Maintenance to the painted sculptural surfaces began less than five years after installation, setting off a twenty-year process of repeated paint application. However well-intentioned, this maintenance is one of the main contributors to the visible and invisible deterioration of the work.
Comparisons with contemporary white Nevelson installations indicate that the original paint color was a warm cream white, characteristic of oxidized alkyd paints. Correspondence housed in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York document Nevelson's instructions to repaint the surfaces when they were dirty or damaged. The restored, cool white presentation surface applied 1986-2000 is now chipped, streaked with brown stains and thick, uneven paint application.
Much damage can be attributed to the interaction between the restoration paint and the original paint. Restoration paint is lifting off in sheets, and is, in several instances, pulling original paint up with it.
In certain other areas, restoration paint has been applied directly to the exposed wood, where the original paint had been previously lost. Much of the restoration paint is tenting and peeling.
By 2012, it became evident that a robust restoration was needed to properly preserve Nevelon's sculptures. An initial study identified factors that caused deterioration ranging from lack of environmental control to poor adhesion of the original paint.
Treatment considerations have included extensive paint analysis by chemists at MoMA and Pratt Institute to identify the original color, composition of the original and subsequent paint layers, and methods of application. The process has involved an extensive collaboration among painting and object conservators, painting chemists, engineers, Nevelson's assistant, and Saint Peter's conservation committee to arrive at the best approach for preserving the sculpture and the Chapel as a beloved public space.
Staining and uneven brush strokes
Flaking and peeling
Sections lifting and tenting