Risky Business: For contemporary art, the Doomsday clock starts ticking at the moment of creation

A happy collector scores a work by a hot contemporary artist – a Warhol, a Wool, a Weiwei -- and hangs it on the wall, all the while thinking, my art is “new” -- a century or two will pass before subsequent owners (it won’t be me!) will need to address conservation issues.  That collector is sorely mistaken.  The work may in fact be “new,” but in many ways, contemporary art can be more vulnerable to threat than Old Masters because risk is built into its DNA.

The left facing photo is an example of scuffing on the surface of an acrylic emulsion painting without a gesso layer.  The scuffing was the result of improper storage and handling.  The right facing photo is an after treatment image.

The left facing photo is an example of scuffing on the surface of an acrylic emulsion painting without a gesso layer.  The scuffing was the result of improper storage and handling.  The right facing photo is an after treatment image.

A little background. “The revolutionary artists at the forefront of the contemporary movements were experimenting with both ideas and materials,” observes Lauren Rich, a painting conservator at Lowy, the country’s leading Fine Art services firm. “ Some considered the concept behind a work to be more important than the work itself,” she adds, a philosophy that is prevalent today.  Additionally, most “starving artists” -- then and now -- had limited resources at the start of their careers and often used cheap, unproven, or ephemeral materials.  Rembrandt’s pricey pigments were hand-mixed and stored in a pig’s bladder for safe-keeping, but Warhol made a splash with the newly-invented (and highly-unpredictable) acrylic paint; Oldenburg worked with objects he scavenged from the street; and the artists who created “combines” loaded their canvases with media without questioning if the structure would hold up over time. For contemporary art, the Doomsday clock starts ticking at the moment of creation.

Mark Rothko’s infamous Harvard murals are a case in point. In 1962, while painting the murals, the artist mixed red pigment with a binder that proved to be unstable. By 1979, the reds were badly faded, leaving ghostly images of the vibrant colors Rothko first placed on his canvas.  It took a team of Harvard conservators and scientists to find a novel solution involving LED lights, but informed collectors can take practical measures today to avoid this kind of degradation -- and the need for extreme rescues--  tomorrow.

The top and bottom photo are the verso and recto of the same acrylic painting which have endured a mold infestation due to poor storage and maintenance.  

The top and bottom photo are the verso and recto of the same acrylic painting which have endured a mold infestation due to poor storage and maintenance.  

“Collectors can ensure longevity by the way a contemporary work is maintained,” suggests Rich, whose preventative conservation team at Lowy identifies and measures threats in a collection’s environment and develops protocols to reduce, and even eliminate, these risks. She maintains that key considerations for a healthy collection are proper temperature and humidity, light, and display.  Climate fluctuations and excessive light (in that beautiful Hamptons beach house, for example) can cause warping, oxidation, cracking, loss of color, and other vicious attacks on the artwork. Acrylic paint – the first choice for many contemporary artists -- is volatile. It is susceptible to mold, which can cause staining, and it hardens when the temperature falls below 50°F and softens as the temperature rises, giving dirt an opportunity to become embedded in the surface (which changes the appearance of the paint). In fact, a frame on a contemporary work, whether a standard float frame or an eye-catching antique, can actually be a line of defense, protecting the canvas from dirt and other hazards.

The left facing photo is an example of delamination due to areas of remote failed adhesion between the artwork's paper substrate and the board it is mounted to.  This issue can occur if there is extreme environmental fluctuation. The right facing photo is an after treatment image.

The left facing photo is an example of delamination due to areas of remote failed adhesion between the artwork's paper substrate and the board it is mounted to.  This issue can occur if there is extreme environmental fluctuation. The right facing photo is an after treatment image.

In a New York Times article about the Rothko murals, Mary Schneider Enriquez, a curator of modern and contemporary art the Harvard Art Museums, asked this important question. “So many works of contemporary art made with ephemeral materials are changing with time. What do we do as an institution that’s caring for works for future generations?”  Collectors must ask – and address – that very question and take immediate steps to maintain the health, extend the lifespan, and preserve the value of their contemporary art.

Deborah Davis
Author of The Secret Lives of Frames: A Hundred Years of Art and Artistry; Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X; The Trip: Andy Warhol’s Plastic Fantastic Cross-Country Adventure; and Fabritius and the Goldfinch.