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OTE INTERVIEWS THE ARTWORLD


 
Suzanne Siano
Chief Conservator & Director
Modern Art Conservation

 
Dr. Elin Lake-Ewald Ph.D., ASA, FRICS
President
O'Toole-Ewald Art Associates, Inc.

Suzanne Siano is among the leading painting conservators of this time, with special expertise on the work of Andy Warhol.  Elin Lake-Ewald, who has worked closely the Warhol Estate and Foundation for three decades, speaks to Suzanne concerning her professional expertise as well as the educational and ethical aspects of conservation  and the paintings of Andy Warhol.


 1) YOU AND I RECENTLY ADDENDED AN APAA SEMINAR ON THE WORK OF ANDY WARHOL. AS A LEADING CONSERVATOR OF HIS WORK, IS THERE ANY GENERAL STATEMENT YOU COULD MAKE ABOUT HIS USE OF ARTIST’S MATERIALS? 

Warhol was quite innovative in his choices of materials. Much of what he did once he became an artist of what we consider fine art stemmed from what he had been doing in his commercial work as an illustrator. The materials available for painting, for example, were still mainly oil paints. Warhol instead used tempera, casein, and eventually, acrylics – which are all paints that dried quickly and, in the case of acrylics, could be easily layered without the paints blending if that was the desired effect. He also experimented with non-traditional materials – using diamond dust (ground glass), spray paints, silkscreen inks, and even urine, for example.

2) COULD YOU PINPOINT WHEN YOU BEGAN WORKING ON WARHOL’S PAINTINGS?
 
I was an intern at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) beginning in 1993 while still in graduate school and then full time starting in 1994. I think one of the first Warhols I worked on was MoMA’s Orange Car Crash. It was just a small treatment but exciting for me since I had grown up in NYC and had been aware of Warhol for much of my life. In 2000, I started working with private conservators who were carrying out the bulk of the treatments of Warhol’s works from The Andy Warhol Foundation. Once I started my own practice in 2007, the works from the Foundation were entrusted to me and I have worked on countless paintings – including Elvis, Liz, Flowers, Oxidation, Piss, Myths, Lenin, Debbie Harry, Diamond Dust, Camouflage, Self-portrait, Dollar Signs, Black and White ads, Death and Disasters, Rorschachs, Mona Lisa, portraits, Soup Cans, Brillo and Soup Boxes, and more.
 
3) CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE MOST DIFFICULT RESTORATION ASSIGNMENT YOU HAD IN DEALING WITH WARHOL PAINTINGS?
 
The most difficult are when the metallic paints are damaged. Several works by Warhol were damaged in a flood in his studio. Those works were rolled up and stored for decades. Once desired for exhibition, the damaged metallic paints needed inpainting. Matching metallic paints in all lighting conditions is difficult, particularly when you are adhering to the standards of the conservation profession and using only reversible paints. That means the inpainting or retouching materials differ from the original paint in solubility so that they can be removed at some point should they no longer match or be desired in the future. That different binder, even if the metallic pigment is exactly the same as in the original, can make that paint distinct from certain angles. The lighting and the angle of view become key components in the success of such a difficult treatment.  Another difficult treatment is when a work has sustained very distracting damages such as fading or cracks. The appearance of the work is then very un-Warholian and the decision needs to be made as to whether the work is a total loss or would benefit from interventive (but documented and reversible) restoration. Sometimes nothing can be done but other times a consensus of experts allows a work to be restored to reflect the artist’s intent. This is more easily carried out in a museum collection rather than on a work in the market but it is never a simple straightforward decision and is only taken up when many experts have weighed in.
 
4) YOU MAINTAIN A COLLECTION OF WARHOL RELATED MATERIALS/PAINT SAMPLES IN YOUR STUDIO. COULD YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT THESE AND IT’S USAGE?
 
After Warhol’s death, the Foundation stored many materials that Warhol and his assistants had left behind. This included rolls of primed canvas, many painted with the background colors awaiting the screening phase, cut-offs from works that were cut and/or stretched after screening, test materials as the
artist experimented with paints or other materials like glitter or diamond dust, etc. Once the materials were being dispersed, I was fortunate to get some to create a study collection. We use these materials for color matching, to take impressions of the canvas weave, and to share with colleagues for the study of Warhols in their own collections – such as with MoMA for the treatment of their Gold Marilyn and The Beyeler Foundation for their study and treatment of their portrait of Joseph Beuys. These materials are not only useful in the study and conservation of Warhol’s works but also for other paintings in acrylics as these are original paints from the 60s, 70s, and 80s which have aged and can be studied for cleaning or other conservation treatment.
 
5) AT WHAT POINT IN YOUR CAREER DID YOU FEEL READY TO TAKE ON CONSERVATION OF MAJOR WORKS OF ART? DURING YOUR APPRENTICESHIP? WHILE WORKING FOR ANOTHER CONSERVATOR? WHEN YOU LAUNCHED YOUR OWN BUSINESS?
 
I studied painting conservation at NYU with Dianne Dwyer Modestini. The paintings we treated were important Old Master works from the Kress Collection. Some of the very first works I treated were not study paintings but rather notable works from museums. Then my first internship, which turned into my job for many years, was at MoMA. I treated paintings by many major artists with some of the highlights for me being Hopper’s House by the Railroad, Matisse’s The Gourds, Pollock’s Mask, and Magritte’s Lovers. When I started my own practice, I did not know what works I would be entrusted with to examine and treat. But since I opened my doors, I have been treating important works by major artists from the late 19th century to today. I feel extremely privileged and have grown my practice to accommodate the volume of works we treat and examine for condition. We are now seven painting conservators and five support staff (preparators, registrar, photographer, and business manager). We are fortunate to treat works by many artists including Rothko, Picasso, Pollock, Mitchell, Kelly, Reinhardt, Wesselmann, Albers, van Gogh, Kline, Haring, Basquiat, and, of course, Warhol. We also treat major works by living artists such as Prince, Ruscha, Richter, Ligon, Bradford, Grotjahn, Hockney, Thiebaud, Johns, Stingel, and Kusama.
 
6) WHAT IS THE MOST FUN YOU’VE EVER HAD ON A PROFESSIONAL ASSIGNMENT?
 
Every day for a conservator of Modern and Contemporary can be a day of detective work and problem solving. It makes each workday interesting and often exhilarating! I have many amazing days but a few highlights are examining Van Gogh’s Starry Night out of the glazed frame and helping prepare it for testing and loan, travelling with MoMA’s Jasper Johns Retrospective, conserving paintings and painted sculptures from the Judd House,  carrying out a major treatment in record time in my studio on Florine Stettheimer’s Four Panel Screen for MoMA’s recent re-opening and seeing them on view for the first time in 50 years next to some of her works I had treated during my internship at MoMA, and spending time working with living artists on their material choices and artist’s estates helping maintain legacies. 
 
One of the most satisfying projects was on a large private collection of works damaged in a fire that were considered total losses. The couple that owned the works had deep sentimental attachments to the artworks. We investigated a variety of forward-thinking treatments to help rescue the art and return it to them. One treatment involved working with NASA using atomic oxygen to turn the soot on some of the paintings into a gas so it would just float off the works. It was a successful project and incredibly soul satisfying for all of us who were involved. 
 
7) WHEN DO YOU REMEMBER THINKING YOU WOULD LIKE TO BECOME A CONSERVATOR?
 
I was in college at Barnard studying Art History. The Sistine Chapel was being restored and my professor, James Beck, being a very vocal opponent of the conservation, lectured to us about restoration at length; I met a Columbia University alum who was studying to be an Old Master conservator at NYU and interning in the Metropolitan Museum’s Conservation Department; and I took a course on Connoisseurship with Marian Ainsworth at The Met which focused on technical art history and conservation.

Those three things made me aware of conservation as a profession – and I was suddenly clear on what my professional path would be. I then got my MA in Art History in Florence which allowed me to work with master restorers of Old Master paintings (in a private studio and at the Uffizi), I studied chemistry and organic chemistry, and went on to the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, to get my training in conservation. I expected to continue with Old Masters but once I went to MoMA for my internship, my specialty turned to Modern and Contemporary. I had always had an interest in modern art from an art historical perspective but never thought about it for conservation.

In fact, until I started teaching a course in the treatment of modern paintings at NYU’s Conservation Center in 2006, there was no such course in any of the US programs. Conservation of Modern paintings was the stepchild to Old Masters but as the market has evolved over the past 30 years, that has changed. There is actually a need for more conservators to specialize in modern and contemporary as the skill set differs from that needed to treat more traditional works. Each has its challenges and they are equally important specialties but as the modern sector continues to grow and as very few major sales are made without a condition report by an expert conservator, the need for those trained in modern expands. 
 
8) WHAT QUALIFICATIONS/EDUCATION DOES SOMEONE NEED TO BECOME A PAINTING CONSERVATOR, INCLUDING AND POST COLLEGE?
 
Conservation is a combination of Art History, chemistry, and good color-matching and hand skills. This generally means having a background in all those areas. But different conservators come from these varied areas and fill in what they are missing either in college or before graduate school. If interested in becoming a conservator, it is important to contact the graduate programs and find out what prerequisites you need and to perhaps get some guidance to finding a pre-program internship. Before embarking on what can be a long program, it is good to get a feeling for whether or not this is really the profession for you, so some exposure in a pre-program internship is key.

It takes a lot of patience, fearlessness, self-control, good judgment, understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, and openness to criticism to do the work that we do in an ethical and safe manner that serves the artwork and the artist’s intent. Not everyone’s personality or disposition is up to the task. And once you are in a graduate program, you have many years of internships and fellowships before finding a job. Most conservators start in museum jobs and some, like me, move on to the private sector. This adds in a business ability that is not necessarily a natural fit for all conservators.
 
9) MUST A CONSERVATOR FOCUS ON ONE PARTICULAR ERA AND SPECIALIZE IN THAT PERIOD, SUCH AS THE RENAISSANCE PERIOD OR CONTEMPORARY, OF CAN HE SHE TAKE ON ALL TYPES OF PAINTINGS?
 
Though there are generalists who may feel they can treat any and all materials with expertise, it has been my experience and it is my opinion that the best conservators are those that specialize. Certainly, you should specialize in a particular set of materials – painting, objects, paper, photo, new media, etc. And there will be crossovers – such as painted objects or mixed media works, but collaboration with other specialists is a much better approach than trying to know and do everything yourself. In terms of subspecialties, painting conservation is most often divided up into Old Masters to 19th century and the late 19th century to the present. As a collector, dealer, curator, etc., you will get the most informed and best quality treatments from a specialist and any really good conservator will find you the right conservator for the job at hand rather than try to do everything themselves.
 
10) WHAT ARE THE GREATEST OBSTACLES IN RUNNING A CONSERVATION STUDIO IN MANHATTAN BESIDES FINDING ENOUGH SPACE?
 
One challenge is trying to get around the city to see all the artworks we are asked to examine, particularly during the busiest auction and fair seasons. My team is big but it takes a lot of logistical juggling to be sure we can be at each auction house, fair, gallery, warehouse, office, or private residence to examine works while also getting all the treatment work done in a timely manner in our studio.

We are always trying to streamline and improve our exam process and condition report writing outside the studio as well as dividing up tasks within the studio so that each person is working on what he/she does best. That means having an on-staff photographer to take all our images before and after treatment, preparators to unpack/wrap, move, and unframe/reframe works, a registrar to research and catalogue works coming in and out, a managing director to take care of billing and HR, and a team of program-trained conservators with varied experience and skill sets to come up with the best approaches to each treatment. And I oversee all of that – from reading and editing every condition report and treatment proposal to devising treatments to making sure every treatment is done to the highest standard and in accordance with what we proposed to the client.
 
In terms of space, we currently have a nearly 7000 square foot studio in Chelsea and are in the process of moving to another large space that we are designing and building to custom fit the needs of my ever growing team. The challenge beyond finding a large enough space was finding one with a large freight elevator, great natural light, and high ceilings (to accommodate very large paintings). We also wanted to continue to be in Chelsea where we have been since 2008 so that our clients can easily visit to see their works (and only their works!) and we are close to our gallery clients.

Several other studios have relocated outside of Manhattan, but we were fortunate to find a beautiful new space at the landmark Starrett Lehigh where trucks can come up to our floor in the freight to deliver art!  I have designed the space specifically for art conservation with dedicated areas for secure storage of works in treatment, examination areas, climate control, conservation lighting, and more. We will be in the new location in April 2020 and updates on our relocation can be found on our website www.modernartconservation.com. 
 

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