NYC’s Museum of Modern Art owns sixteen Piet Mondrian oil paintings, the most comprehensive collection in North America. From this starting point, conservator Cynthia Albertson and research scientist Ana Martins embarked on an impressive project, both in breadth and in consequence—an in-depth technical examination across all sixteen Mondrians. All examined paintings are fully documented, and the primary preservation goal is returning the artwork to the artist’s intended state. Paint instability in the artist’s later paintings will also be treated with insight from the technical examination.
The initial scope of the project focused on nondestructive analysis of MoMA’s sixteen oil paintings. As more questions arose, other collections and museum conservators were called upon to provide information on their Mondrians. Over 200 other paintings were consulted over the course of the project. Of special importance to the conservators were untreated Mondrians, as they could help answer questions about the artist’s original varnish choices and artist-modified frames. Mondrian’s technique of reworking areas of his own paintings was also under scrutiny, as it called into question whether newer paint on a canvas was his, or a restorer’s overpaint. Fortunately, the MoMA research team had a variety of technology at their disposal: X-Radiography, Reflectance Transformation Imaging, and X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy and XRF mapping were all tools referenced in the presentation.
The lecture discussed three paintings to provide an example of how preservation issues were addressed and how the research process revealed information on unstable paint layers in later Mondrian paintings. The paintings were Tableau no. 2 / Composition no. V (1914), Composition with Color Planes 5 (1917), and Composition C (1920), but for demonstration’s sake only the analysis of the earliest painting will be used as an example here.
Tableau no. 2 / Composition no. V (1914) was on a stretcher that was too thick, wax-lined, covered in a thick, glossy varnish, and had corrosion products along the tacking edges. Research identified the corrosion as accretions from a gold frame that the artist added for an exhibition. The painting has some obviously reworked areas, distinguished by dramatic variations in texture, and a painted-over signature; these changes are visible in the technical analysis. The same research that identified the source of the corrosion also explained that Mondrian reworked and resigned the painting for the exhibition. XRF mapping of the pigments, fillers, and additives provided an early baseline of materials to compare later works to, as the paint here did not exhibit the cracking of later examples. Ultimately, the restorer’s varnish was removed to return the paint surface to its intended matte appearance, and the wax lining was mechanically separated from the canvas with a specially produced Teflon spatula. Composition no. V (1914) was then strip-lined, and re-stretched to a more appropriate-width stretcher.
It is possible to create a timeline of Mondrian’s working methods with information gleaned from the technical examination of all three paintings. His technique had evolved from an overall matte surface, to variations in varnish glossiness between painted areas. XRF analysis demonstrated a shift in his palette, with the addition of vermillion, cobalt, and cadmium red in his later works. XRF also revealed that the artist used registration lines of zinc and lead whites mixed together and used on their own. Knowing the chemical composition of Mondrian’s paint is vital to understanding the nature of the cracking media and identifying techniques to preserve it.
The underpinning of all this research is documentation. This means both accounting for un-documented or poorly documented past restorations, as well as elaborating upon existing references. Many of the MoMA paintings had minimal photographic documentation, which hinders the ability of conservators to identify changes to the work over time. The wealth of information gathered by the conservation and research team remains within the museum’s internal database, but there are plans to expand access to the project’s data. Having already worked in collaboration with many Dutch museums for access to their Mondrian collections, it’s clear to the MoMA team how a compiled database of all their research and documentation would be groundbreaking for the conservation and art history fields.