A subtle but significant improvement: Conserving a “petal painting” (part I)

This is part one in a three-part series.

Bradley Walker Tomlin, No. 8, 1952, Oil and charcoal on canvas; 65 7/8 x 47 7/8 in.; 167.3225 x 121.6025 cm.. Acquired 1955. Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

No. 8 (1952) was the first of two late abstract expressionist works by Bradley Walker Tomlin to enter The Phillips Collection in the 1950s. Purchased in 1955 from Tomlin’s dealer, the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, Duncan Phillips called this painting “Blossoms” and referred to pictures with its particular style of short, thick brushstrokes as Tomlin’s “petal paintings” for their resemblance to falling flower petals.

Painted in 1952, No. 8 was 60 years old when it came into the Conservation Studio at the Phillips last year, and the painting was showing its age. Paint around fine cracks in various “petals” of color was beginning to lift and flake off, and over the years a layer of fine, yellowish grime had also accumulated on the unvarnished paint surface. The overall appearance was dull with diminished color contrasts. No evidence of previous restoration was observed on the painting or found in files, suggesting this was the picture’s first comprehensive conservation treatment since it was painted.

The goal of treatment was to improve the painting’s overall condition and appearance with as little intervention or alteration of original material as possible.

A Delicate Paint Surface

The media line of No. 8‘s label reads “oil on canvas,” but Tomlin’s is not a typical oil paint film. In some places, the paint surface is glossy and cohesive, and in others it is matte with a slightly rough texture. In a few areas, the paint has a soft, velvet finish–here, it is thought Tomlin may have mixed wax with his oil paint to get that effect. Tomlin also sketched in chalk and charcoal over dry paint, and some of this dry media remains visible in the final composition.

Cleaning this painting in a conventional manner–either by gently rolling a wet cotton swab over the paint surface or using dry techniques–would be impossible to do without removing or otherwise altering original material. The chalk and charcoal would be easily wiped away, and any friction on the surface would burnish the matte areas, especially where Tomlin mixed wax into the paint.  …Read part two tomorrow.

Detail of the matte, unvarnished paint surface with lines dry media -- white chalk and black charcoal

Detail of the matte, unvarnished paint surface with lines dry media–white chalk and black charcoal.

A Fond Farewell to Xavier Veilhan’s Red Bear

Sunny skies and relatively warm temperatures Friday helped make for a smooth de-installation of Xavier Veilhan’s The Bear sculpture from the plinth at 21st and Q. The Bear will now begin a long journey back to it’s permanent home in the Northwest. During his time here, the Bear cheerfully welcomed visitors to the Phillips – we are a little sad to say goodbye.

Getting ready to go: Protecting the Bear with soft cloth.

Protecting the Bear with layers of soft cotton cloth.

IMG_2921small

Almost ready to go.

Preparing to lift the Bear from its base.

Preparing to lift the Bear from its base.

Continue reading “A Fond Farewell to Xavier Veilhan’s Red Bear” »

Rehousing a Diego Rivera Watercolor

In the summer of 2012, The Phillips Collection received the generous gift of an original Diego Rivera watercolor from Kerry H. Stowell. The watercolor is executed on delicate Japanese paper and depicts a poignant child labor scene. The artwork had become wrinkled in its old matting and frame over time. Whenever a new artwork enters the museum’s collection, the conservator examines its condition. The picture receives treatment when necessary and is rehoused in museum quality materials. In this case, the Rivera picture required removal from an acidic, poor quality backing board and flattening before being hinged into a new mat.

After removing the old paper hinges and flattening the paper, new hinges of Japanese paper are prepared. Since the artwork will be floated in its new mat, the Japanese paper is toned with acrylic paints in order to be less visible. The following photos illustrate eleven steps that were taken to prepare the newly acquired artwork for exhibition at the museum.

Step 1: Hinges are toned to match the original color of the artwork so they will be invisible. Photos: Patricia Favero

Step 1: Hinges are toned to match the original color of the artwork so they will be invisible. Photos: Sylvia Albro

Step 2: Conservation technician, Caroline Hoover, prepares the hinges and wheat starch paste for the new mount

Step 2: Conservation technician, Caroline Hoover, prepares the hinges and wheat starch paste for the new mount

Step 3: Pasting out the Japanese paper hinges with wheat starch paste

Step 3: Pasting out the Japanese paper hinges with wheat starch paste

Continue reading “Rehousing a Diego Rivera Watercolor” »