How Many Conservators Does It Take?

A behind-the-scenes look at art conservation.

Creative Commons photo by grifray. Source: Flickr

Art conservators frequently use advanced chemistry and the most careful painting techniques to restore a work that’s fading away, but occasionally all it takes is changing a light bulb. In her lecture “Colored Electric Light: Documenting the Work of Dan Flavin”, part of Saturday, September 22nd’s symposium Material and Immaterial Aspects of Color…, conservator Francesca Esmay of the New York Guggenheim discussed the issues that arise with the replacement of fluorescent lights in Dan Flavin’s art. Although representing a problem particular to 20th century art of the industrial readymade, the lecture actually gets to the heart of the dilemmas conservators of all types of art face regularly.

The main question accompanying the upkeep of Flavin’s works addresses changes in technology: is it permissible to use the fluorescent lights now readily available, or must the same models which Flavin used, now out of production, be custom-ordered? One might say that if it is possible to acquire the same exact bulbs, it should be done. However, crucial to and understanding of Flavin’s work is the knowledge that he strove to use only what was available on the market; he did not custom order anything for the sake of achieving his desired look. With this in consideration, should today’s market-available bulbs be adopted at once, as a perpetuation of Flavin’s own action? For works of art that have a strong conceptual base supporting the object of consideration, a knowledge of the changes that take place over time can actually shape a discussion of art historical merit as well as an exploration of the original conception of the piece.

Decisions such as these, which have the power to completely change the conceptual reception of a piece of work are analogous to the ones conservators of architecture confront regularly. In this way, matters of art conservation, seemingly trivial to everyday life, actually determine society’s engagement with the past and gauge our ability to make changes for the future. All relatively old works of architecture need restoration at some point, but in many cases this work is more about adapting a building to its contemporary environment than about preserving the architect’s original idea. In cases of much art conservation, as with Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, the concern is the preservation of the artist’s original work and the erasure of later attempts to recreate the original appearance of the piece.

A lesson to be gleaned here, though, is not simply that the conservation of art and architecture are difficult and crucial to the perception and understanding of art, but also that issues of preservation thoroughly permeate society. The paradox of Theseus’ Ship comes up frequently in discussions of the changes that accumulate over time, but how does it apply to the changes that come from the deliberate replacement of ideas or beliefs? Perhaps objects of art or architecture or the people we encounter change daily in trace ways, but it never really matters if the original version has eventually been entirely replaced, because that version existed within a context that is itself gone and irrelevant.

Sarah Rosenthal ’15 (srosenthal@college) will consider this new perspective in the works she studies, and is working on conservation in every sense of the word.