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.
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.
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.
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.
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.