The Artists Documentation Program interviews artists and their close associates in order to gain a better understanding of their materials, working techniques, and intent for conservation of their works.
The Conservation Department at the Whitney Museum was founded in 2001. From the outset, it was designed to be both a treatment and research center. As such, it moved into a reclaimed and renovated modest space within the current building designed by Marcel Breuer. Conceived as a partner with the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at the Harvard Art Museums, it shares in the Center’s dissemination of information through teaching, lecturing, and publication.
This first installment of the fifteen-part Whitney Stories video series features Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, the Whitney’s Associate Director for Conservation and Research.
When Matthew Skopek began working as a conservator at the Whitney in 2006, Franz Kline’s Mahoning (1956) was installed as part of a permanent collection exhibition at the Museum. Ever since viewing the painting seven years ago, he wanted to restore it.
The Artists Documentation Program (ADP) was established in 1990 at The Menil Collection, Houston, by Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, the former chief conservator at the Menil and currently associate director for conservation and research at the Whitney and founding director of the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at the Harvard Art Museums. Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and in partnership with the Whitney Museum of American Art and Harvard Art Museums, the ADP interviews artists and their close associates in order to gain a better understanding of their materials, working techniques, and intent for conservation of their works.
The Conservation Department preserves works of art in the Whitney’s collection so that they may be exhibited and made accessible to scholars and the general public. Through constant review of the collection or in response to requests for exhibition, either at the Whitney or from another institution, decisions regarding specific treatments are made and implemented. In some cases, works that are known to be unstable may be considered for treatment regardless of exhibition priorities. Technical research and study of related works are part of the preparation for any treatment, and often a group of related pieces will be treated concurrently. The goal of every treatment is to present the work as originally intended, in so far as we know through artist interviews and other avenues of research, so that the public may enjoy an informed viewing experience.
In this video, Whitney conservators Carol Mancusi-Ungaro and Eleonora Nagy, archivist Anita Duquette, and art historian Joan Simon describe the process of restoring one of the most beloved works in the Whitney’s collection, Alexander Calder’s Circus. The research team enlivens the character of the Circus through contemporary associations and offers a new look at conserving the inherent fragility of the figures that have delighted Whitney audiences for generations.
These two paintings by Arshile Gorky, The Artist and His Mother, 1926–36 (left), and Painting, 1936–37 (right), have recently been treated in preparation for inclusion in an upcoming retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work. Surface grime and discolored varnish had formerly obscured the original colors and altered the variation in gloss and saturation as intended by the artist. Some passages of Painting were structurally unstable and required local consolidation before travel. Freed from temporary disfigurements, the newly restored paintings engender a greater understanding of Gorky’s materials and painting technique.
The Whitney’s Ice Bag–Scale C, by Claes Oldenburg, had long been considered problematic by both the Museum staff and the artist. Technical problems had plagued the giant mechanized sculpture since shortly after its creation in 1971. In the course of an in-depth study of its components by a team of conservators, engineers, and other specialists, in consultation with the artist, mistakes that had been made in both its initial fabrication and in later attempts at restoration were corrected. The piece now operates as the artist had intended for the first time in decades. This innovative treatment was discussed in “Going Softly Into a Parallel Universe,” The New York Times, May 15, 2009.
In 1909 Edward Hopper painted these paintings, Bridge on the Seine (left) and Le Pont Royal (right), while living in Paris. Over time, accumulated dirt and discolored varnish had obscured the paint layers. In addition, the varnish that had been applied was felt to be too glossy and out of keeping with the sensitive tonality of the paintings. Removal of these layers revealed the true colors of the brighter palette that Hopper was developing at this time, and the application of a more sympathetic layer of varnish resulted in a more appropriate surface. The treatment of these Hopper works was done in conjunction with ongoing research within the Whitney’s collection into the artist’s materials and technique.
All three of the Whitney’s George Segal sculptures—The Bus Station, 1965 (left),Walk, Don’t Walk, 1976 (middle), and Girl in a Doorway, 1965 (right)—have required treatment for a variety of reasons over time. Recently, the figures were stabilized, minor surface grime was reduced, and the proper alignment of the forms within their formats was researched and documented. Despite sundry individual problems, they were treated as a group because a unity of vision and goals during the undertaking positively impacted the result.
The Dialogues on Materiality series focuses on the Whitney’s research involving artists’ materials and techniques. Participants engage in on-going discussions regarding trends and specific challenges to the preservation of unconventional art. Founded in 2001, the Conservation Department embraces innovative approaches to the treatment and technical study of works of contemporary and modern art in the Whitney’s collection.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro and Eleonora Nagy
May 12, 2009
In 1971, Claes Oldenburg created Ice Bag–Scale C, the third version of a piece that originally appeared at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan. Unfortunately, the motorized system that inflates, deflates, twists, and turns this kinetic sculpture into various position never worked properly and ultimately it was relegated to storage. The Whitney assembled a team of experts to restore this complicated mechanized sculpture to its full capability. The discussion focused on the unique challenges of restoring Claes Oldenburg’s Ice Bag–Scale C followed by a demonstration in the galleries.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, Narayan Khandekar, and James Martin
February 26, 2008
April 6, 2009
Mark Rothko painted murals for three commmissions known as the Segram Murals (1958–59), theHarvard Murals (1962–63), and the Rothko Chapel (1964–67). Expanding his ideas and practice with materials, Rothko produced mesmerizing murals that both engage the eye and challenge principles of conservation. Carol Mancusi-Ungaro discussed her extensive experience with Rothko’s murals and their place in his technical development.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro and Matthew Skopek
May 21, 2008
The Whitney strives to strike a balance between protecting art objects and encouraging intimate viewing experiences for our audience. Works discussed included pieces in the 2008 Biennial as well as other works in the Museum’s permanent collection acquired from previous Biennials.
“Art Pick: Tale of the Tape”
—The New Yorker
“A Low Cost Show Reinflates a Big Bag”
—The New York Times
“Going Softly Into a Parallel Universe”
—The New York Times
“With a Coat of New Paint, Revealing the True Judd”
—The New York Times
“‘What Happens when I die?’ The Whitney Museum is interviewing artists on video to document their instructions for the conservation of their art"
—The Art Newspaper (International Edition), October 2006
“Chiedere agli artisti come conservare le loro opre d’arte”
—la Repubblica/The New York Times
“Giving the Artists a Voice in Preserving Their Work”
—The New York Times
The Replication Committee addresses issues related to the duplication of works of art in the permanent collection and/or related collections for various purposes associated with the Museum’s program. It meets monthly to discuss pressing issues of replication and associated matters of refabrication, exhibition copies, and authentication. The intent is to institute a more rigorous and consistent approach in terms of policy and practice through critical review of precedent within the institution with an eye toward resolution of current issues.