I recently braved the hundred-degree heat on Governor’s Island with a group of 30 or so conservators, curators, public art managers, fabricators, artist estate/foundation directors, and paint specialists to see an installation of Mark Di Suvero sculptures. The exhibit, which was organized by the Storm King Art Center, consists of a cluster of 11 big-to-monumental pieces that are a case study in industrial boner art. Crafted out of over-sized steel flotsam, many of them are rusted, gnarled or scarred. In some cases, they’ve been sprayed with the orange-red paint that Di Suvero has favored for decades.
My visit to Governor’s Island was part of a three-day meeting of conservation experts in New York. Sponsored by the Getty Conservation Institute and held at the Metropolitan Museum, the aim of the meeting was to figure out how to best care for pieces that occasionally require a paint overhaul because they spend their life outdoors: getting devoured by salt air, frozen in ice, or stewing in a lethal combination of heat and moisture. On sculptures such as Di Suvero’s, the elements can literally shred the paint. As part of the conservation process, it is then necessary to remove all of the old paint and completely re-coat the piece.
But it’s not that easy. Before we can even think about repainting, there are all kinds of questions that have to be answered as to what would constitute an appropriate new coating — both chemically and aesthetically. Using case studies of works by Lichtenstein, Di Suvero, Oldenburg, Tony Smith, Nevelson, Lewitt and several others, we had a nerdfest over issues such as defining the character of a paint coating (answer: color, gloss, and texture) and we debated how to best identify an artist’s intent. The latter is, naturally, the slipperier prospect, since artists are known to not write things down, use materials for arbitrary reasons (they’re crappy but aesthetically pleasing!) and change their minds over time.
There was also plenty of debate on how to keep skateboarders from shredding the surface of a painted sculpture. My view: You don’t. But if you insist, try building them so they don’t resemble skateboard ramps.