2014-12-5-Watteau L'accord parfait LACMA

A Weight of Evidence: An Interview with Dr. Martin Eidelberg on the Watteau Abecedario

Ruth Osborne
2014-12-5-Watteau L'accord parfait LACMA

Jean-Antoine Watteau, L’accord Parfait, 1719. Courtesy: Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection / Watteau Abecedario.

This past October, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Martin Eidelberg, well-respected Jean-Antoine Watteau scholar, on his recent project, the Watteau Abecedario. He shared with me his insights on the world of art scholarship and publishing, attributions and misattributions, connoisseurship, dealer and auction house mishaps, and art conservation as it has changed the way one is able to study Watteau.


RO: As you know, ArtWatch is an advocate for the voice of art itself. And what’s wonderful about our work is the focus on connoisseurship, especially your current project, the Watteau Abecedario. I want to start off by asking you how your own research developed into the first website you created, Watteau and His Circle. Why did you choose this format to publish your work? Free of charge to users?

ME: The reason I went online, although I am a luddite at heart, is that serious art magazines are fewer in number than before and are deemphasizing older art. Contemporary art is  where the money is. So many of these magazines I previously published in have disappeared. Also, editors want you to use fewer pages and fewer images. They want more in color. When you explain you’re writing about something that doesn’t exist except in an old black and white photograph, they’re not happy. So, I’m now master of my own ship.

RO: How long would you say you’ve been working on your website?

ME: The first website began about four years ago. I originally planned that the Abecedario would be a part of that. But it’s physically too big to be accommodated easily, so I’ve moved it to a separate site. However, the two are interlinked. “Watteau and His Circle” contains essays, whereas the Abecedario is a proper catalogue raisonné focused on object entries.

RO: The sentiment of putting art out there for more people to experience and appreciate is often the reasoning behind works being made to travel around the world for loan exhibitions.  But are they really having that impact? Are people actually learning about a piece that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see? Whereas your work attempts this in a different, more practical way, without being invasive to the condition of the works themselves.

ME: The Abecedario is more universal. A show is only on view for a certain period of time and it only travels to a few cities. Thus it is an experience of limited duration. On the other hand, everybody uses the catalogue that survives. This website is a way in which art gets distributed not only free of charge but more conveniently. You don’t even have to go to a library. You can do your research at home.

RO: You also have a section on contested works. And you compare works of art and cross-reference them. It’s a really extensive project.

ME: Oh, truly enormous. But there are several people who now are helping me. Also, the internet itself is a great tool aiding research and speeding the process. Institutions like the Getty and its Provenance Index have digitized the contents of early sale catalogues and have provided wonderful finding aids. Which means you can just press a few buttons, and find almost every painting by Watteau or Boucher or Fragonard sold between 1680 and 1820. It’s brilliant!  The Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie in The Hague has scanned most pre-1900 sale catalogues. Gallica has made so many older publications available on line. Some are going to say that this has taken the human quality out of the humanities but that’s not true. Once this basic ingathering of documentation has occurred, there then comes the crucial element of interpreting the data.

RO: And even though digitizing research and scholarship is not just looking at images, do you think that it can still help improve the place of connoisseurship in today’s art world?

ME: Of course, because you have access to more and more works of art, and you realize the range of the artist and, conversely, what is not authentic. One sketchily-rendered painting, thought to be a preliminary version of a painting now in the Soane Museum, came up for sale around 1900 in New York and was bought by a woman from Cleveland, ultimately given to the Cleveland Museum. Gradually it was downgraded as curators people tried to find a name to attach to it. The museum sold it, then it knocked about a bit and came up for sale several times. A few years ago, when it came up at auction with an optimistic re-attribution to Watteau and the circumstances of its previous history downplayed, it sold for a good sum of money. Ultimately the buyer went to court to get his money back and won the case. Once you know more about the artist and his aesthetic, that tells you something useful. There is the weight of evidence.

RO: And some of these misattributions may have already been revealed. But do you feel like your work could lead to a greater understanding of a work that maybe has been attributed but is not?

ME: First of all, the oeuvres of Watteau’s followers have been clouded over because works not worthy of their master have been assigned to them in a haphazard manner. It takes time to sift it all out. Wrong attributions have serious repercussions for our understanding of these artists. Impartiality is the key to it all. The dealer, auction house, and collector alike don’t want to hear bad news about paintings being downgraded. That’s one of the major dangers these days for the catalogue raisonné-er. There are cases where people whose works of art were downgraded became belligerent or litigious. Legislation currently pending in the New York State Assembly would prevent people from suing someone who is preparing a scholarly catalogue raisonné just because they disagree with your opinion.

RO: I know that recently there is a greater reluctance of scholars to say anything. And it shouldn’t be that way. It’s only helping the dealer. Ten or twenty years down the road something marketed improperly will still come out as false.

ME: There are important questions surrounding this pending New York legislation. Whom will it protect? Will it protect only an art historian working in New York State? Or will it protect Americans in general? And what about on the international scale?  I don’t think France or Germany will abide by New York State legislation. That needs to be dealt with. What if an ordinary person like myself, who has no financial investment, gets involved in a lawsuit? The expense involved is incredible. Lawyers charge several hundred dollars an hour, and a case can go on for several years. The opposition can wear you down just by the incredible demands they put on your lawyer, whom you are financing. And if you win, what do you win? You don’t win money to pay even for your legal representation. That is a serious issue, because there are a lot of people in the art world who are dealing with large sums of money. When a painting sells for millions of dollars, there is strong motivation for wanting positive attributions.

RO: Do you feel there might be people reluctant for a work like your Abecedario – dedicated to Watteau or any artist – to emerge because paintings it might question the authenticity of paintings in their possession that haven’t been questioned in the past? And then what are they to do about it?

ME: Art history isn’t a pure science. You can’t put a work under a microscope and tell whether it’s this virus or that virus. Even for technicians who look under the microscope at a painting, what they see is debatable and open to interpretation. Traditionally, when a book comes out, there are reviews. And there are famous cases of open exchanges between feuding scholars. So I presume for the Abecedario there will be some people who will complain (although so far the response has been overwhelmingly favorable). Some may object that this painting couldn’t be a Watteau, or what you claim to be a copy is definitely authentic. Actually, I look forward to such exchanges. I hope that the Abecedario will generate a certain amount of feedback. Because it’s on the internet, I can always rectify errors. We only have ten entries up and an additional installment will be out in a few weeks, but some revisions to the first ten are already planned.

RO: I think that shows you care for the works themselves. And you understand it can kind of be an organic thing. And there has to be discussion.

ME: No person can ever find all the information. Sometimes the key is somewhere else where you wouldn’t have even looked. Or worse, where you’ve looked but forgotten you saw it.

RO: That’s a wonderful way to look at your own work. It’s not putting this pressure on.

ME: I don’t write ex cathedra.

RO: I think that there can be a real danger to not approaching art that way. And this approach makes the work more exciting, and it places the scholar in a more humble position.

ME: Humble and liberating.  Because you can advance a theory, then retract it, and start all over again.

RO: But in the interest of collectors wanting to know “yes or no,” it can be extremely difficult for them to accept that opinions can change.

ME: Works of art that they bought with one attribution can prove to be not as good as originally claimed. Or they can turn out to be much better. It’s not all bad news. One of Watteau’s paintings came up for sale recently. The auction house was on the fence as to whether it was the original version or just a copy, especially since another version was in a public collection. After the sale dendrochronologist tested it on behalf of the new owner and the panel proved to be wood from a tree felled around 1708, perfect for an early Watteau. Also, although the new panel was evidently cut down, more of the original was intact than had been thought. Not least of all, a judicious cleaning of the panel brought back the original surface. So, all of that was good news.

 Another instance revolves around a portrait of Watteau posed in a garden at his easel, standing next to his friend and dealer, Jean de Jullienne, who is playing the cello. It was argued in the 1920s that Julienne had an engraver make up this double portrait for an engraving and the overall composition wasn’t by Watteau. But drawings for the two figures exist and help substantiate the attribution. I found documentation that the painting had been cut down not long after Watteau’s death, which helps explain why it couldn’t be traced in later collections. Recently the whole composition showed up on the Paris market, and the auctioneer and the expert were convinced this was the original Watteau. I said, “look at the surface, it’s not an original Watteau surface.” And they said, “ it suffered.” I pointed out that that the composition had been cut down into two or more parts by c. 1760. Therefore the painting being offered couldn’t be the original. You can’t resurrect it whole from the grave. But they went ahead and sold it as a Watteau. I think that many people agree it isn’t the original version but there are still some, like the buyer, who don’t want to hear that.

RO: But in this instance, you were able to freely give your scholarly opinion.

ME: I was able to through connoisseurship and documentation, but that doesn’t come along all the time. Sometimes it’s just a matter of connoisseurship. It would be very nice if there were documentation for every case. But why think you’re going to find something no one else has found? There are so many cases where you know of records being destroyed, even by the artist themselves. Records of commercial firms are often lost or destroyed. So, what are you going to do? We have to use the little factual data that has survived as skillfully as possible and weave around that our narrative of what we think actually happened.

RO: And just admit what you don’t know for sure.

ME: Exactly. Moreover, to pursue new archival research is extremely expensive. This is why early art historians, particularly many of the major ones, were personally wealthy or had support from wealthy patrons.

RO: Throughout history, it’s always the importance of these relationships between benefactors or, now, corporations, and scholars that allow things to be done.

ME: Yes, but it’s very important that it all remain impartial. For example, when Bernard Berenson worked for certain clients it muddied the waters. If you’re working for someone who has a vested interest, it may well color your research. One must be as innocent and beyond reproach as Caesar’s wife.

RO: But I think that the digitization of collections and archives can change what people are able to do and how they can seek out documentation. You don’t have to travel and see things, you don’t have to know the right people, you just know that it’s out there.

ME: There are indeed new electronic resources that are free and accessible online. It’s sort of armchair scholarship, which is great because formerly travel was an expensive part of being an art historian. As often is the case, we come back again to issues of money.  

 Now you didn’t ask me one important question, which is why my catalogue is called an Abecedario.

RO: No, I didn’t ask you that.

ME: “Abecedario” was a title used very often in the eighteenth-century for literary works that were arranged alphabetically: A, B, C, D, etc. Most catalogues raisonnés are arranged chronologically or thematically. Watteau’s oeuvre proves difficult to arrange either of those ways. He painted for little more than ten 10 years. He never signed, much less dated, a painting. Except for three or four of his works, we don’t have really fixed dates. If you look at art historians’ accounts of Watteau’s chronology, they are all over the map. Some paintings that they claim were the earliest, turn out to be the latest, and vice versa. Ultimately we’re splitting fine hairs for a decade-long career. I don’t think the dates are particularly illuminating when they are a specific year. What do you do with a painting that was partially executed one year and finished several years later? So I gave up on the idea of chronology, which I recognize some colleagues will not like. Arranging Watteau’s works thematically is equally difficult, especially since fêtes galantes don’t really have subjects. An alphabetical listing by title is not without issues, but hopefully it will prove to be efficient.

RO: The benefits of having this kind of research online, I hope, would inspire some institution to begin supporting efforts like yours.

ME: I am very concerned about where the research will be located in the future. Will there be a site fifty or a hundred years from now that will host the Abecedario?

RO: Perhaps it’s up to the owner who care about what will happen to it in the future. I just wonder if there are collectors nowadays that think about that.

ME: Certainly many collectors spend their idle moments reading monographs and looking through catalogues to learn about the artists and to see what’s around. They’re generally very interested in learning about other examples of the artist’s work. I’ve met lots of interesting collectors, and there is a reciprocal benefit because they often get information.

RO: Information that is useful if not simply to understand the artist better, then that will enable them to collect more knowledgeably. 

ME: With collecting Watteau, there are important considerations. Not only subject and style, but condition. Frankly, how much is by the restorer? That’s a major issue. Watteau was a very bad technician, especially in the early part of his career. Some paintings are total disasters. So how much of the original Watteau are you looking at?

RO: How much would you be willing to admit isn’t original?

ME: I try to be as exact as possible, although it is often not easy to tell from just an examination of the surface. There’s a very interesting painting in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. In the nineteenth-century they transferred it from panel to canvas. Then it needed a little retouching here and there. But, in fact, the restorer really re-painted much of the work. The two figures and the trees that dominate the left side of the painting aren’t by Watteau. The restorer apparently didn’t like Watteau’s asymmetrical composition and totally changed it.

RO: But does the restorer document this?

ME: Not in the nineteenth-century and not for much of the twentieth century. Even if you document it today, where will the restorer’s records be tomorrow? A painting in Lille that I’d never seen in person was restored a half century ago in the Louvre laboratory for conservation. While cleaning and restoring it, they decided that the Watteau figures in the landscape were not original, especially because they x-rayed it and could see other figures beneath. So, they removed the Watteau figures to reveal the original toga-clad figures below. But when the solvent went down the drain, it took Watteau’s portion of the painting. It’s gone. As far as I know, they never documented the process. They never photographed the pre-restored state of the painting in color.

RO: And I’m assuming you asked directly what happened? You don’t think that they had records that they didn’t show you?

ME: I don’t know. I was just told that they weren’t any records or color photos.

RO: And you never saw an image of the painting before this?

ME: I have a black-and-white photograph of the painting with the original Watteau figures. However, a black and white image of a dark painting isn’t really fulfilling. Where do private restorers’ records go? I know of independent restorers who have retired or will one day retire. Where will those records be stored? There’s no depository for them.

RO: That can make people forget about how much a painting can change. And you don’t think about it just coming off the street, walking into a museum and seeing a work. I didn’t think about that until I was an undergraduate, then things drastically changed.

ME: Right, until you’re trained to know what to look for.

RO: So you’re not really learning, when you’re looking, until you’re trained to look.

ME: Sometimes the restorations look better than the original work, because the restorers are very well-trained in painting.

RO: Were there any restorers who stood out who didn’t actually publish or document their restoration work?

ME: No particular cases. One restorer said, “this picture was a dream to work on, because it hadn’t been touched since the eighteenth century.” She said that all she had to do was remove the varnish. Everything underneath was intact. That’s what one would like to hear. I know of another painting where, more or less the same thing was said. Except they also admitted that the restorer reinforced certain lines around the faces and in the drapery. That’s not the kiss of death, but it warns you that there’s been a little finagling. But I don’t know where those official records are. Sometimes you can tell by looking at the photographs that were taken in 1920, 1950, 1980, and today. You can see slight changes, you have intimations of what occurred. The facial features weren’t as sharp before. The trees are much more defined than they used to be.

RO: But again unless you know what to look for, or unless you are exposed to knowledge of his work. Even just knowing Watteau’s tendencies to paint with less-than-stable materials helps inform me to look at his work.

ME: There’s a painting that’s been surrounded by controversy; it’s been up for sale for a while. X-rays were taken. Conservation was done, portions were cleaned, and some important revelations were brought to light. But I still wonder if several principle figures are actually in a perfect, original condition as purported. The conservation report can disguise certain aspects under terms like “the area has been stabilized.”

RO: But then what happens when conservation reports differ?

ME: Interpretations of data are always an issue. A half century ago when Watteau’s signboard for Gersaint was studied in the Louvre laboratory, they found that Watteau had painted part of a cart in the street at one side. Recently the museum in Berlin carefully analyzed all their Watteau and Watteau-related paintings and presented them at a symposium that I attended. I asked why they didn’t mention the cart and they replied that there never was one. I said “but it was in the x-rays.” They said, “it wasn’t there.” How you read x-rays, you know, is very tricky. Some people see objects in the shadows. Others don’t. It is all open to interpretation.

RO: But then who becomes the person to declare “this is true, this is not”?

ME: Who’s in charge of the lab when the conservation is being done? The person who prepares the report. Who’s the art historian who’s going to declare what is and what isn’t authentic? The person who’s in charge of the publication or the website. Of course, other people can agree or not. That’s why it’s not a science. But even in the sciences, you wonder who is in charge and how these decisions are made. Often they come back and correct their opinions in later years or rerun the tests differently.

RO: Which is why it’s so interesting to hear your views on the point of scholarship, that it’s a discussion.

ME: It’s growing, it’s evolving, it’s organic, evolutionary. It’s an exciting challenge.

RO: And it’s something that you don’t go into to find yes or no answers.

ME: Or you try to, with the understanding that today’s “yes” might be tomorrow’s “no.”

RO: I feel like that should be in the fine print.

ME: Or the top banner! Things do change. When I was teaching the history of art, I had certain favorite Rembrandt paintings, until the Rembrandt Committee went around and declared all my favorite Rembrandts to not be by Rembrandt. What’s a fellow to do! Sometimes their negative opinions have been reversed. So it is a kind of fluctuating system. Art history is an accumulation of knowledge and opinion. The great thing for an art historian is that longevity helps. The longer you study, the more you have seen, the more you understand the field. You become a richer person from all that.

RO: Well, I didn’t expect you to inspire me in my own work today, but I feel like you have. Thank you, it’s been wonderful to talk with you.

ME: My pleasure.

2014-09-11 - conservation painting

Conversing with Conservators

Angelea Selleck

While I was a graduate student I had the opportunity to interview two conservators for a research project. After reading extensively about cases of botched restorations, I felt it was important to get the opinion of professionals in this field in order to gain a deeper insight into how such atrocities can occur and how it is viewed in the conservation community.

It was clear that the conservators were aware of these issues and the mentioning of botched restorations is a sensitive topic. However, I was assured they strictly adhere to and respect the code of ethics and such cases are few and far between. Below, are accounts of my interactions with two conservators.


I spoke with a Swiss conservator who works at a very prestigious institution in Zürich. This conservator was very open and welcoming of questions, even if they were rather probing. Her methodology and practice was very conservative and had an approach of “less is more” when it came to cleaning paintings. While this is the approach that the majority of conservators apply, there are unfortunately ones who do not adhere to this method. Some of the most devastating cases are Vermeer’s painting at the National Gallery or the restoration of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. In-painting is where the majority of restorations can go wrong. However, for the Swiss conservator, in-painting is considered to be a technique of the past and resorted to only on a few occasions. However, she did have clients that requested objects in the painting to be painted a different color or elimination of a tree or shadow because the owner believed it would look better. With these clients, the conservator laughed and said she would never do any sort of thing but mentioned that there are other conservators who would. Indeed there are conservators who would restore a painting to the tastes of the client instead of preserving the integrity of the work. When this happens, the conservator is taking his or her own artistic license with the original work. In these unfortunate scenarios, the conservator’s code of ethics is not being adhered to. Are conservators under any authority that reprimands when one’s responsibility first and foremost to the work of art is tossed out the window?


Conservators either work for institutions (i.e. museums and galleries) or operate for private clients. The private conservator I interviewed was quick to emphasize that there her and her colleagues all strictly abide by the conservator’s code of ethics and place the interests of the work before those of the client. In addition to an interview, she also showed their lab, which was a large warehouse-like appendage to their offices, as well as some of the projects that she and her colleagues were working on. They were all curious and welcoming to a foreigner and answered any questions I had. Their projects ranged from a small faded portrait on wood to a large contemporary piece that needed some cleaning after being outside in the Swiss winter. My experience at this institution was positive and I did not get a sense that they felt I was intruding or looking for a scandal. They were aware of the bad publicity that conservators sometimes receive but viewed malpractice as the exception and not the rule. However, if botched restorations are isolated incidents, how do they happen to well-known works of art in major institutions around the world?


I also reached out to an American conservator who works for a museum in the United States. He knew very well the work of Art Watch and the reputation of James Beck and Michael Daley. After sending him a section of my dissertation, which focused on art restoration and advocated for greater reform, I did not hear back from him. It is unclear whether my association with ArtWatch caused him to not get back in contact with me or perhaps was too busy to reply.  In any case it is a shame. He is an accomplished conservator who would have had a lot of insight. It was a real surprise that he never replied back after showing genuine interest in my work.
Over the years, art conservation has made an effort to become a more serious and credible institution with strict codes of ethics and dedicated to preserving our world’s greatest works of art. However, mistakes and poor judgement can still transpire. Unfortunately, as we have discovered over the past 20 years, some conservators are reluctant to disclose any unfortunate mishaps on the job, which only conceals the problem for future caretakers and could result in greater damage to the work. When this happens it is important for conservators to be as transparent as possible in order to prevent further cases of destruction to our artistic heritage. And it seems they are making steps in the right direction.

2013-01-06 - ancient greek ceramics

Where One Hand Ends and the Other Begins: Museum Ethics and the Restoration of Ancient Ceramics


Einav Zamir

2013-01-06 - ancient greek ceramics

In February of last year, Kaikodo gallery, a small but well-known commercial venue for Asian art, provided an informational tour of their location to students from the Bard Graduate Center. In what would become a pivotal moment in my development as an art historian, the curator, by way of introduction, held up a small, ancient ceramic cup and proudly announced that its flawless surface was an illusion, and that the object had actually been found “in a million pieces.”

It became immediately obvious that the vessel had been given a thick, unnatural varnish, so as to make it more attractive to collectors. At this point, there was a brief, but discernible shift among my classmates. We remained stone-faced, but glances were exchanged between each of us – it was clear that no one felt comfortable with this restoration.

What I’ve learned since then is that this practice is not at all uncommon, and what’s more, is that it happens in museums and cultural institutions just as often as commercial galleries. In conserving ancient ceramics, viewer appreciation is often considered over viewer education. Of course, these restorations typically begin with the best of intentions. Filling gaps during a reconstruction is, at its core, essential for the long-term structural stability of a piece, as well for protecting the exposed edges of the original fragments from further deterioration, bearing in mind that any added material should always be reversible. However, when a conservator begins to conceal cracks, chips, and break lines for the sake of a smooth finish, a restoration suddenly becomes an aesthetic endeavor, rather than a necessity. Furthermore, by restoring the surface to a pre-break appearance, the conservator is left with two options: to stop there, leaving much of the decorative program fragmented, or to proceed with refilling the missing parts and perpetuate the illusion that the vessel is whole and unchanged from its original state. This is an entirely auxiliary process, as it has absolutely no bearing on the structural integrity or physical decay of the object.

2013-01-06 - ancient ceramics conservationAs one might expect, there are various degrees of re-painting. With ancient Greek objects, the more honest, yet still unobtrusive method avoids using black slip to mimic original decoration, so that the viewer has both a means by which to distinguish original from added components, as well a sense of how the original figures or motifs may have appeared in antiquity. This approach tends to be favored by modern restoration efforts, though heavy refilling is still in practice. In both cases, one must consider that the lines which make up the decoration, by the very nature of their execution, are entirely unique and distinct. In other words, no two marks, even on the same vessel, are the same. Therefore, the restorer cannot possibly “re-do” what was done by the craftsman, but rather must extrapolate the character and quality of the decoration, an entirely subjective endeavor. In doing so, the painter’s work is altered and subverted by the hand of the conservator. One cannot know for certain how a form would have extended into a now missing portion of a vessel. Any guesses are not based on ascertainable data.

What are not immediately apparent in this discussion are the very simple alternatives that exist. An informative label, reconstructive drawing, or digital rendering might accompany an object to fill in the conceptual gaps in a decoration. What’s more, labels should indicate which objects have been heavily restored, and museum websites should point out when repainting has occurred. The British Museum site is better than most in this regard, while the Metropolitan Museum site provides little to nothing in terms of conservation history.

2013-01-06 - Jeffrey Maish Getty Musuem conservator Attic black figure kylix

J. Paul Getty Museum associate conservator Jeffrey Maish examining an Attic black-figure kylix under a binocular stereo-microscope. Courtesy: National Science Foundation.

If the restoration or accompanying labels do not make it immediately obvious which areas of the decoration are new, it is not only dishonest, but can also lead to serious errors in interpretation. Fledgling students of art history are often charged with writing interpretive material on vessels as an exercise in formalist analysis. In these assignments, the student is expected to establish opinions based on line-quality, pattern, movement, and form. If a work has been heavily repainted, then the student is likely considering the conservator’s hand equally to that of the ancient craftsman. The exercise is then entirely wasted, and any understanding of the artist’s intent has been lost.

Finally, by not providing this information, museums appear to have little trust in the intelligence and intentions of their patrons. Much like the curator at Kaikodo, who seemed proud of the heavy handed restoration of her ceramic vessel, museums attempt to sell us their collections, rather than create opportunities for honest and unhindered discovery.

2012-12-21 - MoMA Conservation Lab

Restoring Pollock: Making Modern New at MoMA and SAM

Einav Zamir
2012-12-21 - Jackson Pollock One Number 31 1950 Echo MoMA Conservation Lab

“One: Number 31, 1950” and “Echo” in the MoMA conservation lab. Courtesy: MoMA.

In the wake of extensive media coverage concerning a restoration purposed by the Seattle Art Museum of Jackson Pollock’s Sea Change, the 1947 groundbreaking work exploring the drip technique that would later define his career, it was brought to our attention that the Museum of Modern Art in New York is currently restoring their One: Number 31, 1950, a seminal piece in the museum’s collection.

Unlike SAM’s project, the cleaning has not received much mention in media outlets beyond the steady posts James Coddington, Chief Conservator, and his team have produced for MoMA’s blog, Inside/Out. The disparity of coverage between these two parallel events may have more to do with funding than the overall importance of the objects in question. While the Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project – an international program that offers grants to collections in order to restore works that are deemed in “danger of degeneration,” – is funding the project in Seattle, the backing for MoMA’s One: Number 31 is strictly an in-house, MOMA enterprise. Whether or not Sea Change is truly in danger of degeneration might be considered questionable – with the piece perhaps having been chosen as much for its high profile as its overall state of preservation. Certainly, no clear evidence of imminent disintegration has been produced. Whichever, the result of the grant will likely be two-fold. On the one hand, any alterations made to Sea Change will be highly publicized, and therefore open to scrutiny. On the other hand, there may be a greater temptation during treatment to produce a dramatic headline-worthy, high funds-justifying result, in which case a more drastic cleaning may follow.

2012-12-21 - James Coddington MoMA Jackson Pollock Number One

James Coddington beginning conservation work on “One: Number 31, 1950”. Courtesy: NYTimes.

Conversely, MoMA’s project results from their 1998 Pollock retrospective, which was the first time One: Number 31 was displayed alongside an extensive body of material housed in various collections. The exercise showed that these paintings were in varying states of preservation. In particular, Pollock’s Echo: Number 25, 1951, according to Coddington, had yellowed considerably from its original state, and was in need of cleaning. However, what makes the restorations of Sea Change and One: Number 31 worth studying, beyond the various differences in approach that are bound to appear in the coming months, is the issue of re-touching. Concerning Sea Change, Art Daily reports that “the conservation treatment focuses on removing the later restoration in order to recover a surface that more closely reflects Pollock’s original technique and intent.” In doing so, the team from Seattle plans to strip the varnish applied by a conservator in 1970. Similarly, the MoMA conservation team determined that several areas of One: Number 31 contained traces of compositionally dissimilar paint, added at a later point to cover cracks that had appeared in the surface. One: Number 31 was evidently retouched sometime in the mid-60s, prior to its arrival at MoMA in 1968. Whether these areas should be removed at all is debatable. If we are to assume that the retouching had been carried out during a previous restoration, then their removal could be seen as a way by which Coddington can undo the mistakes of former practitioners. However, if these re-touchings were done by some other party, either connected to Pollock himself or one of the previous owners, then we must consider whether or not these additions have become part of the history of the piece itself, and that in removing them, we lose something of this history.

2012-12-21 - Jennifer Hickey conservator Jackson Pollack One MoMA Conservation Lab

Jennifer Hickey, Project Assistant Conservator, examining “One: Number 31, 1950”. Courtesy: MoMA.

In short, as these areas are removed and the restorations of One: Number 31 and Sea Change continue, we are forced to take another look at established classics. Perhaps this second look will bring us closer to Pollock’s original vision, though we may possibly find ourselves further away from what he and his work have come to be.

For more information regarding MoMA’s restoration process, please visit: