Presenting on Thursday, Suzanne Siano, Chief Conservator and Director of Modern Art Conservation in New York, set about to detail the some of her history of artist-conservator collaborations. Initially Suzanne set the stage by providing examples of the theme “Collaboration to Restore”, with artists Glenn Ligon and Louise Fishman. The focus however was on the epic collaboration with artist Dan Colen.
Dan Colen led a wild lifestyle that in recent years has mellowed to include living on a farm and painting for a children’s hospital. This bucolic turn, however, is not reflected in the materials and techniques he and his idiosyncratic studio assistants employ in his artistic practice, of which he retains ownership of the final artistic product. His list of materials are a cacophony of items: oil paint, flowers, crack pipes, concrete, living birds (parakeets), Styrofoam and most relevant to this talk, chewing gum. These lush, colorful assemblages ranged in size from quite small to over 17 feet long. The multi-colored creations had gum in all shapes and forms, glommed onto a support. In one example, the humidity drove up too high, resulting in the activation of the sugars of the gum. The result? Drips formed and delamination of some of the gum pieces occurred. Suzanne’s treatment, in concert with the artist’s wishes, focused on re-adhering of the delaminated gum pieces and removal of the drips. No filling, no inpainting, no stain reduction as per the artist’s request. Though Suzanne suggested that the artist construct a gum that was sugar-free, the artist insisted that the degradation was part of the artwork. Colen did adopt her suggestion of pre-primed canvas and rigid panels.
But let’s back up a few years to when Suzanne met Dan. Well actually Dan’s assistants, because Suzanne and Dan didn’t formally meet at the onset of the first project in 2013. That project involved feathers coated in two types of tar; one was solvent based which was fine and the other was water-based, which had mould growth. The artist needed a support that allowed air-flow that would reduce the chance of future mould growth and Suzanne worked with them to create better stretchers.
Throughout the presentation, Suzanne engaged the audience with the overarching theme of the exploration of the artist’s working method and the integration of the conservator. One statement that resonated with me: as conservators, we collaborate while trying to stay ethical. To me, this relationship can be fraught with difficulty, as we try to steer the artist away from their sometimes-problematic choices. It’s like watching your partner’s new fiancé boil an egg for eighteen minutes: you want to tell them this is not going to end well (because you have the knowledge), but you don’t have the honest relationship yet that allows you to make any comment whatsoever (because there are boundaries). This is not what we anticipated when we were training as conservators, insofar as we were taught to focus on the object. The artist was the distant (read: likely long deceased) element and we had a responsibility to execute best practice for the preservation of the artwork. Suzanne reminds us that our role has evolved, and that with an effective artist-conservator relationship the artist is free to be courageous and bold. Now, the conservator is less constrained in our role, as the artist sees us a new resource. If we think back to some of our most challenging projects, we lament the fact that conservators didn’t get a chance to help inform the artist of the fallibilities of their methods or materials. Moving forward, Suzanne gives us a framework for fostering a respectful and informed relationship with artists, reminding us that our role is an evolution and with that evolution, we can ourselves be enriched.