Volume 6, Number 1, Jan. 1984, pp.5-6

Conservation of Contemporary Art Based on the 'Young Talent Award' Exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

by Victoria Blyth-Hill, Billie Milam, and Chris Stavroudis

The following discussion is based on the involvement of the conservation staff at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with conservation treatment and installation of an exhibition entitled "Young Talent Awards: 1963-1983" during the summer of 1983. This exhibition represented twenty years of contemporary art in Los Angeles, though the materials and techniques can be considered typical of West Coast art during the same period. From 1963 to the present, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has awarded a stipend, through juried selection, to 52 artists who are residents of Los Angeles County and under the age of 36. In return each artist gave the museum a representative work of art. The "Young Talent" show is based on these original 52 works of art, plus a representation of each artist's current work.

The more than 100 works of art in the exhibition surveyed two decades and an extremely wide variety of styles, scale and media. This encompassed large scale unstretched surfaces, experimental resins, constructions of found materials, esoteric documentation by performance artists, as well as new interpretations of oil on canvas paintings. This broad range of materials blurred the distinctions between conservation specialties and required the involvement and interaction of the paintings, objects and paper conservation studios.

Months in advance of the exhibition, the conservation department began surveying the "Young Talent" works in our collection. Working with the curators and a list of award winners, the pieces were located in storage and examined, allowing the conservation treatments that were required to be scheduled. Limited storage, the major expansion the museum had just undergone, and the vulnerability of the art due to scale, construction, materials and inherent vice, meant that some pieces required conservation treatment prior to installation.

The presentation by the authors at the annual WAAC meeting in Oakland illustrated some of the problems encountered and the solutions which evolved. Reviewing these treatments on a case by case basis would be redundant.

Conservation treatments in all specialities often necessitated consultation with the artist. While minor treatments were fairly straightforward, more complicated treatments required the active involvement of the artist. The often unique and mysterious materials and techniques in the works rendered them indecipherable without the participation of the artists. The deterioration of some materials in a relatively brief period of time reflected the use of materials whose properties and life expectancy must not have been known by the artist.

Our involvement with this exhibition revealed many shortcomings in our understanding of the artwork from all aspects - curatorial as well as conservation. Condition problems which developed from improper storage, inadequate framing, and basic structural problems, would have been routine decisions had the artist not been available. While the artists' input resolved a lot of questions, it also complicated our preservation instincts. The painting Kuro, by Jon Abbot, was an extreme case. The painting was actively and catastrophically flaking, which was the artist's intent. The artist also insisted that the painting be displayed sitting on the floor, leaning against the gallery wall. This proved to be problematic from the registrar's point of view, not to mention that of the conservation department.

If aesthetics such as these are not properly documented at the time of acquisition, who knows what will happen in twenty or fifty years? Perhaps a conservator will consolidate the small amount of flaking paint left on the canvas and hang the painting on the wall. There often seems to be a conflict between the "artist's original intent" and the stability and safety of the artwork. This dilemma questions the delineation of an artist's concept versus the responsibility of the institution entrusted with the preservation of our cultural heritage. Because of our intensive involvement with this exhibition, the reality of what we have always known was "brought home." Beginning with the next Young Talent Purchase Award, and retracing our steps as much as possible, the conservation department and the museum will require a statement from each artist. The statement will include a detailed explanation of the materials and techniques used in the construction of the artwork. Where necessary, a description of installation techniques and recommendations, as well as photographs of the piece installed, will be required. The conservation department's policy of examining all incoming acquisitions will be strictly applied to cover the Young Talent Award pieces. At the time of examination, storage requirements will be assessed and steps to insure continued proper storage will be taken.

Victoria Blyth-Hill, Billie Milam, Chris Stavroudis
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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