I also agree with the second half of this quote. In the world of contemporary art, things break, deteriorate, melt, etc. The term 'good condition' is no longer applicable for these objects. Each type of object must be evaluated with its own context considered, and can not be compared to other like objects, because there will not be any. An object that is considered to be in 'good condition' may be slowly disintegrating into a lake or changing back into its original state, but if that is the purpose of the object, it is doing well.

  5. I too have the vague sense that there exists "a state of a work of art that is right for itself," but I don't necessarily think that the artist's opinion should always be the most highly valued among the invested parties. In the essay "Meaning Matters: Collaborating with Contemporary Artists" the authors Davies and Heuman describe working with the artist Anya Gallacio to formulate her concept of a "sugar carpet" that would be safe to install in a gallery space. While the restrictions imposed on Gallacio by the gallery/conservators (mainly, the sculpture needed to last for four months without attracting pests) did cause the artist to dramatically alter her original conception, the way she adapted to these limitations allowed her work to go forward!

    I enjoyed Wharton and Moltoch's conclusion that the museum of contemporary art may be becoming "less a collector of things and more a mechanism of collaboration and an arranger of experiences" with the conservator at the center of that mechanism as the coordinator. Since the conservator has overlapping training in art history, material sciences, and craft it follows naturally for the conservator to bring together the curator, the artist, and the technicians in a group collaboration.

  6. I really like what Novik says about “good conditions”. This idea ties in with the responsibility of the conservator. As professor Balachandran explained to us last class, sometimes conservators, although usually trained to do much more scientific and advanced conservation methods, can frequently find themselves cutting dung or cooking eggs to conserve contemporary art pieces. Ann Tempkin explains how Scheidemann was one of the first to understand that if an artist’s material is important to its transmission and the piece happens to be made out of or consist partly of chocolate, “that piece of chocolate deserves as much serious attention as that bit of lapis lazuli in the painting, or that chunk of marble in the sculpture.” (Mead, 3) When it comes to responsibility of the conservator, I think they do have the obligation to seriously preserve these materials unless the concept of the piece says otherwise. If the point of the piece is to experience the passing of time, then its decomposition should be respected.I interpreted Scheidemann’s statement about being responsible to the artwork more as him saying that the art shouldn’t suffer and be caught in the middle of a clash between the artist and collector. I think he is saying how imperative it is for a conservator to remember the purpose of his job and to keep the art as the priority. This is also saying that the conservator does have a certain liberty to decide whose proposition best fits the piece. This is extremely subjective. I do think the artist’s opinions should weigh heavily and the idea of keeping the best treatment for the piece as forefront is crucial. I don’t think art has specific rights as humans do, but I do think it has general rights like being respected and appropriately preserved in the “best fitting” way possible.

  7. Modern and Contemporary art present many challenges for conservators, but I think that installations are particularly difficult. Most installations are only meant to be temporary, but then the museum, conservators, and the artist must decide what to do with the various parts of the exhibit. It seems wrong to throw it away, but it also seems like it wouldn't be right to put it into storage. It would be nice to keep it on display indefinitely, but that is simply not possible. I think museums should try to send installations on tours around the country (if not world), especially if they are particularly notable or popular. Not only would that be able to extend the "life" of the installation, but it would also expose many more patrons to the artist's work. In all cases, the museums should try to mimic the original setting of the installation as much as possible so that the artist's intent is maintained and the experience is as close as possible. I agree that a work of art does, in some sense, have "rights," and these must be preserved. Conservators and museums must try their best to properly exhibit and care for the work of art. This would include not making unnecessary changes to the installation.

  8. congrats! keep up the good work/this is a great presentati

    Contemporary Art

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