Category: Ask the Art Nurse

Don’t Throw It Out: The Art Nurse on saving art in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.


The Brooklyn studio of artist Leon Reid in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Reid, like so many artists and galleries in the city, had much of his work destroyed by the unprecedented surge. (Image courtesy of Reid.)

By now we are all too familiar with the path of destruction that Hurricane Sandy wreaked on art studios, galleries and collections throughout the Eastern seaboard. A number of organizations, including the American Institute for Conservation have responded to the call and on Sunday, November 4th, MoMA’s conservators and the AIC’s Collections Emergency Response Team will be offering a presentation on saving flood-damaged artworks. (Things get rolling at noon.) MoMA has also posted a document with guidelines for dealing with art that is damaged by everything from fires to flooding.

For those who cannot attend the MoMA session, or who simply want some solid advice on dealing with a drowned studio, we have assembled a list of conservators who are willing to be e-mailed or called for advice. These conservators, which include Rustin Levenson (paintings), Joseph Sembrat (sculpture, architecture, objects), Stephanie Hornbeck (objects, textiles), and yours truly, the Art Nurse (sculpture, architecture, objects ) have all had firsthand experience with hurricane, flood, and earthquake recovery for collections and historic structures in Florida, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. Together we have put together a few initial guidelines for addressing the daunting act of sorting through mud and murky water to rescue works of art.

  1. CAREFULLY ASSESS BEFORE TAKING ACTION. Don’t wander into the water unless you know it’s safe to do so and you won’t get electrocuted or sliced up by broken glass. Before you start moving things, take some photos of the room and anything you can get in close up. This is essential for claims from your insurance company or agencies offering assistance.
  2. GET THE WORK OUT OF THE WATER. Make a plan first for what you are going to move and where it is going to go. Remember that wet things weigh a heck of a lot more than dry ones. Make sure you know where you will put things before you move them and don’t lift anything bigger than you can safely carry. Clear a path to your destination before moving a work of art and make sure the spot is clean, dry and free of mold. For canvases or larger works, have more than one person available to move things. If the pieces are hung on the wall, leave them in place while you clear the water off the ground. If large sculptures are on the floor and can’t be lifted onto a table, think about sacrificing some of those fat art books to set them on to get air moving underneath them. Wet works on paper are the most vulnerable so make sure you do not lift things that are too wet without sliding something underneath them. A sheet of Plexiglas is great for this. If all you have is cardboard, put a sheet of plastic between the cardboard and the work on paper or you risk staining the work. Remove wet works on paper from their frames to get air circulating around the paper and remove any wet mattes. Try not to stack things. If you have no choice, interleave with clean paper.
  3. CLEAN THE ROOM. Once the works are out of immediate danger, i.e. not sitting in water or mud, the next task is to get the rest of the space as clean as possible and get air circulating around the room. Mold spores are always in the air. Whether they bloom depends entirely on the humidity in the room. Therefore your next task is to get the air circulating and the humidity down. If you have a dehumidifier, use it. If not, use a fan or whatever will move air around. Mold likes darkness and heat as well, so keep your shades and windows open if that’s all you have to work with. Once the air is moving and you can get air circulating around the works themselves, clean the room as best as possible. Sweep, mop, scrub — whatever it takes to get the dirt and muck off of the floor and walls. Remove carpeting and any upholstered materials that will keep the room damp. While you should NEVER use disinfectant sprays directly on a work of art, spraying a floor or walls that have been soaked is a good way to keep mold growth down. If no disinfectant spray is available, bleach can be used also on floors and walls, but you have to be extremely careful not to let any splash onto artworks.
  4. TAKE STOCK. Now your room is clean and you have a bunch of ruined-looking works. Make lists of the works, dividing them by what appears to be wrong with them. Anything that was wet will need to be cleaned, because any water it touched was either brackish, salty or filthy — or various combinations thereof. Separate works by material (painting, works on paper, bronze, stone sculpture, plaster, mixed media with old shoes and cigarette butts, etc.) and list them by whether they were wet or simply exposed to humidity.
  5. CALL A CONSERVATOR. If you haven’t done so already, this would be a good time to call or e-mail a conservator. At the bottom of this piece are contact details for all of the aforementioned conservators, as well as  others who have experience with flood and water damage. While we are an ornery and overworked bunch, we are all here to help at this point, and all of us on this list would be willing to answer e-mails with questions. If it’s a crisis, we’ll even take phone calls. If you can’t reach one of us, use the AIC’s website How to Find a Conservator function to contact a local person. It as advisable to request a professional who has hands-on experience with flood or storm damage.

SOME ADDITIONAL STEPS YOU CAN TAKE.
Naturally, there are differences of opinion on what to do next, and of course a conservator’s direct advice is the best path at this point. But here are a few tips that can serve as triage in the meantime:

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Ask the Art Nurse: Buckminster Fuller edition.

DEAR ART NURSE:

I’m a long time reader of the blog and followed with interest the post you did on exterior painted metal art restoration. In fact, it’s connected to the question I have for you:

I am currently heading a group that plans to restore half a dozen Defense Housing Units designed by Buckminster Fuller. These corrugated steel cylinders were once painted white. Now they are in very rough condition and it appears they need to be re-galvanized due to rust and other wear.

Therefore, I was wondering if you have any suggestions for industrial galvanizers. The process has seemed to vary considerably over the last 40 years and I would like to do something that will replicate the original finish.

Yours truly,
Dymaxion Man

DEAR DYMAXION:

Where do I begin to thank you for bringing these structures to my attention? The idea of painted steel Bucky Fuller buildings is almost more than this modern-architecture-and-painted-metal-loving Art Nurse can absorb.

But enough of my gushing and on to your very important question.  In the photos you sent the buildings look repainted.  Therefore I’d start by figuring out if that’s true, and if it is, chemically strip the new paint and see what’s underneath.  You’ll definitely want to take care of the rust that is bleeding through the surface paint.   And you’ll want to figure out whether the pieces were, in fact, galvanized, something the very detailed 1941 MoMA press release you kindly forwarded does not mention. Galvanizing, as you know, is a process by which ferrous metal (steel or iron) is dipped in hot molten zinc to provide corrosion protection. I did some snooping around on the internet and found pictures of other DDUs which showed the telltale silvery-grey color of galvanizing under peeling layers of the original white paint. This is all an educated guess, because determining the materials of a structure through a photograph is kind of like diagnosing a patient via telephone.

But all of this speculation about materials raises another important point: Buckminster Fuller’s works are significant for aesthetic, technical and historical reasons, so it would be best to try not to obliterate their original material while restoring their aesthetic. Re-galvanizing — which would involve sandblasting to bare metal before re-dipping in hot molten zinc — seems heavy-handed. I suggest going easier on the metal: remove the overpaint, see what you have of the original, then figure out your best approach.  Without knowing the details, I’d suggest cleaning and removing corrosion with water, local abrasives and solvents, passivating the exposed metal by brushing on a phosphoric acid solution that makes it more resistant to corrosion, and maybe even trying to preserve a few areas of the original paint. At that point you could avail yourself of one of the many extraordinary new industrial paint systems for outdoor metals that would allow you to apply the zinc as a paint layer. This would mean that if someone ever wanted to study the materials that Fuller used, they would be able to do so — because they’d all be right there, under a layer of paint.

There are some fantastic paint systems out there (I have a weak spot for the TNEMEC systems, which incidentally is “Cement” spelled backwards ). But before laying a brush on those Fullers, it would definitely be worthwhile to have an expert look at the structures and suggest the best course of action — or you may end up destroying as much as you preserve. Any conservator who has experience in industrial materials or outdoor painted metals should be able to help you. Of course, only a few of us look as good as I do in a nurse’s uniform…

Rx,
San Suzie

Ask the Art Nurse: One word, plastic.

DEAR ART NURSE:

We have several Arman Lucite boxes with objects suspended within layers. Many of the “boxes” have yellowed. Is there someway to restore them to remove the discoloring?

Yours,
Mellow Yellow

Dear MELLOW:

I take it that you are referring to one of the sculptural “accumulations” produced beginning in the early 1960s by the French-born American artist Pierre Armand Fernandez who went by the moniker Arman. These compositions of objects were placed by the artists either into acrylic (Lucite being a brand name for cast acrylic, much like Plexiglas) or cast directly into polyester resin.

The question here is which type of object do you have? If it’s the acrylic variety, there’s a good chance that the yellowing is a surface discoloration or even an accumulation of dirt that a conservator might just get lucky enough to be able to reverse. If it’s polyester, it’s more likely to be an irreversible photochemical condition caused by exposure to light or poor catalyzation (as in: Part A was not mixed correctly with Part B and it didn’t set right when it was made) — or any number of other factors. A pro might have a chance of reversing it, but my guess it’s more or less a snowball’s chance in hell since polyester resins, like ladies from Beverly Hills, aren’t exactly known for aging gracefully.

In any case, I don’t recommend you taking a stab at this yourself.  Chances are you’ll stain it or make the plastic cloudy or sticky — or poison yourself in the process.  This one calls for a professional.  You can find a live and willing Art Nurse in your area on the website of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

Cool looking as they are, plastics are tricky materials to safeguard. Though there are no hard and fast rules for maintaining them in museum-quality condition, one thing that always helps is keeping them away from sunlight. And heating ducts, extreme cold, dog hair, cat hair and commercial cleaners not specifically tested for the plastic in question. And whatever you do, don’t ever smoke around them, no matter how good the bud.

Rx,
San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.

Ask the Art Nurse: Stinky Feathers.

DEAR ART NURSE:

I have a random conservation question for you: A friend of mine just returned from an African safari and brought back some fresh guinea fowl feathers from a bird that she shot. She said that the feathers really stink and she’s trying to get the smell to go away. (Ick. Don’t get me started.) She said she’s tried dish soap, laundry soap, Woolite (which seemed to work the best), but they’re still pretty stanky.

Do you have ideas on what would work best without damaging the integrity of the feathers?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Sincerely,
Stinky Feathers

DEAR STINKY:

Back when I was starting out as a conservator I worked in an ethnographic museum where I recall treating feathers — the most delicate of materials — with the most delicate of techniques. The reason is that any aggressive cleaning strips the feathers of their oils and they are then exposed to damage, drying, and all manner of deterioration. I’ve since gone on to work primarily on detritus and organic matter used in the service of contemporary art, so I thought it best if I posed this question to my pal Dana Moffett, formerly of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. She is now a private conservator working in Washington, D.C., on the artifacts of cultures that have better things to do with skulls than encrust them in diamonds.

After expressing horror at the use of dish soap, laundry soap, and Woolite — which probably completely stripped the feathers of their oils — Dana suggested placing the feathers (properly wrapped, of course, in a few sheets of Japanese paper or acid free tissue) into a sealed container (Ziploc bag, Tupperware) that contains an odor scavenger that will absorb the foul odor, like zeolites, activated charcoal (not the kind with lighter fluid), or even kitty litter (seriously). She also warned that she was not sure how long it would take to work. It all depends on the source of the stench.

If it doesn’t go away, there’s always the possibility of recycling the feathers — perhaps as a fragrant work of contemporary art. The next Whitney Biennial isn’t until 2012. There’s time…

Rx,
San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.

Ask the Art Nurse: How to get chewing gum off your art (and your shoes).

DEAR ART NURSE:

I’m a New York City-based arts blogger who recently invested in a pair of righteous grey-felt sneakers — a purchase that may have been subliminally inspired by a recent visit to the Joseph Beuys installation at the Dia Beacon.

Well, on my first day wearing my smokin’ new kicks, I stepped on a giant wad of chewing gum. Not realizing that I was sporting this sticky parasite, I then paid a visit to a prominent Manhattan arts institution, where I stood on a brand-spanking-new rug that was intended as a fuzzy stage for all manner of cutting-edge relational aesthetics (i.e.: thing to sit on and talk). It was at this moment that I discovered that my foot was attached to the rug by a string of chewy chicle. In good starving-writer fashion, I quickly made for the exit.

My question is this: How do I remove the gum from the tight tread of my insanely rad footwear? And what suggestions would you have for the venerable downtown arts institution that may find itself with a mess of Double Mint smashed into their social sculpture?

Love your work,
Hapless in Brooklyn

DEAR HAPLESS:

First of all, you can’t write to me mentioning something as sublime as felt sneaks without a picture. So pony up and tell me also where you got them. [Hapless in Brooklyn has acquiesced with the image at right, though she refuses to reveal her retail sources.]

Secondly, in this case, ice is your best friend. Rub a cube on the gum until it gets hard, then take a knife and chip away as much as possible without hurting the rubber sole, of course. The residue can be cleaned off with ethanol (denatured alcohol) or acetone (nail polish remover) on a Q-tip. Test a discreet area first to make sure the solvent does not dissolve the shoe bottom.

The same is prescribed for the venerable arts venue. However, they will have to work around the fuzz (e.g. possible hedge-trimming) and might face issues of discoloration if using a solvent. It’s the type of tricky work, naturally, that is best left in the hands of a pro.

Rx,
San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.

Ask the Art Nurse: Following up on that work on crumbling drywall.

Back in May, C-Mon reader Luna Park submitted a query to the Art Nurse regarding a work on drywall that she had acquired when the walls of one of her favorite street art galleries were demolished. (Read the original query here.) At the time, Art Nurse was unable to offer knowledgeable advice without seeing the type of damage to the work in question, so Luna submitted an image for review (see below). Now that Art Nurse has had a little time to study the problem, here is her advice:

DEAR LUNA:

I have been pondering your wall fragment for weeks now, scratching my head, talking to colleagues, trying to figure out if there’s anything we can tell you that you can do to preserve this piece yourself. What you’ve got is a problem of disaggregation, or in lay-terms: crumbling. The edges are coming apart and something needs to be put on then to keep this from continuing. The problem with the home remedy in this case is that it requires a lot of testing to make sure what you use doesn’t A) make the piece too shiny, or B) stain it and make it look like it’s tied in a yellowing ribbon. Unfortunately, most of the materials we’d use for this aren’t the sorts of things you can pick up at your local hardware store.

This is really tricky conservation work. If you can’t afford professional services at this time, I suggest you get a nice shallow plastic bin (polyethylene, preferably), or an archival cardboard box, and put your beautiful fragment to bed for a while. Who knows? The artist might get on the cover of ARTnews one day and you might have no choice but to hire one of my ilk to fix it for you.

Rx,
San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.

Ask the Art Nurse: A crumbling work on drywall

DEAR ART NURSE:

I’m an avid follower of C-Monster and have an art conservation query: Before shuttering their doors for good, my favorite street art gallery in Brooklyn invited the public to help demolish some of their walls. As the walls were painted with murals by notable artists, this was an attractive proposition.

Happily, I am now in possession of a heavy, largish chunk of painted drywall. However, the drywall is awfully fragile – the piece was not so delicately hammered out of the wall – and I’m wondering how best to stabilize it and prevent further crumbling. It goes without saying that I do not have a museum-scale art conservation budget.

Your advice, please?

Best,
Luna

DEAR LUNA:

My two favorite things on earth are hunks of concrete buildings and graffiti, so you are talking about restoring something quite dear to my heart. It would be helpful to know if the damage you are talking about consists of fragmenting edges or wholesale cracking of the piece itself. If it’s the former, what we conservators would do would be to consolidate the edges of the fragment. This means applying some kind of adhesive in thinned down form that would solidify the edge and keep if from crumbling. The trick is to do this using something that will not stain or damage the original and — most importantly — could be removed and redone. In other words, making it reversible, in case you screw it up.

If you are talking about big breaks in the piece, however, then you are looking at something called a structural repair — and that requires a bit more thinking through. So first tell me which it is. Also tell me if the area to be repaired has paint on it or not. (Or feel free to send me a link to a photo.) And then I can give the patient a proper diagnosis.

Rx,
San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.

Ask the Art Nurse: Maintaining fragile works on paper.

DEAR ART NURSE:
First of all, are you a bad or a good nurse? My main question, however, is from a collector/art lover’s angle. I love — absolutely LOVE — works on paper (I admit, it’s a fetish), but I have a dilemma: I’m terrified of placing any of the works near windows lest they are exposed to light and deteriorate.

I’ve heard that sun damage is so gradual that sometimes you don’t even notice the work is damaged until you put it beside another work (like another print from the same series). I properly frame all the work I purchase and use UV Plexiglas. But I hear that those don’t work very well after 5-10 years, since supposedly their effectiveness dwindles. I recently purchased an acrylic work on paper. I love it and have the perfect space for it but it has LOTS of light. Am I safe with acrylic? Also, I have photographs (C-prints). I want to love my art in the open but I fear that my love of art will never step out of the shadows where, at least, I know the art is safe. Am I being paranoid? Is there anything artists should be doing to guarantee their works don’t fade?

– Art lover desperately seeking to bring his art out of the closet

DEAR ART LOVER:
I am a good nurse, here to help you feed your fetishes. In the case of paper conservation — which I studied in graduate school under the phenomenal Antoinette King of MoMA, but abandoned when archeology came a-calling — I believe that a ton, not an ounce, of prevention is warranted. Fortunately, I live a stone’s throw from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and have known its chief paper conservator, Janice Schopfer, since she was at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. In other words, relax. No more fears or paranoia are warranted. Read on — and let your love step out of the shadows.

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