While maintaining valuable works of art once required simple tools like paint, media have evolved, and so have the materials. Today’s conservators use items like elephant dung and pound cake for restorations.
NEW YORK — If Christian Scheidemann had become a conservator in, say, Michelangelo’s day, his job would have been a whole lot simpler. Fading fresco? Slap up scaffolding, grab some paint and get to it.
But most artists don’t make frescoes anymore. They make works like “Blossom" — Nigerian-British painter Chris Ofili’s sensuous 1997 portrait of a bare-breasted black woman, composed, in part, of elephant dung on canvas. That’s why Scheidemann, proprietor of Contemporary Conservation in midtown Manhattan, found himself in Copenhagen a few years ago, bent over “Blossom" with the material in hand.
Scheidemann had been summoned to Denmark by the piece’s owner, a modern-furniture magnate. (Ofili himself had recommended the conservator; typically, an artist’s gallery makes the referral.) A lump had fallen from Ofili’s painting, compromising its integrity and potentially its value, and the collector didn’t know what to do. But Scheidemann, who had previously restored avant-garde artist Matthew Barney’s pound cakes that had inadvertently become infested by rats, did.
He ordered a new dollop of dung, trimmed it to the proper size and plugged the gap. And where did he acquire it?
“The London Zoo," Scheidemann said matter-of-factly. “Ofili always used dung from a particular group of elephants there, like he was collaborating with them."
Scheidemann and other like-minded specialists basically do the same work as traditional conservators: performing what amounts to cosmetic surgery to extend a work’s life span. The big difference is the unorthodoxy of the materials they’re preserving. To conserve Barney’s pound cakes, for example, Scheidemann baked new ones and then replaced the fats with resin through a process called plastination.
Not every piece of contemporary art requires such profound rehabilitation, although even the most basic maintenance is seldom straightforward. Take Dan Flavin’s minimalist fluorescent-light sculptures.
“No one who buys a Flavin ever thinks about the lights going out," said Steve Morse, conservator at the Dan Flavin Studio in Manhattan. “And then, inevitably, it happens.
“If a collector wants to go down to Just Bulbs, they can," Morse said. “But they’ve been known to put the wrong ones in."
The wiser course is to consult Morse, who has “a huge stockpile of the proper bulbs," including Flavin’s signature colored fluorescents, which are no longer in production.
“We custom-order them from a manufacturer in Connecticut who uses a proprietary phosphor — the colored coating on the inside of the bulb," Morse explained. “There’s really nowhere else to get them."
Collectors pay for the privilege — $65 per bulb in some cases, compared with a 1970s sticker price of $2 or $3 — but no one ever balks.
“We’re talking about a group of people with a strong interest in maintaining the integrity of the art they own," Morse said.