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Washington Color School: Challenges in the Conservation of Contemporary Artwork

January 27, 2013

3 minute read

Washington Color School- Challenges in the Conservation of Contemporary Artwork

Paul Reed painting before conservation

At Lowy, we often encounter collectors of modern and contemporary art who believe that their purchased works are not subject to the growing-old-gracefully concerns that affect artworks from previous centuries. Such thinking, however, is mistaken. In fact, contemporary art, like every decade and every art movement, raises its own set of conservation concerns.

Beginning in the early 19th century, artists frequently used mixed media, unprimed canvas, and oftentimes acrylic paints instead of more durable oils. Sometimes, we find the medium is oil mixed with additional media which tend to make the work less stable and more soluble.

Consider the unique set of challenges our team faced when conserving a group of paintings by artists belonging to the Washington Color School. These artists painted abstract color field paintings during the late 1950s through the mid 1960s. Originally, the Washington Color School included six members: Kenneth Noland (1924-2010), Morris Louis (1912-1962), Gene Davis (1920-1985), Thomas Downing (1928-1985), Howard Mehring (1931-1978), and Paul Reed (1919-2015). The group was primarily known for their shared exploration of the properties and working methods of staining and soaking acrylic paints onto unprimed canvas, using the canvas as a vessel for color.

This technique presents an interesting set of conservation issues. The acrylic media layers can be very fragile, especially when the canvas is unprimed. The primer helps to adhere the acrylic paint to the canvas and provides a barrier to help protect the canvas from a more rapid aging process. Furthermore, when canvas ages, it oxidizes and can discolor unevenly, altering the aesthetic of the painting.

Our team brought to this project Lowy’s less-is-more approach to conservation. Due to the fragility of the media and the raw canvas substrate, we didn’t want to risk abrading the media layer with more traditional cleaning methods, which many times incorporate the use of organic solvents. In the case of Paul Reed’s painting, shown here, which he created using acrylic emulsion (an acrylic polymer mixed with water and a surfactant, or what we commonly recognize as artist acrylic paint today), we employed a method of dry cleaning commonly used in paper conservation. A Japanese Hake brush made of sheep’s hair was used along with very fine particles of a specially formulated, rubber-free eraser to remove surface dirt from the paint layer. The method is executed by applying the "crumbs" to the painted surface and gently brushing them across the face of the painting. This method is effective because the surface dirt adheres to the eraser particles without abrading the acrylic emulsion.

Of course, every painting is unique. Even paintings that are part of a series painted by the same artist and executed using like-materials can react differently to the same treatment. For this reason, we treat every painting as if it were an individual “patient”.

Lowy’s conservation studio is always busy preserving paintings, from centuries-old to contemporary. Contact us with any conservation question or to schedule a consultation.

Paul Reed painting after conservation