Art’s Changing Face
Although art is associated with permanence and constancy, change is actually intrinsic to it, and with change comes a sense of loss. We rarely experience exactly what the artist created, because works change as soon as they leave the studio: What was private becomes public; architecture affects the perception of scale; values placed on objects by the art market and art professionals influence viewers’ understanding of them. Time amplifies these shifts as the works’ original social and cultural milieus disappear. Then there are the physical alterations. As a painting begins to age, colors shift. Conservators call certain colors—reds for example—“fugitive” because they fade more quickly than other hues. The darkness we associate with older paintings isn’t there because of a taste for darker art in earlier times but because of discolored varnish. Whether vibrant colors remain under that varnish and can be revealed is always uncertain.
When I was in graduate school, we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s conservation lab. The Met’s conservator, John Brealey, spoke to us about extending the life of a work of art, and I naively asked, “Does art have to die?” “Of course it has to die,” he snapped. “Everything has to die.” (He was very dramatic, and I was suitably abashed.) In museums we do everything we can to extend the life of the art in our care. That is our mandate. In doing so, we are preserving not just the achievements of individuals but also a window onto a particular time (art contributes mightily to what we know about the early Renaissance, for example), and maintaining the patrimony of a particular city or region. The irony is that, in protecting and preserving works of art—putting them behind glass or out of reach on large platforms—we can take the life out of them. When I worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, my husband liked to visit when we were installing the permanent collection. He loved to see Pablo Picasso’s construction sculpture Guitar or one of Marcel Duchamp’s many “ready-mades” (sculptures made of everyday objects) lying or standing on a cart because the informality restored something to these works—an energy and presence lost when they go on display. Artists understand this. A painter once told me to tell the owner of one of his works—who was lending it to an exhibition I was organizing—that if she persisted in requiring that her painting be shown under plexiglass, he would disclaim it.
Over the last century, artists have actively disregarded, if not defied, the problem of preservation. In 1912, with Picasso’s invention of collage, which employs newspaper and other materials that were never meant to last, the normal deterioration of a work came faster and conservation became more challenging. In the decades after World War II, this trend intensified as artists began to emphasize the immediacy of the experience of making and/or viewing art and discarded older techniques meant to prolong the life of an object (priming a canvas, for example). Today, conservators at some museums have composed questionnaires for artists asking at what point in its deterioration a work should no longer be shown or whether a work can be remade, and if so by whom. The question of an artist’s intent is central to conservation and curatorial work, to the extent that it can be determined. That’s not always possible. Sometimes artists die without letting us know what they wanted, leaving us to determine to the best of our abilities, through careful research and a degree of intuition, the best course of action.
Until next month,
Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.
- Series: Inside the Museum