Sunday, October 31, 2010

Science News: The Improvised Remedies of an Art Healer


Eleonora Nagy remembers the first time she got a close look at “Untitled,” a 1966 sculpture by the artist Paul Thek. One of a series of works known as “meat pieces,” it looked like a fresh limb fragment that had gone bad — very bad.

“When we opened it up with the art handlers it was before lunchtime,” Ms. Nagy recalled. “And I went, ‘Ewww, my appetite is over.’ ”

That reaction was precisely what Thek (pronounced tek), a once-major figure in the New York art scene who died in relative obscurity in 1988, would have wanted, she said. With its bizarre hyper-realistic details — a shiny tongue of material that oozes from the innards, hairs that seem to grow through the surrounding yellow-tinted plexiglass case — the sculpture was meant to shock and repulse the viewer.

But Ms. Nagy, an art conservator, was less interested in the overall impression of the piece and more in its condition. After four and a half decades, “Untitled” had gone bad — very bad.

The piece had been knocked around a bit over the years, leaving flecks of material here and there. A fluffy white substance seemed to be growing, like mold, in one area. Outside the case, the hairs had lost their color. Above all, the surface of the “meat” was cracking and peeling.

“This piece was in such bad shape that no one had the courage to buy it,” she said. But the Whitney Museum of American Art had, in 1993, and last year it hired Ms. Nagy to work on it and other pieces for a Thek retrospective. The exhibition opened last week.

Because they are often made from unusual materials using unconventional techniques, modern works of art can present conservation difficulties that old master paintings or Italianate sculptures do not. For Ms. Nagy, who for nearly two decades has specialized in modern and contemporary art, including large mechanical works by Claes Oldenburg and Minimalist metal sculptures by Donald Judd, the often painstaking task requires knowledge of art, material science and even engineering — with healthy doses of detective work and improvisation thrown in.

“In every profession you have paved roads for how to do things — established rules, established literature,” she said. “For modern and contemporary art you don’t really have that. You’re flying blind.”

With the Thek piece, flying blind meant not even being certain what it was made of. The sculpture seemed to have a core of plaster, the “hairs” were certainly monofilament nylon, and there was evidence that polyurethane resin and Day-Glo paint had been applied. But it was unclear what the “meat” itself, including the cracked fleshlike surface, consisted of.

As a first step in what became a six-month process of stabilizing and conserving the piece, Ms. Nagy needed to remove the plexiglass case, or vitrine. There were, of course, no handy instructions — Thek, like many artists, had apparently never considered that years after he made a piece someone would want to open it up.

“I hardly ever see artists who are really considering what is going to happen to their work,” Ms. Nagy said. “The point is to get it done and get the idea out.”

After spending most of a day quietly studying the piece and determining that the hairs only appeared to go through the case, she slowly removed the plexiglass. That allowed her to have the sculpture X-rayed. But it was too fragile to be moved to a museum with X-ray equipment, so a portable machine was brought to the Whitney’s storage facility in Manhattan.

The X-rays confirmed that the interior of the piece was plaster, perhaps with a foam core as well that did not show up on the films because of its light density.

The “meat” had been built up on the plaster, leaving delicate brush strokes that were faintly visible. But what material had Thek used?

A little detective work was in order. The artist’s longtime assistant, the artist Neil Jenney, remembered him using paraffin and carnauba wax on some projects. “We’d heard that it was wax,” Ms. Nagy said. “I smelled it on a few things. But we did not know exactly what it was.”

She sent a few tiny samples off to Narayan Khandekar, a conservation scientist, and other collaborators at the Harvard Art Museums.

“In some cases taking a sample damages something that is really pristine,” Ms. Nagy said. But obtaining the samples from “Untitled” was simple — she just picked up a few flecks that had come off over the years. “It’s like, Come on, make use of it,” she said.

At Harvard, the scientists used Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to analyze the samples. “They matched it very nicely with a beeswax sample,” Ms. Nagy said

Analysis of other samples determined that what earlier conservators thought might be mold — and which Mr. Jenney had said might even be fake mold, placed by the artist for verisimilitude — was palmitic acid, which evaporated from the beeswax over time and crystallized in the enclosed space of the vitrine.

“Unless you can prove what it is, you’d rather leave it if you know it doesn’t ruin the piece,” Ms. Nagy said. In this case, she knew Thek was no chemist, so he could not have been responsible for the acid. It was an unintended consequence of enclosing the piece in the vitrine, so it was removed.

Now that she was certain that much of the sculpture was made of beeswax, Ms. Nagy could plan how to deal with the cracking and peeling on the surface. As it turned out, that required a good deal of improvisation.

Ms. Nagy grew up in Hungary, where her father was a mechanical engineer and her mother a chemist. Her brother became a mechanical engineer too. “I’m the cuckoo,” she said, but then corrected herself: “I’m basically doing the same things. But I have to deeply understand fine art materials and techniques. In that sense I have a different creative side.”

As a teenage art student, she was already specializing in sculpture, learning how to cast lead and bronze and taking plastering classes. Then she started doing conservation work and, in her words, “treated nearly everything: Egyptian cat mummies, prehistoric pieces, Inuit pieces, leather, ancient Chinese artifacts, Brazilian Baroque, Hungarian Baroque, French Baroque, Gothic, you name it.”

But then, she said, “I started to be interested in modern and contemporary works because I was doing my own art, too.” She was fascinated by polyester and fiberglass and other modern materials.

Beeswax is hardly modern — the Egyptians used it in mummification thousands of years ago. And the use of plaster for frescoes is only slightly more recent. With the Thek piece, Ms. Nagy said, the materials were not that terribly new, but the combination of them made the work extremely difficult.

Early on, a decision had been made not to repair the cracks cosmetically, following a basic conservation principle that less is often more. In this case, if Ms. Nagy could just bring the peeling edges together, the cracks would largely disappear when viewed through the yellow tint of the vitrine.

But flattening the peeling edges was no easy task. First, drawing on her experience, Ms. Nagy selected a mixture of resins that could consolidate the beeswax and penetrate the plaster. “I had to use something which also works for the plaster,” she said. “Unless I fix the structure inside I have no chance to fix the wax on top, because it will open up again.”

After diluting the mixture with solvent, she applied it drop by drop, from a syringe, allowing the liquid to work its way under the top layer of wax through capillary action.

With the right amount of resin in place — enough to bind the materials but not ooze out and be visible — the peeling edges could be flattened and brought together. Conservators have tiny hot-air guns and irons for this kind of work, but those tools might have melted the wax and destroyed Thek’s brush strokes. So instead, Ms. Nagy manipulated the wax with her hands, her fingers providing enough heat to soften it.

Once flattened, the wax had to be held in place, and the work was too fragile and oddly shaped, with all the hairs sticking up, to use clamps.

So Ms. Nagy made little sacks of lead pellets — some as small as her fingertip — that she could stack, pyramid-style, on the edges to keep them stable while the resin set. She could work on only one crack at a time, turning the sculpture for each one so that the sacks of pellets would not fall over, and then waiting several days for the resin to set. “It was a nightmare job,” she said.

But it succeeded — not in returning the piece to its exact original state, Ms. Nagy said, but in protecting it from further damage.

“Our purpose was actually not making it beautiful again,” she said. “We think it’s much better to be honest. The original impact what he wanted is here. Even when it was all in bits and pieces, even then people went ‘ewww.’ So it worked, even then. But we were really concerned about the actual stability of the piece.”