Volume 6, Number 3, Sept. 1984, pp.10-11

Profile: Conservation of Paintings, Ltd

by Denise Domergue

In 1976 I moved to Los Angeles with the intention of starting a private conservation practice. During the three and a half years prior to my move, I had been working as Research Associate at the Laboratory for the Research in Fine Arts and Museology, a regional conservation center at the University of California at Davis. My work took me to Los Angeles on an almost bi-monthly basis. On these trips I undertook only on-site treatments, primarily of modern art, at galleries or artists' studios, occasionally taking more demanding projects back to Davis. When the U.C. laboratory announced its closure in 1976, these trips to LA proved to be a big help in making the transition into private practice a smooth one. I had had the opportunity to assess the wisdom of such a major step. Regular contact with the Los Angeles community had allowed me to gradually build a nuclear clientele in advance of my move. Fortunately I found that the bulk of my training and experience in 19th and 20th century paintings was ideally suited to the needs of a large number of collections and galleries in the area. Also there appeared to be few, if any, private conservators specializing in contemporary art, my primary interest. So I hung out my shingle in LA under the name "Denise Domergue, Conservation of Paintings." In 1980 I incorporated under the current title, "Conservation of Paintings, Ltd."

The Studio

My first studio on Melrose Avenue near Western measured only 800 square feet. It could barely accommodate the large canvases regularly received for treatment. I was there only a few months when an artist friend discovered my present location at Alexandria and Third. I moved into the two adjoining store fronts without a moment's hesitation. This space offered double the area (1,500 sq. ft.), almost double the ceiling height (16 ft.), a parking lot at the rear, and almost 100 percent better light.

The interior was raw so I could easily modify it to suit my needs. I tore down the dividing wall between the two units and removed a window from above the back door to heighten the entrance to 12' thereby improving access for large paintings. TWO stationary easels were bolted side by side with parallel height adjustments so that together they could handle a painting up to 13' high and 20' long. I built cabinets, storage bins, tables and racks for rolls of paper and fabric; and was able to do this all very economically. I installed an 8' x 12' vacuum hot table especially made for me by Bill Maxwell of Nascor (then Convestron Inc.)

The studio is protected by a sonar alarm system and all of the art is fully insured under my fine arts policy when the client's insurance does not cover their property at my location. The studio has been quite adequate until the last year or so when the work load has increased in both volume and dimension. I am currently looking for a larger space.

The Staff

For the first two years I worked alone, reeling in a neighbor or passerby when I needed a hand. Susan Einstein did my condition photography. My first apprentice/assistant was taken on in 1979. Joseph Hammer, a 6' 4" nineteen year old had a commitment to learn conservation and an amazing arm span of 76" from fingertip to fingertip. His talent and his research made a big difference in the studio. He is still my righthand man and condition photographer (replacing Susan.) Since then I have taken on numerous apprentices. The most dedicated have included Eugena Ordonez who went on to graduate from Winterthur and who is currently interning at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. (she will return to Conservation of Paintings, Ltd. in February of 1985); and Mary Hough who has been a part-time apprentice for the last several years supplementing her hands-on experience with chemistry classes in preparation for application to a formal program.

At the moment we are four: myself, Joseph Hammer, Mary Hough and a new apprentice, Lyn Anderson, a candidate for a masters degree in art history.

We often consult with other conservators. Certain sculptural treatments are done in collaboration with JERRY PODANY and Patricia Tuttle, while paper related problems are considered in collaboration with Linda Shaffer.

The Scope of Activities

Conservation of Paintings, Ltd. handles an average of 100-125 works of art per year. Seventy percent of these are modern pieces. The treatments are both major and minor. Most are done in the studio, but some are on-site jobs. We have been known to travel beyond the LA area throughout California and as far as Vancouver, New York and even Paris.

The regular clientele includes the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, the Newport Harbor Art Museum, corporate collections, private collections and local galleries of modern art.

The problems we encounter vary enormously as one would expect with contemporary art, from paintings of all media, sizes and descriptions, to assemblages and certain types of sculpture. We do not do paper conservation per se, but we do handle special cases that require certain kinds of structural support systems relating to oversized works.

We often work in collaboration with living artists designing structural support systems or treating their work according to specific instructions.

We do linings for private conservators upon request.

Consultation for artists and clients are free of charge if they come to the studio.

Once or twice a year we receive a class of students or a group of collectors for an informal lecture at their request.

In contemporary art conservation, much of what is done is uncharted territory and for this reason dialogues with the artists are crucial. Very often a successful treatment can only be achieved by duplicating exactly the materials used by the artist. Their input and participation are essential. Their wishes with respect to their work are often very particular and we must force ourselves to be sensitive to their intentions, sometimes at the expense of conventional approaches to conservation. The unorthodoxy and restraints of contemporary art conservation are always challenging; though on rare occasions we must accept results which are less than satisfying for both the conservator and the artist due to the nature of the piece. With the plethora of unlikely materials used which age in unpredictable ways, we understand the importance of this data and are documenting our observations as well as our exchanges with living artists. We are trying to record as much first hand information as possible, so we can get the record straight while the getting is good.

Denise Domergue, Director
Conservation of Paintings, Ltd.

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