PRINT Summer 2011


Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1963, oil on canvas, 90 x 69. Installation view, Kunsthaus Zürich, 1997. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

ONE OF THE MORE POPULAR of Barnett Newman’s oft-quoted aphorisms goes like this: “What I’m saying is that my painting is physical and what I’m saying also is that my painting is metaphysical. What I’m also saying is that my life is physical and that my life is also metaphysical.” Frequently cited to emphasize the artist’s intellectual awareness, the quote also succinctly articulates the central challenge in the conservation of monochromatic art. Newman, like Rothko and others of the New York School of Abstract Expressionist painters, depended on the physical properties of the materials he employed to achieve the resonance of his paintings. Be it the relative reflectance of oil versus acrylic versus Magna color versus egg, or the topography of the paint surface painstakingly asserted by brush or roller or rag, these material factors imparted the overall impact of the work of art. However, when the immaterial effect is as intertwined with the material presence of the work as it is in monochromatic painting, what happens when the materiality changes in response to natural aging or accidental intervention? What happens to the metaphysical when the physical is compromised? The necessity of grappling with such questions distinguishes the enterprise of conserving AbEx art and illuminates the nexus of its creation.

Shortly after Jackson Pollock completed Number 5, 1948, the artist Alfonso Ossorio purchased the painting from the Betty Parsons Gallery. On receipt of the work, Ossorio noticed that a portion of the paint—actually the skin from the top of an opened paint can—had slid, leaving a “nondescript smear amidst the surrounding linear clarity,” as he explained in a 1978 lecture at Yale. Pollock offered to restore the painting, and three weeks later Ossorio arrived at the artist’s studio to find a work whose “new qualities of richness and depth” had resulted from his “thorough but subtle overpainting. The original concept remained unmistakably present, but affirmed and fulfilled by a new complexity and depth of linear interplay. It was, and still is,” he remarked, “a masterful display of control and disciplined vision.” Undoubtedly, the “restored” painting resulted from the artist’s complete reworking of the multifaceted layers of poured paint that had characterized the original painting. In essence, Pollock had resolved a localized disfigurement of the painting in the same holistic manner of its formation. Indeed, the allover composition of the work dictated such an intervention. Yet while Pollock’s wholesale reworking of his own painting was a brilliant elevation of the original, conservators court ethical and aesthetic disaster when they entertain similar liberties.

In 1986, a disgruntled artist famously entered the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam with a utility knife and proceeded to cut two sixteen-foot slashes and a series of shorter penetrations into Barnett Newman’s painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III, 1967–68. After in-house deliberation and assessment, the painting was sent to a restorer in the United States for treatment. What resulted was a mending of the breaks and a complete repainting of the red surface that all but obliterated Newman’s staggeringly beautiful and carefully crafted layers of paint. As with the Pollock, an overall treatment was undertaken, but this time, since the artist was no longer living, it was accomplished by a restorer who seemed to be responding more to the widespread misinterpretation of Newman’s large and unprecedented uninterrupted planes of color than to the reality of his nuanced surfaces.

Given the ubiquity of Hans Namuth’s images, it is easy to imagine Pollock reworking Number 5, 1948 in his studio. The artist’s diligence, focus, and physical prowess are emblazoned on our consciousness. Without such visualizations of gesture, the physical complexity of monochromatic paintings is not always immediately apparent. For example, the broad expanses of color seem to ward off closer study of Newman’s expertly negotiated handling of both brush and roller with oil and acrylic paints in Midnight Blue, 1970. Such distraction occludes the complexity of one of the more alluring surfaces in paint. Likewise, the insistence of the darkness in Mark Rothko’s Untitled, 1963, overshadows the unparalleled sophistication of reflectance that he created in that painting. Essentially all black with the exception of a stunning swath of white at the top, the work resonates through monochromatic bands that are distinguished solely by the differing sheen of contiguous paint layers. Both Newman and Rothko consistently explored a multiplicity of means to create large color expanses. They remained engaged by the properties of materials and ultimately accepted the technical challenge of conceiving paintings with tempered color, as Newman did in The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani, 1958–66, and Rothko did in the Rothko Chapel at about the same time.

Barnett Newman’s Cathedra, 1951, displayed for the first time after it was repaired, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, December 7, 2001. Photo: Friso Spoelstra/HollandseHoogte/Redux.

This deceptive appearance of simplicity renders large monochromatic paintings particularly susceptible to critical and spectatorial misunderstanding, ridicule, and even animosity. That, coupled with the stated desires of Newman and Rothko, among others, to encourage intimate viewing experiences, makes these paintings especially vulnerable to vandalism. While an old-master painting might be protected by an isolating varnish layer, monochromatic surfaces were invariably left unsealed lest the viewer sense a physical or psychological barrier. Sadly, the fundamental concerns underpinning monochromatic AbEx paintings countered their assured preservation.

Eleven years after his initial assault, the same vandal entered the same museum in Amsterdam and slashed in the exact same manner another of Newman’s paintings, Cathedra, 1951. This time the museum assembled a team of in-house conservators who for more than three years expertly mended the tears and sensitively addressed the localized disfigurement of the paint layers. Eschewing an overall treatment, they painstakingly filled and expertly inpainted each intrusion locally. Working with conservation scientists, they determined the precise nature of Newman’s materials and by analyzing cross sections of the paint layers confirmed Newman’s methodology. Then, with reference to archival documents, they were able to disguise the damage in ways that reasserted the integrity of the whole. Naturally, given the character of gestural painting, certain margins of error are tolerated in light of the distraction afforded by overt brushwork and other tracks of engagement. However, with monochromatic color the conservator’s intervention must be more circumspect. For instance, the touch of a watercolor brush can irreparably interrupt the serene matteness of a surface, and despite skillful retouching, compensations can recede or assert themselves depending on the direction of the light falling on the field of color. It is complicated business for complicated paintings.

Clearly nettled by dismissals of his work compared with the more gestural paintings of his time, Newman stood his ground as early as 1958 when he remarked, “My work, they claim, is antipainting, when what they mean is that it is antitechnique, antibrushwork and that the large open areas I use require, as the restorers of my work are beginning to realize, the highest artistry.” It was both the glory and the curse of monochromatic painting that its physical artistry was so subtly achieved. Yet what the restorers of Newman’s time were beginning to realize at midcentury is now fully recognized by the conservators of our time. The artistry of monochromatic painting is achieved by the manipulation of its material presence to serve its immaterial essence, and it is ultimately preserved in the same way.

Carol Mancusi-Ungaro is Founding Director of The Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at the Harvard Art Museums and Associate Director for Conservation and Research at the Whitney Museum of American Art.