How do you solve a problem like a Banksy with its legs cut off? And other challenges of modern art restoration.
Never thought about modern art needing repair, but this article from the London Guardian is fascinating in describing all the crazy and unfortunate events that can occur in the life of a non-traditional piece of art.
In a large, light-filled studio in east London, conservator Julia Nagle and I are bent over a canvas. The picture, by the minimalist Italian artist Turi Simeti, is utterly and hypnotically black, a few feet wide; in the centre of the frame, the surface swells gently, as if a creature from another dimension is attempting to break through.
Nagle’s little finger is hovering over the top right of the image. Squinting, I can just about make out what she’s pointing at: a light scuffing of the surface. “See?” she says triumphantly. “Once you’ve seen it, you can’t look at anything else.”
This room is the art-world equivalent of a casualty ward. Against one wall is a geometric painting in purple and green, here for assessment. On a workbench lies the limb of a frame, awaiting urgent surgery. Nearby, an early-20th-century oil sits convalescing on an easel, its canvas freshly restretched, about to be packed off to a museum in Australia. Adding to the medical atmosphere are cupboards of frightening-looking equipment and a large microscope. On the glass surface in front of us a huge work on paper sits face down. I decide not to ask what appalling accident has befallen that.
When we think of art restoration, we think of conservators x-raying Rembrandts or dabbing away at Michelangelos with distilled water. But there is another side to the business: restoring art that’s new. The huge surge of interest in work by living artists – the booming art fairs and auctions, the De Koonings and Koonses selling for millions – has been well reported. But it has created a problem that is only just beginning to be understood: how do you look after this stuff long-term? And how do you fix it when things go wrong?
Nagle, one of Britain’s leading independent specialists in contemporary restoration, has offered to let me into the shadowy secrets of her trade. If you’ve put a dent in your Robert Rauschenberg or the dog has chewed your Picasso, hers is the number you want in your phone.
The first challenge when working with new art, Nagle readily admits, is deciding what you’re actually restoring. Whereas conservators who operate on traditional paintings and sculpture are generally manipulating materials that have been around for hundreds of years – oil paint, canvas, gilded wood – contemporary specialists face almost limitless calls on their ingenuity. A work might be in neon, or use video, or cigarette ash, or helium balloons. Images might be rendered on metal, sand, Perspex or pornographic magazines. “Mainly it’s problem-solving,” Nagle says cheerfully. “You spend a lot of time just working stuff out. It’s really intellectually stimulating. We call on a lot of different specialisms and expertise, but sometimes you’re making it up as you go along.”
It is one of the perversities of art history that whereas, say, Piero della Francesca or Roger van der Weyden made work that aspired to eternity, so much recent art, in theory more technologically sophisticated, has a far briefer lifespan. Nagle reaches into a filing cabinet and slides out a sheaf of images of a work by Banksy, a stencil of a riot policeman with an acid-bright yellow smiley face. The copper, spray-painted on cardboard, was a previous patient. “He was in a bad way: one of his feet had been damaged and instead of getting it fixed, the owner had decided to cut him off at the knees.”
Although the work was only a few years old, Nagle and her team treated it with the care others might reserve for a silverpoint by Holbein: photographing and documenting the damage, calling in a paper conservator, speaking to the paint manufacturer to confirm its chemical components. After numerous dry runs in the alley outside, Banksy’s policeman was awarded replacement legs, surgically reattached to the existing corrugated cardboard with thin wooden dowels. The additions were meticulously disguised.
Did it make much difference, I ask. She looks at me wryly. “With the legs, it was worth about £100,000; £40,000 without.” The owner was embarrassed? “A little bit, yes.”