When we view paintings in a museum, we tend not to think about any conservation efforts that might have been applied to the work. And unless the work is very old or has been mistreated, chances are that not much has been done to it beyond, perhaps, some cleaning. But the reality of outdoor painted sculpture is quite different. Because of the environmental wear-and-tear to which such works are exposed, frequent conservation treatments are required – often involving a full repainting of the sculpture, preceded by a complete removal of all prior coats of paint to ensure proper adhesion of the replacement coating. The works of art that we enjoy outside may have been repainted many times over by the time we see them.
The challenges of conserving works by well-known artists such as Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson include applying a finish consistent with that which was originally applied, remaining true to the original intention of the artist. Nevelson, for example, was known for using a chalky matte-black paint on her assemblage works; the way that particular finish picks up light is a crucial element in the overall visual aesthetic of her work. Any visible gloss on a replacement finish would only highlight the fact that the work had been altered and change its effect on the viewer.
The Storm King Art Center is home to several painted steel works by Nevelson and Calder, as well as sculptures by David Smith, Mark di Suvero and others with painted finishes that require frequent upkeep. The matte paints favored by most of these artists are particularly problematic in that they contain a minimal amount of resin, but a lot of pigment and flattening agents, making the paint more vulnerable to degradation and fading than glossy paints. Conservators at Storm King and other major museums are now working with the Getty Conservation Institute and the Army Research Laboratory to conserve outdoor painted sculptures in a manner consistent with their origins and as long-lasting as possible, using matte paints first developed for use in camouflage situations.
The conservation partnership between major museums and the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) started in the early 2000s, when conservator Abigail Mack, then working with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, called the US Army to see if the museum could use its weatherometer machine, which provides an accelerated simulation of years of environmental degradation caused by UV rays, wind and precipitation. Mack thought that the device would be helpful to test commercially available paint samples that the National Gallery was considering for repainting outdoor sculpture. She was put in touch with Army chemist John Escarsega, who developed camouflage paint for military vehicles and also happened to have an interest in art.
Escarsega offered to help in creating an entirely new paint system for the works at the National Gallery. After Mack left to start a private practice, she continued working on the paints with Escarsega and the Army, along with the Calder Foundation and a paint factory, soon adding the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) into the mix, running a project under its purview that develops new paints and does tests on sculpture, as well as educating conservators about industrial techniques.
The new paints that have been created are more cost-effective and, just as important, more environmentally sound. The GCI and ARL’s newest partner in the paint project is the Storm King Art Center, working on a very specific “Nevelson black” paint. At some point, the paint may even be available commercially.