“Testing the limits: The theoretical development and practical reality of a large-scale agarose gel treatment for a discolored Morris Louis” by Samantha Skelton, Corina Rogge, Zahira Veliz Bomford

I have heard Samantha Skelton speak prior to this conference, about a different research project involving treating raw canvas, and as a paintings conservator often confronted with dirty and damaged unprimed color field paintings, I was eager to hear her present another talk at the IIC Congress this Fall. Samantha’s research does not disappoint.

I have often heard large unprimed canvases compared more closely with works on paper and textiles rather than traditional paintings. Like textiles and paper, the biggest issues in cleaning unprimed canvas are uneven cleaning and the creation of tidelines. It is undeniably difficult to evenly clean such a large, unforgiving surface.

Samantha and her team at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, created an ingenious system which mitigates tidelines. Using a stiff agarose gel, a carefully catered solution is introduced to the discolored canvas surface. The solution dissolves the surface coatings and grime layers which are then pulled up into the agarose layer through a capillary action/poultice system. This idea alone is not new to me, but the thoughtful beveling of the gel sheet at the edges and the addition of weight over the gel are simple yet effective ideas that made all the difference in this treatment. The beveling allowed for a feathering effect of the moisture to occur completely underneath the agarose gel rather than at/outside of the poultice surface, which is where tidelines commonly form.

During the Q&A following this paper session, Samantha addressed the idea of “aesthetics” and how important this sensory experience is to Morris Louis’ paintings. Artworks, she explained, can have a variety of different (might I add, often conflicting) values. Morris Louis’ paintings are highly valued for their visual effects and therefore cleaning them is very important to their value. Samantha ended her comment with a wonderful question back to the crowd, “If the object no longer serves its purpose, why does it exist?”

While this is not a new question in our field, it is one I have often pondered when deciding on how best to treat an artwork that may be considered a total loss. I am interested in further discussing the scenario of attempting dramatic or untested treatments on objects that are either unrecognized as official artworks and/or considered damaged beyond repair; in a sense, they are ‘dead’ and would never be shown again. In some cases, such artworks are restored to ‘life’ and in other cases, the works remain study pieces. But how do we make such delicate decisions for these artworks? What guidelines should we follow (or develop)? Perhaps these are questions for a different paper and another conference, but for now, I am thrilled with the idea of beveled agarose.

Post by: Sharra Grow