- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

"Classical Head" is bound for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. But the marble head made by 20th-century sculptor Elie Nadelman has a chipped nose and needs a "face lift" before making the trip north.
That is when Clarke Bedford's skills enter. Mr. Bedford is a conservator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and when the museum's art breaks, chips or gets dirty, he or one of his four colleagues restores it.
"I am just toning down the damaged part, really only hiding the damage," Mr. Bedford says. He uses shades of white and off-white paint on the chipped portion of the nose so that "Classical Head" will look her best alongside other Nadelman marble heads at the Whitney.
While "fixing" what is broken is a primary concern for a conservator, it is not the only one. Conservators also do their best to preserve the integrity of artwork.
That means they will make sure whatever they use to fix the piece is recognizable as an "addition" to the original work. No question should be raised of where the original artist's work ends and the conservator's job begins, Mr. Bedford says.
"We always try to use materials in a reversible way," says Susan Lake, chief conservator at the Hirshhorn. "We use materials so you can distinguish the artist's work and easily remove them."
If the conservator is restoring an oil painting, a synthetic paint might be used on top of the oil for the area that needs to be repaired.
Had he had more than a few weeks to get "Classical Head" ready, Mr. Bedford would do a more thorough job, he says.
The piece has had a previous, not-so-well-done nose job, during which the damaged face was fixed with epoxy.
"A more complete treatment would be to remove all the discolored epoxy fills and replace them using wax, marble dust and dry pigment," Mr. Bedford says. "Those materials would be able to mimic the translucence of the marble. The toning is something of a compromise."
It also is important that the conservator's work is reversible, meaning that the "fix" can be removed, he says.
The earlier nose job done many years ago is an example of an irreversible treatment: the epoxy is stronger than the marble, meaning that any removal of the old conservation job may damage the original sculpture.

One challenge for the conservator is to figure out what materials the original artist used. This can be particularly difficult in modern art, which is what the Hirshhorn showcases, since modern artists do not limit themselves to old faithfuls such as oil and watercolors.
The conservator can only do a good job making sure the material for restoration is reversible and clearly distinguishable if he knows the original material used.
"The examination procedure is as important as the actual treatment," Ms. Lake says.
To find out about the original materials, conservators use various technical methods. Sometimes removing a tiny sample from a painting (in a place where it won't be noticeable) and looking at it under a microscope can show the conservator how many layers of a certain paint was used.
Another way of determining original materials and techniques can be historical documentation, especially archival photos, Mr. Bedford says.
Of course, the artist can be the best resource if he is living. (If not, a studio assistant or family member can be helpful.) Sometimes, however, the artists are not sure what they used. Their concentration was on an effect, and they mixed and matched materials to accomplish that effect, Mr. Bedford says.
"For that reason, we have to use some inventiveness ourselves to mimic the work of art," he says. "I don't know how many times I've brought something from home to use because it had a surface or look that approximated [the original piece]."
Sometimes, conservators find out that the original material has "inherent vice," meaning there is no fix for it. It is going to break or crumble, and there is nothing the conservator can do without completely redoing the piece.
A good example of this is American sculptor Paul Thek's "Fishman," which shows a latex figure strung up in a tree, Mr. Bedford says. The sculpture is from the 1960s.
After 40 years, the latex has broken down, and conservators are at a loss.
"Latex just doesn't have a very long life span," Mr. Bedford says.
Fishman is now lying in a coffin-looking box. He is old, cracked and broken.

Restoration work on the old masters often involves cleaning off dirt and old, cracking varnish, says Barbara Berrie, senior conservation scientists at the National Gallery.
"Nowadays, the cleaning is done by using synthetic solvents," Ms. Berrie says.
Before the cleaning starts, however, it is important to try to determine (as with modern artists) what materials the painter used in the paints.
X-raying pictures can help determine if the paint contains lead. It shows up as white dots on the X-ray, Ms. Berrie says.
If a sample needs to be taken, usually a piece smaller than a millimeter in diameter is cut out of the painting. The sample might be put under a microscope or scanned to determine the number of layers and type of paint used.
After making determinations about the original paint's composition, the conservator can create a cleaning solution that removes the varnish, but leaves the underlying oil untouched, Ms. Berrie says.
Depending on the painting, a combination of water, detergent and solutions such as acetone can be used to clean oil paintings.
While conservation nowadays is well documented and scientific, a hundred or more years ago, restoration work was done by artists, often driven by the need to make money.
"In the old days, you fixed it to make it look right," Ms. Berrie says. "It was a way to make it look good and sell it for more."
In the 20th century, conservation became a profession with its own standards and code of ethics, which mandated that a conservator not mess with the artist's work, she says.
"I think it's important to maintain the integrity of the artist's work, and not just mix in our work with their work," Ms. Berrie says.

While fixing and preserving are the main goals of a conservator, other considerations exist, too.
What about if the artists would have wanted a certain piece to "age naturally"? Is it right for the conservator to try to reverse the aging process?
"We have a long discussion before deciding what exactly we're going to do," Ms. Lake says. "We are trying to balance aesthetic issues with the need to conserve the objects."
Take outdoor sculptures, for example. They are exposed to a much tougher environment than art objects housed in museums. Bronze sculptures turn green if they are not waxed often.
"From a purely preservation standpoint, the outdoor bronzes should be constantly coated with heavy layers of wax," Mr. Bedford says. These heavy layers of wax, however, can make the sculpture look more homogeneous, which may not be desirable from an aesthetic standpoint, he says.
One solution the Hirshhorn is experimenting with is repatinating some of the outdoor pieces, returning them to their original appearance.
Repatination is a chemical process in which a combination of materials, such as ferric nitrate, is applied to the bronze, changing the color to dark brown, green or black in other words, changing the color to make it look aged depending on the composition of the bronze and the outside environment.
"To some extent, the question of striking a balance between accepting and denying the passage of time is a question of taste, and it has a cultural element to it," Mr. Bedford says.
Generally, Europeans are more accepting of deterioration than Americans are, he says. Americans tend to want things to look "perfect."
The American concern about preserving art may have its roots in the fact that we do not have as much of it as Europe, where every church and square is packed with paintings and sculptures, Ms. Berrie says.
"We don't have that tradition here. We have so much less, we want to take care of it," she says.
Taking care of it can be fun and challenging at the same time, agree the conservators.
"The ego hit is that someone at some point is going to redo your work, however well you did it," Mr. Bedford says.
But getting that up-close look at a master at work can be rewarding, too, Ms. Berrie says.
"Seeing the effort that went into the work is marvelous," she says.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide