Conservator Sarah Nunberg delivered the below paper, "Conservation of a White Louis Nevelson installation: Treatment choices based on ethical discussions and analytical studies," at the ICOM-CC 18th Triennial Conference in Copenhagen in October.
We are working with Dr. Cindie Kehlet at Pratt Institute where we continue to carry out entirely new and important methods for analyzing the effect of our treatment on the original paint as we remove the restoration layer. All analysis continues to prove that we are not altering the original paint. Dr. Kehlet presented her work at the May Technology and Art Conference in Bilbao and is has completed her publication as of the end of last month.
We have successfully identified a method to remove the restoration paint without altering the original.
In working on the three columns, "Trinity," we are finding that these pieces are probably in worse condition with more degradation of the original paint than the other sculptures in the Chapel. As a result, we cannot remove all of the restoration but are successfully reducing it to arrive at a more even surface. We are continuing to explore options for removing the bottom-most restoration layer.
I will be presenting a paper on our work restoring the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at the International Committee of Museums - Conservation Committee in Copenhagen in September and my colleague and co-worker on the project, Soraya Alcala, will present our work in London in October at the Tate Gallery Gels Conference.
Both conferences are highly selective about what they present and publish, so we are particularly excited to be able to share the Nevelson project with our colleagues at these conferences.
In June I presented a paper discussing the restoration of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at the annual meeting in Chicago at the American Institute for Conservation of Historic Works. I received lots of great feedback and discussed other Nevelsons with conservators, including a major part of Dawn's Wedding from the MoMA exhibition now at Chicago Art Institute, and a black Nevelson installation at University of Buffalo. We are confirming that this will be the only white Nevelson installation with the original paint as the presentation surface!
We are currently working on cleaning the restoration layer off the three columns and the lintel. The photos in the gallery below show of the lintel being taken down from the wall and being packed for shipping. The last photo shows one of the columns in my studio. (Click the photos to advance the slide.)
To construct the sculptures in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, Nevelson first made maquettes of each sculpture. The maquettes do not exist anymore, but from photographs, it is apparent that the final sculptures differed from the original designs.
This summer (2016) we are setting down the restoration paint and original paint to preserve the original and prepare for surface cleaning.
Soraya Alcala consolidating paint on The Twelve Apostles.
The gilding on the Cross of the Good Shepherd was researched by Julianna Ly, who found that it is likely one of the few, if only, Louise Nevelson large scale gilt sculptures. While Nevelson did often spray paint large scale sculptures gold, other large scale gilded sculptures have not been located to date.
The gilding is in good condition, although it is dirty with dust and grime and there are drips down the front surfaces. Examination with magnification and ultra violet light indicates that the surface has been coated with a natural resin, probably applied during original construction. The resin has a slight yellow/brown hue, dulling the brilliant gold.
The manufacturing techniques are not documented. Surface examination indicates that the surface is water gilded, meaning that an initial bole was applied and then covered with squares of gold leaf. The gold was then burnished to further adhere it to the bole. The surface was then varnished with a natural resin.
Because there has been no other documentation of Nevelson gilding, it is not clear who actually applied the gold leaf. However, documented working methods of other Nevelson pieces clearly indicate that Nevelson never surrendered control over executing her artworks, and it can be assumed that although Nevelson might not have personally applied the gold leaf, she had a strong role in managing the process.
Cleaning tests to remove the restoration paint and reveal the original.
Sarah Nunberg felt that the ethics behind conservation of the chapel was central to deciding the proper conservation treatment, resulting in extensive discussions with paintings conservators Carolyn Tomkiewicz, and Soraya Alcala, and chemists Chris McGlinchy and Cindie Kehlet.
Three treatment options were discussed based on practices applied to other white Nevelson sculptures and our own observations of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd paint surface:
1: Remove all paint with a heat gun and scraping spatula, then prime and repaint the surface.
2: Consolidate all paint, then fill and tone losses, also toning out brown streaking, discoloration and dirt.
3: Consolidate all paint and clean off top layer of restoration, leaving the first restoration layer in tact. The original cream color would show through, along with a grayish thin paint application. Fill and tone losses and carry out any further toning necessary to cover distracting irregularities.
For all scenarios, environmental management is essential for long term preservation.
Option three was decided upon using a gel system to clean off the top restoration paint. The latest restoration paint responds readily to the chosen gel system. However, the earlier, more compact restoration layer and the original layer do not respond to the gel system.
Justification: Removal of all the paint was not favorable, as the process did not comply with the AIC code of ethics because the original paint layers were applied either under Nevelson's direct supervision or in part by Nevelson herself (see methods of manufacture page on this website). GIven the wooden substrate, application of a new paint layer would require substantial surface preparation, further altering the original surfaces and long term maintenance of the new restoration layer would need to be considered.
The ethics behind removing the restoration paint were discussed as well. It is likely that some of the restoration paint was applied during Nevelson's lifetime. Nevelson suggested reapplying white paint to keep her sculptures clean. The more compact restoration layer, closest to the original layer, may have been part of the original construction- did Nevelson apply this layer herself during installation to cover seams and touch up after assembly?
Preserving the current restoration surface seemed counterintuitive given the textured, discolored and streaked surface with brown staining, which is so different from Nevelson's original intent of a pure white space. Additionally, the interaction between the restoration paint and the original paint was found to be detrimental to the original paint. The brown streaking appears to be a result of this interaction and is mostly in the restoration paint, so reduction or removal of this layer would remove the disruptive brown streaking. Cleaning tests confirmed this.
The current solution to remove the dirty, streaked, textured, stained restoration paint, but leave the compact, smoother layer seemed to be a good compromise that could be accomplished using the gel system. The chosen system is water based so it is non-toxic to conservators and the environment, and the method of application and cleaning is the most efficient of all options explored.
Environmental management is key to outlining the treatment plan. The ability to control the environment will be a part of the treatment goals. Currently the relative humidity range varies from 6% to over 58% in a year. Reducing this range will be key to preserving the paint. How much this range can be reduced is still under consideration. Collecting data to determine the current relative humidity under the supply air will help in determining how to decrease the RH range. This work is on going. Ambient data logging began in December 2013 and continues. Data logging at the sculptures, beneath the supply air, began in December 2014.