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.

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