Ethics and Paint

From the outset, the conservation of Nevelson Chapel has been guided by ethics. For the layperson, the connection between ethics and such practical elements as paint and wood may be elusive. In practice, conservator Sarah Nunberg finds the ethical approach indispensable to achieving a result that honors both the work and the artist who conceived and created it. Ethics make the difference between simple restoration and true conservation of art.

Ethics, Research and Testing

Research began with extensive discussions of techniques for testing, cleaning and repairing painted surfaces with paintings conservators Carolyn Tomkiewicz, and Soraya Alcala, and chemists Chris McGlinchy and Cindie Kehlet.

Three treatment options for the Chapel were discussed. Based on practices applied to other white Nevelson sculptures, and the team’s own observations of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd paint surface, the team considered the following alternatives: 

  1. Remove all paint with a heat gun and scraping spatula, then prime and repaint the surface.
  2. Other Nevelson pieces had been restored in this way with a goal of getting down to the original material, creating a smooth surface and fresh paint to achieve a “like new” appearance.
  3. Consolidate all paint, then fill and tone losses, also toning out brown streaking, discoloration and dirt.
    This option would work from the previous state of the piece, building on the maintenance that had been applied over the years according to Nevelson’s instructions, then improving the overall look.
  4. Consolidate all paint and clean off top layer of restoration, leaving the first restoration layer intact. 

This option would allow the original paint color to show through, along with a grayish thin paint application. The team would then fill and tone losses and carry out any further toning necessary to cover distracting irregularities in the coloration or surface.

Ethics and Direction

Ethics led the team to choose option three. 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), removal of those layers would represent an intrusion on the artist and her process—the actual legacy of Nevelson’s hand in the place where she had worked.

In addition, given the wooden substrate, applying a new paint layer would require substantial surface preparation, such as sanding and scraping. Once again, this approach would require altering the original surfaces as prepared by the artist. This approach would also create a need for long term maintenance of the new restoration layer itself, adding rather than eliminating issues for the future. 

Since Nevelson herself had suggested reapplying white paint as a way to keep her sculptures clean, the team discussed the ethics of removing the restoration paint as well. Some of the restoration paint may have been applied during her lifetime. In fact, the more compact restoration layer, closest to the original layer, may have been part of the original construction. The team had to consider the question: Did Nevelson apply this layer herself during installation to cover seams and touch up after assembly?

In the end a compromise was reached, which the team believes will provide the best result for visually and structurally restoring the piece while honoring its original construction and Nevelson’s process.

A non-toxic, water-based gel system, was applied to clean off the top restoration paint, proving to be both efficient and ethical as it poses no harm to conservators or the environment.  Environmental management is essential to preserve the work in the long term.

Ethics and Process—Hidden Rewards

Given the textured, discolored and streaked surface of the current restoration surface with its brown staining, preserving it seemed counterintuitive. It was so different from Nevelson's original intent of a pure white space. The team chose to remove the dirty, streaked, textured, and stained restoration paint, leaving the compact smoother layer beneath.
As the process began, the team discovered a detrimental result of the previous restoration. The team noticed that the interaction between the restoration paint and the original paint caused brown streaking, mostly in the restoration paint. This discovery, borne out in cleaning tests, affirmed that reduction or removal of this layer would also eliminate the disruptive brown streaking.

In this painstaking work, another unanticipated phenomenon was revealed. As layers of Nevelson’s original alkyd paint were exposed to the light, the team noticed a change in the paint color. It became clear that the obstruction of light by additional paint layers had affected the original color of the paint. Rather than the cream color that conservators had thought they would need to match, the original paint, exposed to light was revealed to be a much purer white.
The ethical approach had yielded a degree of accuracy that would have been impossible using any of the other methods. As a result, this work will not only provide an outcome that is truer to Nevelson’s original intent and execution, it provides new information for the field of conservation as a whole. Nevelson would undoubtedly approve, knowing that the Chapel has once again reached outside itself to touch the world beyond its walls.

Saint Peter's Church