Category: Conservation

Rescuing Haiti’s priceless murals.

My esteemed colleague Rosa Lowinger (aka the Art Nurse) was just in Haiti and penned a wonderful little piece for Gallerina about working to rescue what remains of the priceless murals at the Cathedrale de Sainte Trinité in Port-Au-Prince. (She also — bless her heart — took lots of amazing pictures, like the one above.) It’s a great reminder of why culture is important, even in the midst of devastation.

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:


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.

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


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?



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.

San Suzie

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

In L.A.: Resurrecting Robert Mallary, Master of Assemblage.

Working on Robert Mallary’s Corner Piece. (Photos by San Suzie and Box Gallery.)

Last December, the director of L.A.’s Box Gallery contacted me about the conservation of some 1950s and 60s pieces by Robert Mallary (1917-1997). The pieces consisted largely of old tuxedos dipped in resin and sculptures made of polyester, sand and dirt. For an Art Nurse like myself, nothing is more exciting than a chance to work on detritus-as-art, and these works — made by a pioneer in the field of assemblage and use of resin — would provide me with a rich opportunity to experiment with the conservation of new materials, not to mention chew over the limits between junk and art.

Crafted out of wood, dirt, sand, rusted steel, cardboard, tar paper and fabric that has been crushed, bent, twisted, and dipped in a resin of questionable formulation, these sculptures had once been seen in landmark avant-garde exhibitions such as MoMA’s Sixteen Americans (1959) and Art of Assemblage (1961). More recently, they had  languished in a near-junk heap in the building that had once served as Mallary’s studio in Conway, Massachusetts. They might have never been seen or heard from again if artist Paul McCarthy, long an admirer of Mallary’s work, hadn’t included some of them in the show Low Life, Slow Life at the San Francisco Wattis Institute in 2008.

“As soon as we saw this work we knew something bigger had to be done,” says Box Gallery director Mara McCarthy (who also happens to be Paul’s daughter). So the gallery’s team made three separate trips to Massachusetts and carefully sorted through the heaps in Mallary’s studio. After receiving the Art Nurse treatment, eighteen of these sculptures will go on exhibit this Saturday. Working on them wasn’t easy. Mallary’s pieces aren’t just fragile; they’re each made up of  what seems to be a million different materials – one corner might be all fabric and resin, another dirt and old newspaper. And because every material adheres differently and every adhesive used in conservation has the potential to stain the very thing you’re gluing, every single repair required a separate decision.  By the end of the week when the work was done (which incidentally was also the week that L.A. was pummeled by rain, which meant that everything took twice as long to dry) my brain felt as torqued as one of Mallary’s tuxedo pieces.

But it was clearly worth it.  In today’s art world, we’ve gotten so used to pieces made of weird materials that junk art seems as common as canvas painting.  But Mallary’s sculptures have a raw power that defies description.  This is shockingly good work – that has not been seen in nearly four decades. So if you’re going to be anywhere near L.A. over the next couple of months, get yourself over to The Box to see them. Mara McCarthy, in fact, believes that the proper resting place for these pieces would be a museum. After spending 60 hours staring and handling these works, I’d have to heartily agree.

A special thanks to the folks at the gallery for allowing us to document this process. See many more photos after the jump. Robert Mallary opens at the Box Gallery in Chinatown this Sat, Feb. 6 at 6pm and is on display until April 3, 2010.

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Admiring museum-quality pizza at MoMA.

Extra olives with a light dusting of acetone, please: Gabriel Orozco’s pizza crust, part of Working Tables, 2000-2005. See the piece in context here. (Photo courtesy of MoMA.)

If there is something that absolutely inspires the art nerd in me, it’s the totally whacked out materials used by some artists. Blood. PeaRoeFoam. A stuffed angora goat. Which is why I was quite excited to find a pizza crust in the Gabriel Orozco retrospective when I visited MoMA last week. The above crust, part of the piece Working Tables, resides in the museum’s stately permanent collection. (It is very important crust.) Which got me wondering: what exactly does a museum do with crust? Is it Orozco’s original crust? Or is it replaced regularly with fresh crust? And what about crust munchers like roaches and mice?

For answers to these burning questions, we turned to MoMA’s associate sculpture conservator Roger Griffith, who has worked in the museum’s conservation lab for more than a decade. Griffith, it turns out, has some experience dealing with art objects made of food. Among them, Janine Antoni’s Gnaw , an installation that consists of 600 lbs. each of chocolate and lard that has been gnawed by the artist. (No doubt a joy to maintain). He was also the man in charge of caring for a small block of artist-made cheese fabricated from human breast milk at a temporary MoMA exhibit several years ago. (“My job was to make sure it didn’t mold,” says Griffith. “I would just take it out of the fridge, pat it down, salt it and put it back.”) He was kind enough to give us the lowdown on pizza à la Orozco:

  • The Crust is O.G.: This is Orozco’s original crust which has been with the museum since MoMA acquired it in 2005 from the Marian Goodman Gallery.
  • It’s Part Plastic: Part of the reason this crust (which is at least five years old) still looks good — and hasn’t been attacked by critters — is because it was treated by the museum’s staff upon  arrival. When MoMA acquired Working Tables, the crust was a normal, everyday crust. But once it entered the museum’s conservation lab, it was bathed in acetone (“to remove the fatty acids, the parts that cause degradation,” explains Griffith) and then soaked in a solution of acrylic known as B-72. The acetone dissolves the fat; the acrylic replaces it. To keep it looking natural (acrylic has a tendency to shine), the conservation department spritzed it with an acetone mist to eliminate unnatural sheen. Voilà! Plasticized pizza dough that looks totally real, yet barely ages. (Like some Upper East Side ladies I know…)
  • It’s Stored in Highly Secure Packaging: When the crust isn’t on display, it’s put away in marva-seal, which according to this website, is the same packaging that the U.S. military uses to wrap its MREs (or Meals Ready to Eat). Which strikes me as incredibly handy, because if all hells break loose, we can always drop Orozco’s crust somewhere over Afghanistan — solving all manner of foreign policy woes.

Ask the Art Nurse: Maintaining fragile works on paper.

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

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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Ask the Art Nurse: All about oils.

My question is kinda no-frills, but I hope you’ll answer it: Is there a definitive conservators’ opinion regarding oil paint on acrylic gesso?

I was told by some old-schooler types in graduate school that the only genuinely archival method for oil painting is rabbit’s skin sizing and oil ground, and that it’ll hurt your success at being collected if you don’t use the ‘archivalest’ of the archival. But Gesso  is so ubiquitous, it seems like it’s impossible for conservators not to have to deal with it.

I’ve heard it has more to do with how you stretch – if you’re making strainers instead of stretchers, the supports can’t move with the painting’s expanding/contracting, so acrylic gesso would actually be more stable in that scenario. Is this true?

- Sam

We at the C-Mon art hospital like to think we know everything about all types of art, but when it comes to matters such as gesso and canvas we like to defer to our  illustrious conservator colleagues who work on paintings. In this case we were fortunate to get some advice from one of the true greats, Will Shank, former chief conservator at SFMOMA, now living the high life in Barcelona. He tells us that using rigid oil paint on flexible acrylic ‘gesso’ preparations is okay according to the experts, but the reverse – acrylic over oil is ‘an absolute no-no.’ He also gives you kudos for recognizing that the problems of bad paint adhesion comes from improper stretching tension. He recommends avoiding strainers and always using expandable stretchers. That will help you keep your paint on the canvas and not on the floor in front of it.

He also points out – and this nurse could not agree more – that the word ‘archival’ is meaningless in terms of oil painting – or bronzes, or plaster, or stone, or for that matter, anything that isn’t specifically made of acid-free materials (like paper).

Rx, San Suzie

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

Ask the Art Nurse: Ball of Wax.

I made a sculpture about 4 months ago, mostly comprised of candle wax. I had no idea how to preserve the wax from breaking and melting away if it was put in high temperatures, so i decided to coat it with shellac, primarily out of fear of using resins, due to their toxicity. A few weeks ago i was moving the piece to a different location, left it temporarily outside and realized that the wax was getting soft. Now that i know that the shellac is not working the way I intended it to, I have no idea what i should use to preserve the piece. Whatever material I use, it must be clear, and must protect the piece from melting… Any suggestions?

– Daphne

Good question! This raises one of the most common misconceptions in the art world: whether something made of an inherently soft, degradable, or otherwise delicate/unstable material can be protected by coating it with something. The answer: No. You can’t keep a soft surface from melting in the heat by protecting it with a coating — whether it’s shellac or a synthetic resin. We love the suppleness and depth of wax sculpture just as much as the next art medical professional (think: Medardo Rosso, or the heaving animatronic breasts of Britney Spears at Madame Tussauds). But all waxes, whether paraffin, beeswax or microcrystalline are sensitive to heat.

The only thing you can do to keep it from melting is to keep it cool, that is, indoors and away from heat sources. In the future, if you want to use wax for sculpting, look for wax with a higher melting temperature. If you’re getting your wax at the 99-cent store, try using the ones that don’t have a scent (they tend to be harder). If you don’t mind materials that melt, however, I’d like to recommend lard. If the piece doesn’t work out, you can always cook with it.

– Rx, San Suzie

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