Up in Smoke, Treatment of Fire Damaged Paintings
The final talk of the morning session was from Rustin Levenson Art Conservation Associates in Miami Florida. Rustin Levenson along with Conservator Veronica Romero, and Assistant Conservator Kelly O’Neill all delivered a talk about 178 paintings that suffered smoke and fire damage at the Harold Golen Gallery in Miami, Florida. They explained that during Art Basel week a promotional balloon on top of the gallery became tangled in electrical wires and caused the gallery to go up in flames. The contents of the gallery, valued at half a million dollars, were a range of oil and acrylics both varnished and unvarnished that were less than 15 years old. The Lowbrow works, depicting scenes of punk music, hot-rod street scenes, and other sub cultures, were mostly owned by the artist’s themselves. Golen, the gallery owner was able to provide rudimentary documents about the works.
The conservators had to set up a site for the salvage operation with an emergency storage room. They were able to take advantage of the dry season in Florida and work outside on occasion. They ultimately treated 85 paintings, 61 acrylic and 24 oil. The talk then began to focus on the issues associated with the cleaning of the acrylic paintings.
They vacuumed the fronts and versos with a hepa filtered vacuum. Early on they discovered that the rubber soot sponge was not going to be of great use to them. It was actually driving soot into canvas fibers. They had more success with the PVOH sponge (specifically the Super brand) with chelating agents. They utilized naphtha emulsions on both the oils and acrylics and rinsed with VM & P Naphtha with 1% ammonium citrate. One VM & P Naphtha Emulsion with mineral spirits trimethylpentane was rinsed with VM & P Naphtha. Another recipe was a 10% xylene emulsion with 7% trimethylpentane, which was rinsed with DI water.
Levenson then stated that with the artist’s permission they “went out on a conservation limb with a saw” with some experimental cleaning. When some of the more traditional formulas, such as EDTA chelating agents or Vulpex failed, they began to gather other cleaning agents from local home hardware stores (Home Depot). For example JC100 was tested and rinsed with DI water, as well as Gonzo stain remover, a water based surfactant solution. They found the best solution for them to be an ethylene glycol monobutyl ether with Vulpex 3-10% or in a VM & P Naphtha emulsion. De-Greaser #88 or Formula 88’s slogan reads, “get rid of the mess with the best.” They rinsed with DI water and/or VM & P Naphtha.
Microscopic images of test areas showed a clean and intact surface. Extremely damaged works were donated to the Getty for their continued research on the cleaning of acrylic surfaces.
The talk was extremely well delivered and presented a practical case study of the problems associated with cleaning acrylics, along with successful results.