SFMOMA conservators turn back time

Art conservators work behind the scenes at museums. Though they’re sometimes confused with curators, who acquire works for a collection, conservators are charged with the care of the art itself. While they often go unnoticed by the pubic, their work is vitally important: they stem the tide of deterioration in older works and deliver newer ones to the future – unfaded. In a way, a conservator’s job is to master time itself.

In a traditional collection, that can mean the relatively routine care of oil paintings, bronze sculpture or ink on paper. But contemporary art doesn’t always fall into neat categories with established paths for conservation.

Michelle Barger the deputy head of conservation and objects conservator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where her job is anything but routine. Reporter Nicole Passerotti met her at the museum to talk about some of the more unique objects she’s worked with.

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MICHELLE BARGER: We’re here in the absent performer gallery, on the second floor at SFMOMA. And right in front of us is a work by Janine Antoni called “Lick and Lather.”

NICOLE PASSEROTTI: “Lick and Lather” is a set of two busts. They’re self-portraits of the artist Janine Antoni. But these aren’t your ordinary bronze or marble statues. One is cast in chocolate … and the other in soap.

BARGER: She made seven pairs of this – of chocolate and soap. With each of the, with each of the chocolates, she literally licked, slurped, chewed, gnawed on the surface of each of the busts. The soap pieces, she bathed with each of them. And similarly, they were each sort of washed away to different degrees. This one you see her features are fairly intact – just kind of softened so there’s not been a real aggressive bathing session with this one. 

Whether the medium is marble or chocolate, Michelle Barger’s job is to find a way to preserve artists’ work. As a conservator of contemporary art, Barger has to think about her audience a little bit differently than if she were working with an older collection.

BARGER: For example, if you had a sculpture where the nose is missing – we as visitors to a museum will accept a missing nose on a Greek sculpture, a marble sculpture where we know the nose is missing. We know it’s 2,000 years old and this type of thing happens to that type of work. But we’re not so forgiving when we know the work was made maybe five or 10 years ago. So in that instance we would work to restore that missing element.

As a conservator, one of your main tools is your eyes. I think in some instances, I’ve realized that I may actually have spent more time looking and studying this piece than maybe the artist did when they made it. Which is a pretty chilling kind of thought to consider.

PAULA DE CRISTOFARO: Natural light and the human eye are the two most important tools, as well as your own manual dexterity to handle fine tools...

Paula de Cristofaro is the paintings conservator at SFMOMA.

DE CRISTOFARO: Sometimes we use saliva because it’s a wonderful natural enzymatic cleaning agent. But I don’t drink coffee and I don’t eat chocolate or have lunch before I would do a surface cleaning like this.

Like Barger, de Cristofaro’s job is rarely cut and dry.

DE CRISTOFARO: Say there’ll be a sculpture with a painted surface that has an issue – there’ll be a photograph that maybe an artist painted over. So we get the whole gamut of different type of paint situations on different type of objects.

But today I actually have a more traditional treatment that I’m exploring, which is a varnish removal of one of the masterpieces in the collection, which is the Matisse portrait of Sarah Stein, which will be featured in our upcoming “Stein Family Collects” exhibition. It’s a portrait that almost floats against a background of an inverted triangle in grays and dark greens. Her eyes are outlined in dark black lines, almost like Cleopatra, and her hair is an abstract circle, which surrounds her face.

The varnish has discolored slightly, and we’re considering removing it in time for the exhibition so its true colors will really stand out. And you can see in two little places that I have cleaned that the blue is much more intense and startling. The brushwork is not filled in by the varnish material, and really stands out as much more textured. We think in this case the painting may not have been varnished originally and can return it closer to how it was when it left Matisse’s studio. That would be a more appropriate representation.

Back at the conservation lab, one of the busts from “Lick and Lather” is sitting on Barger’s work table except it’s a lot more brown and worn-out looking than the ivory-colored one in the gallery.

BARGER: It’s the one that literally started dripping and weeping ... those drips now I guess have been reabsorbed, because we certainly don’t see them now. But we know they were there. We have quite vivid documentation of it. And in fact the soap-maker asked me if I could lightly touch my finger to it and taste it. Because if it were quite bitter, that would suggest the lye element was coming out. Or if it wasn’t that would mean something else. And I have to tell you it was not sweet.

That, after contacting the artist, was not an acceptable ... it had crossed the line.

Working with contemporary artists to define that line is one of the most challenging and interesting parts of Barger’s job. The line exists between doing everything necessary to halt the aging process and leaving the artwork completely unaffected. When reality demands extreme efforts, it can be a tough call.

In San Francisco, I’m Nicole Passerotti, for Crosscurrents.

This story was produced by KALW’s Greg Gheorghiu. To see video of “Lick and Lather” by Janine Antoni, click here. And to view the Steins Collection, head over to the SFMOMA website.

And listen to an extended version of this story here.