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Intervene in the normal aging process? In my case? There is not much holy about a ball of yarn. Throw it out. Get a new one. I get a lot of resistance when I display this attitude.
- Fred Sandblack
The consideration of contemporary artists' intents for their work and the effect of time on those intents is a part of daily experience within a museum environment. The post-1945 period has seen not only an explosive growth in the development of new art materials and the adaptive use of non-art materials, but also radical changes in the idea of what art can be. Though many works from 1945 to the present pose new conservation questions, the problem of determining artists' intents for works not even fifty years old may not seem too difficult. When the artists are living, it is common sense just to ask them. If they have died there may be others still living who worked with them or who are well acquainted with the artists' intents. There are factors, however, that may conflict with or outweigh this direct approach regarding intent. Commodification is a reality; a purchase may seem bad judgment, for instance, if a piece is intended to disintegrate in a short time. Value is also affected by having the work represented in important exhibitions, and there are also the practical issues involved with loans and with moving fragile works of art back and forth across the planet. The object's worth as an educational resource may lend weight to preservation of the work within an art historical framework, that is, keeping the signs of the object's history, rather than attempting to preserve its original condition. Then there may be the sheer difficulty of carrying out the artist's intent.
Central to the issue of intent is where to turn for authority. Once this is acknowledged, the underlying constructs become apparent, not all of which would regard the artist's intent as fundamental. Key to this issue of authority is the question of how one defines art or understands it to be constituted. The modernist view, for instance, considers the object in isolation, so the authority rests with the viewer. The art historical view seeks to keep the object always located in the particular moment of its conception, comparing it with other works by the same artist, thus acknowledging that authority rests in the overall body of work. However, the wider boundary of "art" within which the work exists necessitates reflective concern for the authority of the artist's intent. The object can reveal this intent if, paradoxically, the intent has been understood and acted upon. This action is a totality, including installation and conservation. How one would work with this location of authority in the artist's intent can be seen in the following examples.
Duane Hanson's Sunbather, 1971, a polyester sculpture painted with oil paint and dressed in real clothing, depicts an obese woman sleeping in a flimsy-looking lounge chain Shoes kicked off, snacks and magazines beside her, she appears to be baking in the sun. Sunbather is a characterized stereotype that embodies both the particular and the universal: the oblivious individual and the bloated embodiment of a mindless consumer culture. During Sunbather's almost twenty years in a museum collection, some subtle and not-so-subtle "interpretive" changes have occurred: various accessories deteriorated or were stolen and replaced; being on view under light had aged parts of the piece; and to create a greater visual boundary, Sunbather was moved from its position directly on the floor and placed on a pedestal [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].
Despite the pedestal, Sunbather was touched frequently by a public fascinated by its realism. A broken strap of Sunbather's bathing suit was the catalyst to assess the overall conservation needs of the piece. The figure was dirty. The suit was disintegrating: the top part was sagging, revealing unfinished areas of the body; it was faded and graying, far from the original navy blue and red polka-dotted fabric colors that could still be seen in areas not exposed to light. The snack bags looked more like litter than enticing junk food.
Sunbather's object file contains an undated document titled "Polyester and Resin Sculptures by Duane Hanson: Technical Information for Maintenance and Restoration Purposes," which gives Hanson's descriptions of how the works of various periods were made and his instructions for their maintenance. About the clothing Hanson says to "fluff up the garments and adjust trousers, blouses, etc., to drape naturally. Smooth out unwanted wrinkles, but some wrinkles in clothing look good. In addition, the pieces MUST be kept out of bright sunlight to prevent fading of clothes and painted surface." Sunbather spent many years of its early life in a private collection where Hanson's recommendations were unknown or unheeded. Soon after the piece entered the museum in 1978, questions arose about its care, indicated by Hanson's reply to a staff member's letter:
l just received your letter. Those bathing caps seem to disintegrate within six months and must be replaced. I've never found any that will last very long - so you can take care of that yourself. The bathing suit has faded too - apparently the collector had the sculpture too near a window. I considered replacing it while it was on view at the Whitney but decided I like the fading color. It looks more used that way. If it gets too bad - you can replace it. I don't object to any other adjustments if it benefits the sculpture by contributing to a better - fresher - illusionism - so that paper & magazines should be replaced periodically. If any old non-faded papers & magazines from 1971 can be obtained that would be ideal.
Have fun, Duane(1)
The bathing suit was now in such poor condition that it needed to be replaced, and Hanson was consulted. He was interested in the conservation of the work and reiterated his view that an exact replication of its original look was not essential, saying that the suit could be "anything that's kind of foolish looking."(2)
Locating fabric that would reflect the period in which Sunbather was made was challenging, and a subsequent decision to replicate it exactly proved even more so. Seemingly standard dotted Swiss fabric has changed more dramatically over the past twenty years than one might think, in color and size and in the configuration of dots. A match was finally achieved by using fabric from a vintage dress.
While the figure was being cleaned, a pattern and new bathing suit were made. The search for appropriate circa-1971 snack bags, flip-flops, sunglasses, and magazines began, along with recurring thoughts about Hanson's stress on the freshest possible illusion, and his disinterest in reproducing the object's original state. Hanson's intention for Sunbather clearly was not bound to a particular bathing suit or to specific accessories. What was unalterable was that a certain type of clothing and accessories be used to convey someone in a certain social position. The underlying notion that there will always be this type of person was not bound by a need to replicate the original clothing or even to keep the work fully fixed in the original period. The intention was for all elements to work together to create a particular social commentary.
The new bathing suit closely resembled the "original" one before it had drastically faded from overexposure to light. New bathing caps were imported from Florida, and sunglasses from the early 1970s were …