Event Review: Body of Work: Contemporary Artists’ Estates and Conservation

Artist Carolee Schneemann speaking with art historian Anja Foerschner during the closing session of the symposium, “Building a Legacy through an Archive”. Photo taken by Sasha Drosdick

By Sasha Drosdick

What is legacy? How is it made and maintained, and who controls it? This April, the symposium Body of Work: Contemporary Artists' Estates and Conservation, created a platform for open discussion on all things legacy.

As a follow up to their 2015 conference The First Crack: Conservation and Value in Contemporary Art, Contemporary Conservation Ltd. brought together artists, archivists, attorneys, auction representatives, estate managers, curators, conservators, fabricators, gallerists, heirs, historians, and others to address complex topics in contemporary art, primarily those surrounding artists’ estates. By approaching this wide and loaded topic from numerous perspectives, the two-day symposium inspired critical and creative discourse on various current practices and fostered thoughts for future inquiry.

While predominantly presentation driven, Q&A sessions at the end of each talk and larger panel discussions allowed for open, energetic, and stimulating discussion. Christian Scheidemann’s opener set the tone for day one with a philosophical discussion of Bueys’ Capri-Batterie, 1985 and 7000 Oaks, 1982. From there, Dr. Loretta Würtenberger began by defining artist estates, oeuvres, legacies, and exploring their relationships. Würtenberger, whose book, The Artist’s Estate: A Handbook for Artists, Executors, and Heirs, was recently published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, is the founder of the Institute for Artists’ Estates. A theme she introduced, which would continue to arise over the course of the conference, was the need to refine the common language between parties. For example, the way the term “estate” is commonly used by galleries, historians, and conservators is inaccurate compared to its true, legal definition.

The second section, “Artist estates and the conservator,” presented two very different talks. Derek Pullen discussed the Tate’s production of three authorized posthumous replicas as a means of conserving Naum Gabo’s sculptural legacy, followed by Jeannette Redensek’s discussion of the relationship between conservators and the Albers Foundation. Redensek, who is leading the Albers Catalogue Raisonne, broached important questions regarding the roles, priorities, and expectations of a foundation such as: How often should they lend work? And at what point does an organization transition into an institution? She very briefly discussed the topics of forgeries and authentication within the context of the foundation. Such subjects, although rife with controversy and in need of further examination, somehow did not garner as much heated discourse as that surrounding Pullen’s replicas.

Francesca Esmay and Jeffrey Weiss, the conservator/art historian duo who researched the Guggenheim’s Panza Collection, led the third section titled “What/When/Where is the Authentic?” Their eight-year-long collaboration on the eccentric Italian’s collection of works by modern American artists such as Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Bruce Nauman, was a fine example of how interdisciplinary collaborations can overcome dauntingly complex problems. Continuing in the vein of Minimalism, Rachel Rivenc closed the section with her presentation on the relationship between artist and fabricator using Robert Irwin and Jack Brogan as examples. In continuing with the research she started for her book, Made in Los Angeles: Materials, Processes, and the Birth of West Coast Minimalism, she discussed how Brogan’s understanding of materials and their capabilities pushed the boundaries of Irwin’ own practice. Rivenc provided a glimpse into a dynamic relationship that expanded the understanding of what relationships between artist and fabricator can look like.

The day concluded with a panel discussion on the themes of “Advocacy and Authority: Estates, Foundations and Conservation” moderated by Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA. “Anything is possible, if not resolvable” she quipped as she navigated through controversial topics such as Clement Greenberg stripping David Smith’s white sculptures in the 1970s and the David Smith Estate’s more recent mishandling of the Lauren Clay controversy. With sculpture conservator Eleonora Nagy, art historian and attorney Virginia Rutledge, and the David Smith Estate manager Peter Stevens, the round table discussion hit on many of the themes of the day and was a perfect example of the benefits of numerous voices and transparency.

Day two began with the theme “Artists' Estates and the Market.” Christy Maclear of Art Agency Partners/Sotheby’s, drew on examples from her previous experience as the Rauschenberg Foundation CEO and executive director of the Philip Johnson Glass House. Her specific case studies showed that creative problem solving for site management and using a “start-up” perspective could be beneficial for upholding artists’ wishes while at the same time creating sustainable business models.

Partner and Vice President of Hauser and Wirth New York, Marc Payot, closed the market driven section with his presentation on the relationship between specific estates and their international, blue chip galleries. Originally, Hauser and Wirth began representing estates, starting with Eva Hesse’s in 1999, to contextualize contemporary art. Since then, they have grown to represent 26 estates, the late Jack Whitten’s being the most recent addition. Hauser and Wirth actively work in collaboration with the estate to keep the work relevant, active, and part of contemporary discourse which involves reinvigorating the secondary market in order to support the legacy and foster critical attention.

Glenn Wharton started the segment titled “Ephemeral/Ephemera” on his discussion of David Wojnarowicz and The Artist Archives Initiative. Wharton’s talk discussed the NYU initiative and delved into important practical concerns regarding software design and accessibility. In the following presentation on the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation Fellows Forum, president and former gallerist Andrea Rosen examined the fascinating conceptual concerns imbedded within the nature of Torres’s work and how the foundation’s goal to avoid concretization and stagnation of meaning led to the reevaluation of the confines of the traditional foundation structure. She advocated for strategic and creative planning and collaboration, suggesting that foundations do not have to exist as single entities.

Presenting from the perspective of a large private collection, curator Anne Reeve and conservator Steve O’Banion began the “Reinstallation as a Critical Act” panel by discussing how they navigated a complex posthumous installation - one that was never fully realized during the artist’s lifetime - for an upcoming exhibition at Glenstone Museum. From a similar perspective, Allison Brant, director of her family’s foundation, the Brant Foundation Study Center, also discussed posthumous installation concerns following which she participated in a panel discussion moderated by Scheidemann, with the previous speakers and artist Julien Bismuth. Again, the benefits of collaboration among different specialties was highlighted.

The final segment of the symposium was from the perspective of the artist. Painter David Reed discussed the imprecision of memory and the reevaluation of his earlier artworks later in life. “Sometimes artworks know more than the artist does,” said Reed to which the audience collectively sighed in the rare acknowledgement. Artist Carolee Schneemann began with a “hiss” before beginning an intimate conversation with art historian Anja Foerschner. Between openly discussing her own conflictions over her legacy and the complicated legalities she’s encountered while setting up her own foundation, she discussed some of her more performative works and a history of receiving harsh criticism. “I’m so happy it survived my criticism” she said of a painting that was re-found and treated by Scheidemann. In the day’s only effort to avoid transparency, Scheidemann responded to a question over how he treated the painting by stating that it was a secret. Grappling between her thoughts on her work and space and what she will leave behind, put the previous discussions in perspective. Hearing a living artist speaking candidly about her own legacy and what she will leave behind after death gave the concept the personal touch that had been missing.

Despite the variety of subjects discussed, numerous themes repeated themselves over the course of two days. Given how many considerations and issues do not fall under the jurisdiction of a single specialty, need for increased transparency and collaboration was clear. Everyone who spoke was a proponent of estates moving from entities that grant or deny permission to active collaborators. Within this vein, Christy Maclear, Virginia Rutledge, and Loretta Wurderberger among others all promoted the benefit of fair use to support legacies.

All parties contributing to the legacy of an artist must be aware that the goal is not simply preservation, but conservation. While preservation contains something in its moment, conservation strives to let it live on and engage in a meaningful way with what’s happening now. As conservators, this conference highlighted the necessity for us to remain engaged, not only within our immediate community, but within the art community as a whole; it served as a reminder that conservators do not exist in a vacuum.

FURTHER RESOURCES

The Institute for Artists’ Estates, The Aspen Institute, Art Agency Partners, and Art Legacy Planning

“Body of Work: Contemporary Artists’ Estates and Conservation” was held at the School of Visual Arts theater in New York City on April 5-6, 2018. It was organized by Christian Scheidemann and Contemporary Conservation Ltd. and sponsored by Glenstone Museum. More information can be found here: https://www.bodyofwork2018.com/

AUTHOR BYLINE

Sasha Drosdick is the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Objects Conservation at the Brooklyn Museum. Before earning an MSc from University College London’s Conservation Studies program in Qatar she completed internships at the Museum of Modern Art and Yale University Art Gallery.