Tom Learner isn’t afraid of taking a scalpel to multi-million dollar Monets or Picassos. But he also knows his way around equipment that sounds pretty high tech: Scanning Electron Microscopes, Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assays, and Mass Spectrometers. He knows about Neo-Dada, he digs Degas, and he’s pretty handy when it comes to High Performance Liquid Chromatography. He loves science, but he’s doing it all in the name of art. Dr. Learner is a conservation scientist; as the Senior Scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in Los Angeles, he gets to combine his love for both art and science in an amazing way. He says he still gets a feeling of awe when he's standing nose-to-nose with an original van Gogh. The GCI's scientific department has about 25 scientists who feel the same way, with expertise in chemistry, geology, materials science, physics, and engineering. Is there a draft in here? Image of "The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden," before and after restoration. "It’s just fantastic to be in the flesh with these things. In the science lab, you have a little chunk of something in a vial and you can’t tell that it's come from a Picasso or a Pollock painting; it’s just a little dot of color. "But when you’re actually in the studio taking samples right off of the canvas, it's a great excuse to look at an art object when it’s not on a wall, behind a barrier, with a label on it and a guard in front of it." Conservation science uses science and engineering to gain a greater understanding of how best to preserve art over the long-term. It's the perfect fit for people who love science and art, but perceive them to be somewhat at odds. The field consists of both art conservators--kind of like artists who like science--and conservation scientists--kind of like scientists who like art. "I’m in this fantastic position now where I’m able to use my chemistry degree--which I almost gave up to pursue art--but now I can use it with a purpose and an application in a field I find fascinating," says Learner. But conservation science isn’t just for art. "Cultural heritage" consists not only of objects that may have artistic significance, but also historical, scientific, religious, or social significance: things like buildings, books, instruments, or even bread. Bread? More on that later--there's actually a lot of interesting controversy and debate going on in the field of conservation. It’s amazing how much pure science goes into such an artistic field. In order to understand the factors that contribute to the deterioration of works of art, scientists have to design the optimum means for preserving and restoring the works. It's an extremely complex task that requires a comprehensive understanding of material science: how the materials were made, and the way in which these materials react with one another, with environmental conditions, and with conservation treatments. For modern and contemporary art, the really pure science deals with material analysis. Modern art uses all kinds of materials: plastics, paints, and sometimes even dead animals, sausage casing, and processed white bread (but not all together--yet). A lot of these materials have completely unknown formulations. Debra Hess Norris, the Chair of the Art Conservation Department at the University of Delaware, says "you have to be a problem solver. Some of the challenges a conservator faces will never have been seen before, especially in modern and contemporary art."
What is a Conservator & What Do They Do? from Art Conservation on Vimeo. For example, in the case of paints, just because it's new doesn't mean it's easier to understand than paint that Michelangelo or Caravaggio used; you might know that it's an acrylic paint, but there may be 15 other components in it that are a complete mystery. And the manufacturers aren't telling either: they don't like to give away their secret recipes. There are fairly straightforward ways of identifying elements, like X-ray methods, infrared microscopy, and scanning electron microscopes, but it's very hard to detect differences in some of the newer paints using optical analysis. This is where chemical analysis comes in. Dr. Learner explains that you need to get into really 'nitty-gritty' chemistry to do things like distinguish an alkyd polyester from another modified oil paint or from another polyurethane system. That's where things like Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS), Electron Microprobes, and Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assays (ELISA) come it. Commonly, more than one technique is used to investigate an object or material. The Electron Microprobe can determine the chemical composition of very small spots (1 micron) on the painting, down to a limit of 50 parts per million. The GC-MS—widely used in pharmaceutical, biotech, and environmental studies—can identify the components of complex mixtures by vaporizing a sample and sending it through a long, thin column where the sample components are separated before they are sent through a detector. Getty scientists have used GC/MS to analyze everything from wall paintings at the Mogao grottoes in China to modern artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Willem de Kooning. Dr. Tom Learner preparing acrylic paint samples at the lab of the Getty Conservation Institute. Photo: Michael Schilling. Once conservation scientists use these techniques to find out what kinds of materials certain artists were using, the really fun part comes in; if they know what paint a painter was using, and what materials were available at the time he was painting, they can spot fakes. With modern and contemporary art, the science is very complex and can get a bit tricky...and sometimes even controversial. "The essential problem with modern and contemporary art," says Dr. Learner, "is that everything has been used. "There probably isn't a material that hasn’t been used in modern and contemporary art, so how on earth do you research and intimately understand every material? "I think for many years the profession almost stalled in trying to figure out how to prioritize works made with different kinds of materials, and we were sometimes stumped by examples of important but 'different' work." Like works of art by Eva Hesse or Anthony Gormley. Eva Hesse, an artist born in Germany in 1936, was the discussion of much debate at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA). Her use of very non-traditional materials--like latex rubber, which discolors, weakens, and disintegrates over time--presented many unique challenges to the museum when they presented a retrospective of her work. And SFMoMA faced a similar challenge when conserving works of Columbian artist Doris Salcedo,who used natural sausage casing from Columbia to wrap a metal matress frame. The museum had to track down and order the sausage casing from Columbia, and then analyze the product for imperfections so that it would most closely match the original object. So on the one hand, a conservation scientist must be a problem solver. Many of the projects a conservation scientist undertakes may be the first project to ever work with a certain medium or problem. Then there's Anthony Gormley, a Turner Prize-winning artist born in 1950, who used processed white bread to create a work of art the shape of a king-sized bed. His works have been exhibited at the Tate, the Hayward Gallery, and at the Venice Biennale; so clearly they've been well received by the art community, but is it worth it to invest countless hours and resources into preserving bread? "One of the hardest decisions I’m having to make at the moment," says Dr. Learner, "is, do we recommend that a lot of people pour a lot of resources into something like sausage casing or bread, which is never going to last as long as a marble sculpture? "To me, it’s kind of part of the deal that if artists turn to using these sorts of materials with clearly a very limited lifespan, then there’s only so much you can do. "You could probably pour the entire profession's resources into something like deciding what kind of bread he was using and how you would better remove oxygen to slow down the oxidation process, but it might be at the expense of everything else that’s ever been made." But it’s not just modern and contemporary art that present unique problems for conservation scientists. The modern restoration of the Sistine Chapel, which involved removal of glue and soot from the ceiling, caused an uproar in the conservation community. The restoration resulted in a much brighter appearance, and certain conservators were outraged that the cleaning process irreversibly altered the aesthetic of the ceiling. Daniel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, before and after restoration. And so today, there are specific ethical guidelines that conservators must follow, and it's more appropriate to talk about their work in terms of conserving the current state of the piece and preventing future damage, rather then restoring the piece to a previous state. It's about slowing down the deterioration, rather than reversing it. So to answer the question in the title, if Mona Lisa is hiding a set of pearly whites underneath all that Renaissance dirt, we may never get to see them. Rather than restoring her like the Sistine Chapel, conservators will most likely use their expertise to make sure she maintains her current enigmatic smile as long as possible. This is what makes the job of a conservation scientist slightly more difficult. The scientist must "select methods and materials that do not adversely affect cultural property or its future examination, scientific investigation, treatment, or function." Professor Norris explains, "You want everything you've done to be able to be undone in the future. If you're conserving a renaissance painting, not only do you have to find or create a paint that will match the original, but this paint also has to be completely removable." And in order to do this, there is a big original research aspect to the job. But there's also a very supportive community of conservators and conservation scientists out there. This is where the Conservation DistList comes in handy: conservation professionals and students alike converse via the list, asking and answering things like what are non-destructive methods of DNA analysis of historic material? or what's the best method for long term storage of silicone? If you know about uses of ethyl silicate and the consolidation of stone, then help this conservator out! Interested in becoming a conservator or conservation scientist? If you're the "artist who likes science," there are a few programs in the US that specialize in art conservation. Check out the conservation sites for the University of Delaware, Buffalo State, and NYU. Or if those places are too cold for you, you could try the University of Texas at Austin. And if you're the "scientist who likes art," Dr. Learner says to just keep on doing your science thing while keeping an eye out for conservation scientist opportunities at museums and research institutions. Here's a tip from Tom: right now the Getty is offering a postdoc fellowship position specifically on research into Contemporary Art, so if you're interested in conservation science see it here! This page from the Getty Institute offers many more helpful links.