Minor Problems, Big Issues: Conserving the Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection

January 9, 2020

– Our next speaker
is Shawn Digney-Peer. Shawn Digney-Peer
comes originally from Syracuse in upstate New York. However, he received
his conservation training at the prestigious
Courtauld Institute in London. He then went on
to pursue advanced training at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, part of the University
of Cambridge in England, where he was first an intern
and then a Crest Fellow. That’s also
where I received my training. He first came to The Met in 2005
as a Mellon Fellow, prior to being appointed
assistant conservator in 2007. Shawn’s talk today,
“Minor Problems, Big Issues: Conserving the Muriel Kallis
Steinberg Newman Collection,” highlights some of
the terrific work he undertook on this extraordinary group
of seminal paintings. However, the talk
also underlines the challenges faced
by the conservator of modern works of art, whereby apparently
simple condition problems, like surface grime,
become complex issues to resolve due to the delicacy
and vulnerability of the original materials. Please welcome
Shawn Digney-Peer. (applause) – Thank you, Michael. Often, with modern
and contemporary artwork, the treatment of even
minor condition problems may involve big issues. Because of such reasons as readily soluble paint films,
mattes, unvarnished surfaces, or the use
of a wide range of materials with variable
physical properties, treatments may necessitate
complicated solutions for even the most minor
of damages or conditions. For example, performing
what would be straightforward procedures
on a varnished painting, such as removing dirt
or fingerprints, may be problematic,
or even not possible, when confronted with a modern
unvarnished picture with a leanly bound,
water-sensitive paint film. In order to elaborate
on this subject, I will be discussing
the Newman Collection, which was acquired by the Museum
in November of 2005 as a result of a gift by
Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman. The collection,
which was compiled from the late 1940s
to the early 1960s, includes 38 paintings by 20th-century
American and European artists. The bequest includes
a core group of pictures that has been
commonly referred to as one of the greatest
private collections of abstract expressionists
in the world. I’ve chosen
this particular collection as the focus of this
presentation for two reasons. First, because the general
treatment regimen of the paintings exhibits the broad range
of issues that one deals with
in the treatment of modern contemporary art. And second, because
the Newman Collection includes an absolutely
spectacular group of paintings that are in beautiful condition, and it’s a treat for me
to have the opportunity to talk about them. As any discussion
of this collection would not be complete without
some mention of Mrs. Newman and her relationship
with the artists whose paintings she purchased, I will begin by familiarizing
you with Mrs. Newman and the contents
of her collection. I will then discuss several
representative treatments that will give you a feel for how relatively
minor condition problems may involve large issues. Mrs. Newman was born
and raised in Chicago, attending
the University of Chicago, and later the Art Institute, where she studied
to become a painter. She often visited New York City,
and in 1939, after her marriage
to Jay Steinberg, these visits lengthened. Her interest in painting
continued, and, one evening in 1947,
she was taken by her design teacher to the Cedar Tavern
in Greenwich Village, where she was introduced to Willem de Kooning
and Jackson Pollock. During increasingly
frequent trips to New York, she met and befriended
many of the New York school or abstract expressionist
artists: Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko
among them. She knew them well and loved
what she referred to as the mystery and poetry
of their work. She has said, “I was very
interested in Zen. “I was interested
in finding answers. “I was always seeking something. When I saw this”–
waving to the works you see in these photos on her walls, “I felt I had found
what I was searching for.” She socialized
with these artists, sharing ideas and
interacting with them daily. For instance, accompanying Kline
on one of his many visits to study encre here at The Met. Several of the works
she would acquire were actually personal gifts
of the artists, among them de Kooning’s
“Two Women.” And “Two Women,” seen here,
is inscribed to her by the artist on the front. Discovering these artists
and their work was at once an exhilarating and frustrating
experience for her. Soon after her first encounter
with Pollock and de Kooning, she became dissatisfied
with her own painting, and since 1954, she insisted
she hadn’t picked up a brush. When asked why
she stopped painting, she would reply
empathetically, “This,” gesturing again
to the paintings around her. “When measured against
the work of these artists,” she has said,
“My work seemed invalid. “I realized the great innovation
and invention of their paintings “and began to feel I had
to surround myself with them. “At first, I began to hang
my own things next to them. “However, I found to my anguish “that mine just
wasn’t good enough. “Collecting was
the next best thing. “It became a kind of sublimation
for what I didn’t do. “I didn’t exert enough risk
to become an artist, so what I have done is to enrich
myself with people’s risks.” At a time
when the abstract expressionists were not yet taken seriously,
and at about the time that “Life” magazine denounced
Pollock as “Jack the Dripper,” Muriel Newman
was an ardent enthusiast. Clement Greenberg,
noted critic of the movement, told her that she was,
in fact, the first. Within several years
of her marriage to Albert Newman in 1955, Mrs. Newman ceased to acquire 20th-century
American and European art. Their travels to exotic cultures
provoked an interest in the art of Africa
and the Americas, as well as that of the Far East, and she began collecting instead
the art of these cultures. The last point I would like
to make before discussing the condition and treatment
of the paintings is that Mrs. Newman did not
begin assembling these objects as a collector, but rather,
as a painter herself. Consequently, her purchases
were based not on their worth
as investments, but rather
on how they appealed to her. It has been said of her that when considering
a new acquisition, she used her eyes
rather than her ears, and one has only
to look around her apartment at the wondrous juxtaposition of
objects so intimately displayed to appreciate
just how true this is. While at first
a seemingly disorienting mix of disparate elements, everything is unified by her individual
and adventuresome tastes. What motivates her collecting? Happenstance, she says. What she looks for? Form. From the works
adorning her walls, which were painted
by her friends, to her taste in jewelry, which varied from necklaces
designed by Alexander Calder to bracelets made by
early African civilizations– even her furniture,
some of which is made of antelope antlers, hooves,
and horns– her purchases were each made
as functional objects to be lived with
and interacted with daily. While the focus
of this presentation is on the treatment of artwork, it’s easy to lose sight
of the fact that, on the whole, the collection is in
absolutely beautiful condition. Mrs. Newman purchased
many of her pictures within several years
of their exception, and as she lent only rarely, they have spent
nearly their entire lives on the walls of her apartment. They’ve been well cared for,
and consequently, in many cases, the most noticeable blemish
to their surfaces is the accumulation
of about 50 years’ surface dirt. Surface dirt simply refers
to airborne dirt that deposits itself
on the surfaces of any objects. Because of the great amount
of dirt present, many of the treatments have
involved, at least locally, removal of this material. Here is a detail
during cleaning, showing dirt being removed
with a brush and distilled water from Max Ernst’s “Gala Éluard.” Other common treatments
involve flattening deformations, such as this dent
that is present at the bottom of this work
by Mark Rothko to the right. There are also
a number of paintings requiring the consolidation
of local areas of flaking paint, such as this loss
in the paint film that is revealing
a blue underlayer. And to the right is an example of an area of local abrasion
and loss that requires retouching. For the purposes
of this presentation, I’m going to focus primarily
on two problems: flattening deformations
and removing surface dirt. I’ll begin by presenting
several abbreviated treatments in order to illustrate
how these conditions, which are generally
small problems, can become big issues. I will end by walking you
through a complete treatment, so that you can get a feel for the overall decision-making
processes involved. Deformations,
which are quite common, may either be straightforward
or problematic to remove. It is important
to flatten out deformations, as they can be
aesthetically distracting, and because uneven tension, which contributes to the
development of deformations, can cause paint films to crack. The first painting I will
discuss presents an example of a relatively straightforward
treatment that involves
reducing deformations at the corners of the canvas. This work, titled “Mecca,”
by Hans Hofmann, came to the studio because it had somewhat
pronounced corner draws that you can see
in the raking-light photograph that was taken before treatment. Raking light means
that the painting was illuminated from one side, which makes any deformations
in the painting’s support appear more pronounced
than they do in ambient light. The draws, or deformations,
that you see are caused
by inadequate tensioning, and are removed by quite simply
keying out the painting’s stretcher. A stretcher is a support onto which the painting’s canvas
is stretched. You can see an example
of a stretcher to the left. By definition,
a stretcher is expandable, which means that the joins
at the corners can be opened up. This is achieved by tapping in
the keys of the corners with a hammer. As the joins expand, the tension on the canvas
is increased, and any slack in the canvas
is taken out. This is often a relatively
straightforward process, and in most cases may take
only minutes to achieve an acceptable result. At the top left,
you see the housings which were designed
to receive the keys. At the lower left, you see
the keys being inserted. At the lower right, once inserted
and hammered into place, the join expands. The horizontal stretcher member
moves down, and the vertical
stretcher member moves outward to the right. You can see in the after-treatment
raking-light photograph at the right that the deformations
are removed. I should add
that the deformations that you see here
at the lower right are actually caused by
the artist’s painting technique, and were therefore
intentionally left intact. This painting,
by Helen Frankenthaler, provides an example
of a painting that had corner draws that required
a more involved treatment to remove. The canvas was not on a
stretcher, like the Hofmann was, but was on something
called a strainer. Strainers are, by definition,
not expandable. They’re not made to accept keys, and, in fact, the joins
are actually locked together, as you can see
in this photograph. As the joins cannot be expanded, in order to get rid
of the deformations, the canvas actually had to be
locally restretched. In order to accomplish this, the staples holding the canvas
onto the strainer, three of which you see here, were removed. Because the artist’s canvas
at this corner did not round the turnover edge, a piece of fabric was adhered
to the back of the canvas, which was then used to pull the artist’s canvas
tighter by hand. Staples were then replaced
to hold the new position of the canvas. Here you can see the before- and after-treatment
images illustrating the removal
of the deformations. There are the overall images
to the left, and two details to the right. This painting by Mark Rothko,
had a slat canvas with overall distortions
throughout. In this case, increasing
the tension of the canvas in order to take out
the distortions was also a relatively big issue. Like the Frankenthaler,
the canvas was on a strainer and could not be keyed out. However, while the deformations
in the Frankenthaler could be worked out
by restretching the corner, this was not an option
for the Rothko because the deformations
were not concentrated in the local area. In order to tension the canvas, the strainer itself
had to be modified. There were two things
that were locking the joins of the strainer
together– wooden cross braces
at each of the corners, one of which is highlighted
here at the left, and metal plates
that you see here at the right. Each of these, therefore,
had to be taken off. Once removed, the joins
were no longer locked together. In order to expand the corners, adjustable corner braces
were added, which you can see here. Circled at the left is a nut. To the right, you can see what
happens when the nut is turned. The ends of the brace are
separated from one another. Once secured to the stretcher,
by turning the nut, the joins would be pushed apart, thereby increasing
the tension of the canvas. Once enough tension was achieved
to tighten up the canvas and remove the distortions, the metal corner braces
and the wooden braces were reattached
to strengthen the corners. Deformations may also be
a problem when a canvas support is very stiff and doesn’t want
to relax and flatten out, such as was this case with
this painting by Franz Kline. This painting
is particularly interesting, as it appears
to have actually been painted on a rolling canvas
window shade. Because of its function
as a window shade, it had been coated
with industrial paint at both the front and the back to make the canvas very opaque. With all this paint
on both sides of the canvas, in addition
to the artist’s paint, the canvas would not stretch
very easily, and the deformations
could not be pulled out while on a stretcher. In order to remove
the deformations, the canvas was actually
taken off of its stretcher, stretched out onto a table
with tape, and restretched each week
over a period of several months. This slide is to illustrate
that initially, each piece of the tape was used
to stretch out the canvas. Specific deformations
that were problematic and didn’t want to flatten out were then locally stretched
as necessary. Eventually, the canvas relaxed,
and the deformations pulled out. Once this occurred, the work was
restretched onto its stretcher. Here you can see the before-
and after-treatment images showing the absence
of the deformations. Surface dirt on paintings
is very common, as it accumulates over time
with normal exposure to air. Often, paintings may be in a
very good and stable condition, but the presence of surface dirt can diminish the impact
of a painting by lessening the contrast
in the work. For most paintings, removing this dirt
is a relatively minor problem. However, it may become
a big issue when one wants to remove it from a paint film
that is unvarnished, and the dirt is in direct
contact with the paint film. If a painting has a lean,
underbound paint film, it may also be soluble in saliva
or distilled water, which is what is often used
to remove surface dirt. In some cases,
the solubility of the paint makes surface cleaning
impossible. An example of a treatment
involving a relatively straightforward
removal of surface dirt involved Conrad Marca-Relli’s
“The Witnesses.” The paint film was not
sensitive to moisture, so the dirt was removed very
simply with a swab and saliva, which you can see being done
in this image to the left. This image shows the painting
during cleaning. The surface dirt
has been removed from the lower half of the work. One can see quite clearly
that the cleaning was done, was doing a great service
to the painting. The contrasts were increased, and the painting
was becoming much brighter, which is how the artist
intended it to be seen. Another interesting
and more problematic treatment involved this painting by Miró,
titled “Circus Horse.” The picture is unvarnished,
and is painted in a water-soluble, blue-based
medium. One of the reasons
it was brought to the studio was because there was
an appreciable accumulation of surface dirt. The greatest concern
was that the surface dirt was not evenly distributed. It had accumulated
in local areas, creating noticeable patterns
within the paint film. The reason for this
is that for many years, the painting hung
in Mrs. Newman’s apartment next to an air vent. As the picture was very porous
and thinly painted, a relatively constant
current of air was drawn through the picture. The air carried dirt, which was
then deposited on the surface. Where the paint film
covered the stretcher, the passage of air, and therefore the amount
of dirt deposited, was reduced. To the left, you may see
the painting’s stretcher that corresponds to the uneven
accumulations of the dirt that you see to the right. The cleaner areas,
one of which you see here as a horizontal band in the
center of the image to the right are evident on the painting
as areas of slightly paler and more
intensely colored blue paint. Miró intended this field
of blue paint to be uniform, with not even subtle changes
in tonality. The changes in appearance
due to the dirt therefore did a great disservice
to the aesthetic of the painting as they were a distraction, and drew the viewer’s attention
to them. The paint was water-soluble, so whatever would be done
to remove the dirt had to be done dry. Treatment, therefore, involved
lifting some of the dirt with a dry open cell sponge in order to even out
the transition between these
and the surrounding areas. You can see an example of
these cleaning materials here. There we go. As the blue paint was so vibrant that the veil of dirt
was disfiguring only where it was
unevenly distributed, it was decided
that the aim of the treatment should not be
to remove every bit of dirt. Rather, the pattern
produced on the surface would be locally minimized in order to achieve
a more uniform appearance. Only the most noticeable
accumulations and hard edges were therefore reduced. Here you can see the before-
and after-treatments, -treatment photographs
for this area. You can see that
the horizontal pale band is less pronounced
in the after-treatment image at the bottom. Sometimes, because of
the solubility of the paint, it is not possible
to remove surface dirt, such as was the case
with Rothko’s “No. 3.” The paint was sensitive to anything that was found
to remove the dirt, and cleaning was therefore
not an option. Here you can see
a small cleaning test that reveals how much
surface dirt was present. A cleaning test is simply
a small area that is cleaned in order to test how successful is a particular method
of cleaning. I must add that while
cleaning was not an option, the colors of the painting
are so vibrant that the surface dirt
does no great disservice to the aesthetic
of the painting. This painting by Morris Louis is executed
on raw, unprimed canvas. This was not a complicated
treatment by any means, but it illustrates a point about
removing dirt from raw canvas. Because raw canvas
does not respond well to contact with water, cleaning canvas must be done
with dry methods, such as, for example, vacuuming,
or with open cell foam sponges, as was the case here. This is Jackson Pollock’s
“Number 28” of 1950. It is in absolutely
beautiful condition, and came into the studio to have the surface
of the picture assessed to see if removing
the surface dirt would greatly improve
the tonalities or contrasts in the image. The investigation revealed that while an appreciable amount
of dirt could be removed, the appearance of the surface
was not greatly affected. A comprehensive cleaning was
therefore not deemed necessary. However, around
the perimeter of the work and at discrete areas
within the paint film are areas of canvas which were intentionally
left exposed by the artist. The fibers of the canvas
held more dirt than the painted areas
of the picture, and it was found that removing
the dirt from these areas would make
an appreciable difference in returning
the value relationships between the paint
and exposed canvas to what they would
originally have been. It was therefore decided
to locally clean these areas, which was done
with the dry, open cell sponges. The last painting I will discuss
is Max Ernst’s “Gala Éluard.” The painting is painted
in oil and conté crayon on a linen support. This painting came to the studio
for two reasons: to treat a series
of deformations related to inadequate
tensioning of the canvas, which you can see here
in this raking-light photograph, and to remove an appreciable
amount of surface dirt, which you can see
in this detail, the cleaning test, to the right. The first step was to address
the deformations. Ideally, this would have
been resolved by quite simply
keying out the stretcher. However, this was not an option
for two reasons. One, the tacking margins,
which you see here to the left, were worn and weakened, and were deemed
too brittle and delicate to take the stress
of retensioning. And, two, the painting
was attached to a strainer, which, as I discussed earlier,
is not possible to be keyed out because its joins
are locked into position and are not expandable. In order to achieve
a more planar support, the strainer was fashioned
into a stretcher by removing the nails
locking the joins together and adding expandable corner
braces to expand the joins, which you see being done
here to the right. As the tacking margins were very
weak, they had to be reinforced. The picture was therefore
taken off of a stretcher, which you see here, and strip-lined. This means
that strips of canvas were attached
to the back of the painting, just inside the turnover edges. You can see this being done
to the right. The added thickness of canvas
reinforces both the turnover edges
and the tacking margins, so that the tacks used to secure
the painting to the stretcher don’t wear
through the original canvas. The canvas was then restretched
onto the stretcher. Here you can see before-and-
after raking-light photographs showing the reduction
of the deformations. Now that the structural problems
were resolved, the surface could be addressed. As may be seen
in the raking-light photo in the middle, the surface of the painting
is quite textured. Dirt had settled
into the troughs of the texture, making the brushwork
much more pronounced than Ernst would have intended. This is apparent
as fine horizontal bands that run across the surface
of the picture, which you see
in the ambient-light image to the right. Here you can see
a cleaning test, which is where the dirt
was removed with a swab and saliva. Further cleaning tests suggested
that removing the dirt would not only increase
the contrast in the work, which you can see in this
during-cleaning image at the top, but would also reduce the distracting and
unintentional emphasis of the brushwork noticed throughout the sky, which you see
in the image below. Here’s a photograph
taken during cleaning. The left side of the painting
has been cleaned. Further complicating
the cleaning was that the disks in the sky,
which you see here, and which were executed
in conté crayon, were water-soluble. These areas had to be cleaned
dry with powdered eraser so that the conté crayon
was not affected. The treatments discussed
represent only a small number of those undertaken
during the treatment of the Newman Collection
paintings. I hope
that in these few examples, you can see
how even small problems, such as minor deformations and the accumulation
of something as simple as airborne dirt deposited
on the surfaces of paintings, may become large issues. I would like to thank
Lucy Beloli, who was my supervisor
during this project, and who was also responsible for
the treatment of the collection. Also the Mellon Foundation, which provided the funding
for my fellowship during this time, and the Department
of Paintings Conservation, which was an invaluable source
of information and support. Thank you. (applause)

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