Volume 7, Number 2, May 1985, pp.3-11
Sidney Felson, Co-Owner, Gemini G.E.L, Los Angeles
Peter Goulds, Gallery Owner and Director, L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice, California
Denise Domergue, President, Conservation of Paintings, Ltd., Los Angeles
Paula Kendall, Print Department, Sotheby Parke Bernet, Los Angeles
Victoria Blyth Hill, Senior Paper Conservator, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
Sam Francis, Artist, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Paris, Bern
Interviews conducted by:
Linda Shaffer, Paper Conservator
The intent of this article is to bring the special handling problems of large contemporary works of art on paper into focus. It is hoped that the topics considered in this article will generate an ongoing analysis, dialogue and debate among conservators because these pieces will be coming into museum labs and private studios with increasing frequency as time goes on.
LS: Tell me a little about Gemini in its early days. How did the impetus to produce oversized prints originate?
SF: Gemini is a print house which publishes lithographs, etchings, screenprints and woodcuts by contemporary American artists. It also produces editions of sculpture. Gemini started in 1966 and at that time 22 x 30" was pretty much the standard size for graphic work. The artists we began working with were Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein and Sam Francis. At first the idea of coming into a print shop and working with a constricted format wasn't very appealing because these artists were used to working with large scale paintings and drawings in their studios.
But Rauschenberg came in to work on a series of lithographs called Seven Studies and he was the first one to push the scale of prints. Several images were 40 to 50 inches. He then decided to make what we believe was the largest hand printed litho at that time. It measured 6' x 36" and was printed on one continuous sheet. It was a self-portrait called Booster. Bob had a doctor x-ray his body head to toe to make a perfect study of the 'inner man.' Gemini did not have either a 6' press or a stone large enough to accommodate this print...So what we did was to split the image onto two different stones. One was inked, printed and moved off the press and then the second stone was put on.
This project led us to the idea of handling prints this size or larger on a regular basis and the entire facility at Gemini was reworked. We ordered a new press with a 7' x 40" bed and we searched for larger stones. We found some stones intact which measured up to 54" and we did buy some of these. However in order to produce a 7' image, we had to laminate them together and this solution really didn't work very well. The joining would erode under pressure and we could only get a few good impressions before having to stop to refill the seam. We dropped that idea and swung over to metal plates after talking some plate makers into producing the size we wanted.
Our most difficult problem was finding the proper paper. We talked with American paper mills but they weren't interested in tooling up for such a small production. So we went to the French mills (Arches and Rives) and they agreed to make our paper. By placing the minimum order of 17 rolls, all of a sudden Gemini was making a lot of large prints. Two or three years ago we found a paper manufactured in England in 80" widths. Johnathan Borofsky and Richard Sera became the first to work on that scale for screenprinting on a single sheet. We cannot deal with lithography anywhere near an 80" width.
Something I haven't talked about in terms of producing these lithographs is the human element. Somebody standing at a press holding a roller in his hands has to reach across and cover the entire width of the image. For the larger formats we use two printers standing on the same or opposite sides of the press. Either each will hold one handle of a large roller or each will have a small roller and they will work out a pattern to cross each other in laying down the ink. It looks like a choreographed ballet.
LS: Do you feel that an archival mounting system devised to facilitate the handling or display of a large print diminishes its value?
SF: Not if you are talking about an archival mounting which is designed with a care and understanding of what is right for the piece. Some people feel that mounting alters a piece and therefore affects its marketability. Many people don't understand what an archival job is.
LS: In terms of merchandising, do you usually sell these large pieces framed?
SF: Not unless it is necessary for the protection of the artwork. Jasper John's Gray Alphabet went out framed because there was a lead piece attached which we were afraid would be damaged in shipment if the piece were rolled. It's much easier to handle unframed pieces. A framed 80 x 100" print takes up an enormous amount of wall or rack space and requires two or three people to assist whenever it is shown. When these prints are shipped, an 80" roll is a lot easier to handle than a shipping container for a framed piece.
LS: I know that big prints have been headaches for framers. All of the Booster prints I have seen have been pressing against glass and laid on foamcore or corrugated board. All of the damage I have seen has resulted from this kind of framing. Considering that this is not the way to frame anything, they have survived fairly well. Because the paper is heavy they haven't buckled much and I haven't noticed too much discoloration.
Let's talk about shipping again. Are you able to roll those 80 x l00" silkscreens to send out? Does the ink crack?
SF: We roll them, but we are coming to a Richard Sera project that is going to give us some problems. We are preparing to publish this work on 80 x 100" precoated paper. Over the coating is the image layer of screen ink, followed by two layers of paint stick pressed through an open screen. The screen ink is intended to contain the grease or oil in the paint stick. The stick is soft. It does harden but we still can't roll these pieces and we are going to have to come up with a shipping tray to send them out flat.
We roll most lithos and screenprints if we can, but hesitate if there is a high varnish or a glossy ink. We don't roll etchings because the plate mark is a vulnerable part of the paper and it might be damaged if the print is rolled.
LS: Generally speaking then, Gemini produces artwork but is not involved in the framing of these pieces.
SF: Yes. We can give advice and recommend local framers but we are not in the framing business.
LS: Oversized works of art on paper made since the '60s have created a variety of problems which remain largely unsolved. The L.A. Louver Gallery shows this kind of contemporary work and I wanted to ask you about your experience with it. For example, I am thinking of a large Charles Garabedian collage with acrylic and Rhoplex on butcher paper which was at the gallery. This piece was just pushpinned to the wall while the artist was working on it, but can it be displayed this way in a gallery?
PG: Yes, you can do that for a limited period of time in a gallery; but you must point out to the client that this method of display should not be used on a permanent basis because it would ultimately cause the work to deteriorate. Therefore one has the problem of formalizing the piece and I see the process as being no different than the formalization of any painting. Galleries which display contemporary art must respond to the nature of the work to be displayed. They should decide with the artist on an appropriate method which takes into account the safekeeping of the artwork.
It is interesting that you mentioned Garabedian because today we have been discussing another of his works. It is a major painting called Adam and Eve which he made in '73 or '74. Every single curator organizing a solo Garabedian show has chosen to present this work and it's on paper. In fact almost all of this artist's work during this period was on paper. This piece is roughly 8' tall and 5' wide. When I first started working with Chas (Garabedian), he had become used to seeing his work pinned to the wall and had never actually seen it displayed another way. I suggested that we frame a few of these works and he resisted fervently. Well we went ahead and framed them anyway without his knowledge or consent. We then invited him to the gallery to see the work with the preface, "Now Chas, don't be shocked, don't be upset, it can be taken out of the frame and pinned back on the wall; but what do you think?" He marveled at just how good they did look with a formal presentation that detached the work from himself. Since then he has wanted everything to be framed. However he has often made pieces that are up to 12' in one dimension and as such are beyond framing. These pieces are deteriorating. We did have one piece lined by Denise Domergue. She mounted the work using acid-free materials onto canvas so that it could be stretched.
LS: What acid-free materials?
PG: I don't know--that's just what we were told. Anytime a piece goes beyond simple framing we use a conservator. Now that work has been stretched and hanging in place for six or seven years. But it's not under glass. You can't cover it... it's too huge.
LS: Is it heavily Rhoplexed?
PG: It is from behind. I really don't know what will happen to that work except that it is in a relatively safe home and is being treated with respect. We have two other works which Chas has rolled up and they are even larger. They are deteriorating and I am encouraging him to sell them to a museum which will be able to conserve them. Even if they were sold for less than their true worth, they would be looked after.
LS: Is the Adam and Eve executed on pink craft paper?
PG: Butcher paper. He likes the surface, the color and the way the paper absorbs the paint. Before moving to work with paper he had been working with resin which had a fascinating translucent quality. But he made the shift to paper because the material lent itself more readily to the nature of collage. Generally he will only apply Rhoplex to the reverse side. He thinks that Rhoplex counters the acidity of the paper. Occasionally he will gloss the front to give the appearance of a Chinese ceramic.
LS: Although conservators regard lining paper pieces as a measure of last resort, sometimes these oversized pieces are so enormous that it becomes necessary to line the work in order to display it. Even so there are those who object to lining a work because they feel that the piece is altered by the process and its value is diminished. What is your opinion?
PG: My feeling is, and I may be totally wrong here, that I do not believe that the integrity of the work is threatened by making every effort to protect the piece. Assuming that lining or mounting procedures are conducted by a professional and the surface image remains unchanged, I cannot see how this treatment does anything but serve to preserve the work of art.
As dealers, most of our time is spent acting as business people working as intermediaries between the studio and the public. I think that it is important for the dealer to be sensitive to the outcome of each business transaction so that the conclusion will be satisfactory to the artist, the client and for the work of art itself. In my judgment works should be properly formalized and treated with respect in order that they will have a chance to survive and be assessed by posterity.
LS: I just interviewed Peter Goulds at the L.A. Louver Gallery about how the gallery handles oversized works of art on paper. He mentioned that you have worked on some large pieces for them and I would like to ask you about your experience with those or other oversized pieces which your studio has treated.
DD: One of the projects involved a large paper piece which had been coated with Rhoplex. The nature of the paper had been altered by this application and the challenge was to structurally reinforce this huge collage and mount it onto a support panel or strainer. We decided to line the painting using more Rhoplex and Jeffco paper (a machine made Japanese paper) to extend the borders of the piece past the image and to provide a tacking edge. Then we stapled the new edges to a canvas covered strainer.
LS: So the piece wasn't adhered to the canvas?
DD: No it wasn't.
LS: I have had similar problems with paper and Rhoplex collages by Ed Moses. It is difficult to find a material which is reversible and which will adhere to the Rhoplex without breaking it down. Rhoplex can't take solvents or heat, and water soluble solvents won't bond to it. The most appropriate solution, I felt, was to use a little more Rhoplex, mounting the work overall, but only forming a "nap" bond so that the mount could be removed.
DD: The nature of the piece does limit you. In the end either you solve the problem or you don't and I think that this is one possible solution. The structure of the piece has been improved and nothing particularly alien has been added.
Ls: Did you also work on a Bruce Nauman piece?
DD: That was a large piece on uncoated paper which had been rolled. It was charcoal on a poor quality paper which was collaged with white glue. Here are the records: Flatten on vacuum table; stretch cotton duck lining on temporary strainer with threads aligned; coat lining with Jeffco using Beva; coat Jeffco again with Beva; buffer paper with Wei 'to; line piece on hot vacuum table; mount on permanent strainer.
LS: How could that process be reversed?
DD: The backing could be peeled off by using heat.
LS: So it would disengage like an old dry mount tissue. Can you think of other unusual pieces you have worked on?
DD: There were those oversized Ron Cooper photographs which we mounted to aluminum plates.
LS: Oh yes, I tried to wet mount those. I told Ron that it would only work if he provided enough margin to wrap around the sides of the stretcher in order to allow the piece to shrink down to the frame. He refused because he wanted the piece to float with a l" margin on all sides. I tried unsuccessfully to mount some proofs but there was too much fight in the paper. It was a European product with a mat silver base. It has a metallic look that Ron liked. Toulouse-Lautrec posters can be brushed out damp on a paste infused panel and left to dry in the open air, but not those photo papers. The wet photo paper would stick to the blotter paper and could not be dried under weight. That's why I wanted to air dry without pressure. But the proofs bubbled when they dried and I couldn't smooth them out. So at that point I sent Ron to you.
DD: We also did lots of experiments with various adhesives. Ron was really concerned about permanence, so we tested synthetic adhesives and aluminum panels. Beva was the most consistent and reliable adhesive. We rolled several coats onto an aluminum plate and we found that the longer the solvents were allowed to evaporate the fewer problems we had. At first we just let it evaporate overnight, but bubbles would appear in the lining process. We could work them out but it was nerve-racking.
LS: Were you heating the photos before you started?
LS: That's something I learned from mounting photographs. If you are working during a dry spell perhaps you'll be lucky, but if there is humidity in the photograph and the board, wrinkles might develop. Driving the excess moisture off with heat before proceeding eliminates the risk.
DD: That's a good tip. We did a similar treatment for Steve Kahn. There were a lot of steps to each treatment, but the main difference was that Steve's panels already had hangers on the back so the piece had to be mounted face down. Both artists liked the results which they felt were in alignment with their original intent. They wanted the pieces to hang as close to the wall as possible and the plates worked very nicely.
We have also worked on a Tom Wudl. It was one of those punched tissue paper pieces and it had ripped. The artist did not want to repair it himself and so we used the same tissue and the same adhesive (Rhoplex). These materials were applied to the reverse and the designs were repunched. There were myriad local repairs and because the edges of the piece were vulnerable, we lined them using more tissue and adding Jeffco tabs at the top for hanging.
Generally we do not conserve paper pieces. Those objects which do come to the studio are anomalies in some way. Either they are too enormous for most paper conservators to handle in their studios, or the materials have been adulterated in some way so that the problems cease to be "normal" for works of art on paper. I want to make it clear that we are not paper conservators here, but we do collaborate with paper conservators and the artists themselves on projects which involve unusual structural problems.
LS: I would like to talk with you about your experience at Sotheby's with oversized works of art on paper. For example, a contemporary artist might just push-pin his work to the wall, but collectors might be reluctant to purchase works of art which have suffered from this informal approach.
PK: One spot or wrinkle can be devastating to a refined image. This kind of damage can render a work practically worthless and the larger the sheet, the greater likelihood of a mishap. At the same time one should be able to distinguish between a damage and a condition which is an aspect of the artist's work. Childe Hassam, for example, was known to stick pins all around the edges of his prints when they were set to dry. You often see these pin holes...you almost look for them... and they don't detract from the image which has an almost rough-hewn appearance. However the margins of contemporary works of art on paper are often considered to be as important as the actual image and you must be careful handling these pieces, large or small. We used to shrink wrap a lot of these pieces, but found that they were still too vulnerable to damage. So now we stipulate that large works will either be brought in framed or that Sotheby's will be given permission by the owner to have them framed. We deal with so many...there must have been 1,000 prints in the November sale. So you can see why we need to have them framed, unless they are small and can be kept in sleeves.
LS: Has Sotheby's set a size limit for the works on paper it will accept?
PK: No. These decisions are based solely on financial considerations.
LS: When prints come into the gallery, do you evaluate their condition as well as their market value?
PK: Yes. Condition determines market value. Works are unframed in order to prepare an estimate. If a preliminary estimate is given for a work sight unseen, we tell the owner that it may change "pending a condition report." Then if a work arrives damaged and requires restoration, we issue a second estimate. We have learned that it isn't a good idea to put items up for auction which have major defects. Under certain circumstances we might make an exception. If it is a rare print which is difficult to restore, we may let the purchaser accept this responsibility.
LS: Can you recall any problems in dealing with large works on paper?
PK: There was a series of prints by Stella, the Newfoundland Series, in which the artist used day-glo colors. These colors seemed particularly ephemeral.
It's nerve-racking just to handle these large pieces. We customarily remove works from their frames to condition report them and to obtain catalogue information. "Booster" prints are so big that they don't fit on a table and they have to be examined on the floor. Several people are needed to assist in handling and the whole process does expose the works to some risk.
LS: Does it bother you that Toulouse-Lautrec prints are often mounted on linen? Do you ever have a conservator replace the linen backing with Japanese paper?
PK: Most of them come in backed with linen. Many were printed on cheap paper as advertisements and need some kind of support. Depending on the severity of the buckling or bubbling, we usually leave them alone. Conservation treatment is so expensive, you can't treat everything. The decision to mount works on paper must always be made with careful consideration as to whether the piece will be better off in the long run. In my opinion anytime you wet a print it will be altered even if the change is imperceptible.
LS: In 1975 when I had a similar conversation with a Sotheby's representative it seemed that she felt that a mounted piece was diminished in value.
PK: No, I don't believe that it is. There are times when mounting is necessary for the safety and display of the work.
Thinking of problems with contemporary pieces...there was one lot of prints by Lichtenstein which had discolored. They were on a poor quality paper which had been glued down to board. Another series by Rauschenberg "Bonds and Unions" smelled so terribly of cow dung and curry powder that we had to remove them to a warehouse. To have them around was more than we could tolerate.
LS: I wonder if that was the project he did in India...
PK: Well you can't dictate specifications to the artist, you can only deal with situations as they arise. But you know we don't sell a lot of contemporary art. We really don't unless it has a high value and a well established market value. I do remember though that large works of art on paper are always a problem.
LS: In a recent conversation with Ebria Feinblatt, LACMA's Curator of Prints and Drawings, I asked her whether she ever encourages the museum to turn down oversized works of art on paper because of the special problems these pieces present. She answered that it would not be fair to the museum to turn down these acquisitions and that it is up to the museum to find ways to accommodate these works because many artists will continue to produce them.
Much of the burden to solve display and storage problems naturally falls on the conservation department and as an example I want to ask how you will be reframing the Rauschenberg Boosters lithograph. It appears to be in its original welded chrome frame which is narrow and offers little support. The litho is pressed directly against the inside of the plexi and the linen covered backing material is probably right against a poor quality board. How will you approach the reframing?
VBH: I feel that the reframing of this piece, which measures 72 x 35", and of other large pieces is fairly straightforward. Hinging with starch paste and the appropriate weight paper; backing with rag board and using spacers (or set backs) is all that is required to create a "healthy" environment.
LS: The Prints and Drawings department has many small cabinets which were designed to store the old master collection. There is also a limited amount of oversized storage. Does storing large pieces framed seem like a reasonable solution as long as they are properly framed?
VBH: Yes, however I think it all depends on the artwork and the available screen storage space.
For example, the collection also has a Rauschenberg Horefrost mixed media print on layers of cloth (satin, cheese cloth and silk) which poses not only storage problems, but display problems. As I understand it, the artist prefers to have the pieces displayed unframed. This leaves the piece terribly vulnerable to damage, especially to airborne dirt. We are presently storing it rolled on a large paper covered tube and interleaved with acid free tissue paper as suggested by Textile Conservation in order to avoid crushing or wrinkling. However we have not been able to resolve the display problem. A consensus on a procedure which would protect the piece and support the artist's original intent has not been reached between the curatorial and the conservation departments.
LS: You know how Rauschenberg used to work with found objects. I don't think he cares if those pieces develop a little patina.
VBH: Yes, but museums must try to preserve these objects for many generations, not just this one.
Regarding your conversation with Ebria, let me just add that when a piece is under consideration for acquisition, the conservation department examines the piece and submits a proposal to the curator concerned about the length of conservation time required (if any) to put the piece into exhibitable condition. The curator then can make his or her own recommendation to the board.
LS: Toulouse-Lautrec posters are another subject which interests me. The Booster print is relatively new, it's on a heavy paper, is in generally good condition and considerations for proper framing can be fairly easily thought out. How do you approach the Lautrecs?
VBH: The current exhibition at LACMA of Toulouse-Lautrec posters displays a variety of typical condition problems. Most of the prints have been lined sometime in the past with linen. Though I don't agree with this procedure, I do feel that without the linen these lithographs would not have survived.
LS: Will you leave them lined or delaminate them?
VBH: For the moment we will leave the ones which are in stable condition. Then as time and space permits we will treat those with the most serious problems. The Lautrec with the highest priority has been in our collection for a number of years... it is mounted down overall to plywood!
LS: I've heard some people on the appraisal/selling end of things say that mounting a piece decreases its value.
VBH: I don't feel that way. Of course it all depends on the kind of mount, its reversibility and the condition of the piece. If a conservator can remove a piece even from a bad mounting, I feel there is no diminished value. In the case of the Lautrec mounted on plywood, we will have to see.
LS: Can you soak it off?
VBH: Well I suppose that's a possibility, but the piece is so fragile that I find the idea rather frightening. It is inherently weak in addition to being acid and brittle from years of contact with the wood. The thought of wetting up the plywood and having it expand before the piece is ready to release is a nightmare.
LS: What is your criteria for mounting and what systems do you use?
VBH: Lining or mounting to a solid support is only considered if the object would self-destruct without an overall support. That is our criteria. The type of support depends on individual need. When we remove the "plywood Lautrec" I am sure that it will require more than a flexible paper lining. We will probably construct a solid support, possibly of honeycomb, using a strainer covered with rag board and wrapped with several layers of paper, the top layer being Hosho. The treated Lautrec would then be mounted to the new panel.
LS: I have used a variety of lining and mounting techniques. One approach is to mount works to Japanese paper. Okuwara is one paper I have used with large pieces. It is available in 6' lengths and does not tend to curl even when used on the cross- grain.
I sometimes make "soft" panels using Jeffco paper which has been washed and deacidified. It is mounted to pre-washed 8 ounce cotton duck which has been stretched over a strainer with a minimum amount of tension. The wet mounted Jeffco layers increase the tautness of the panel as they dry. The adhesive used is a dilute wheat starch paste. In order to equalize the tension on the front of the panel, papers are also mounted over the back of the strainer.
VBH: Why use fabric at all? Why not just use paper?
LS: Because it is time consuming and costly to make a traditional shoji screen. The soft panel makes up relatively quickly. If the object is going to be exposed to a lot of handling or if pressure is required to achieve a good bond, I might have the strainer faced with a wood veneer and stretch the material over that. Or I might wrap the material around a hexcell panel. I tend not to adhere all the layers together because it occurred to me that reversing a solid mount might be difficult and stressful to the artwork. If you have a "drum" system all you have to do is to cut around the sides to release the fabric. The artwork may then be placed face down on a table and the backing layers removed by applying moisture or steam.
On the other hand, when this system was used to mount a series of six 30 x 40" lithos by Sam Francis to one large panel, a slight cupping occurred between the prints. The edges did not overlap and the six separate elements set up a tension differential. A solid panel would have yielded better results in that case.
VBH: We have had another kind of mounting problem with a work by Ermalov, a Russian avant-garde artist. It is a piece made up of four separate elements each of which measures 18 x 22". Media included photographs, magazine images, marbled papers, colored papers and gold embossing. The piece was collaged and there were soluble materials. A wet treatment was not possible and so we mounted the piece using a heat set adhesive we made ourselves. Rag board was covered with Hosho paper so that the piece could be removed at some later date and the rag was then adhered to a gatorfoam support.
I have touched on only a few possibilities for mounting techniques. Again, the type of support chosen for any particular work depends on individual need and a solid support is only chosen if the object would self-destruct without it.
SAM: I had a dream last night...I was putting pieces of paper away. Whether I drew on them or not, I am not sure; but I know that the dream was involved with preventing big Chinese gangster types from taking it over somehow...I don't know where I was in the dream, probably in the unconscious. I could have been anywhere. All I know is that there was paper in it.
LS: Is there anything you particularly like about working on paper as opposed to canvas?
SAM: Oh yes. Paper is much more beautiful than canvas. It's deeper.
LS: You like the way the paint flows into the fibers?
LS: I wanted to talk to you because you are one of the few artists for whom I have built panels on which to work. Most artists are involved in the creative process without giving much consideration to the handling, mounting and storage difficulties which might be encountered later on with large works of art. How did you feel working on those panels?
SAM: Well it was different than working on unprepared paper. It was a little more precious because of the tension I guess. A kind of precious tension, that's what I felt. Funny...
LS: For most artists who are somewhat intrigued with the idea of working on panels, the preciousness has to do with their initial expense. The thought of this investment is in the back of their minds and it interferes with their work.
SAM: When I was doing those panels, I was already making enough money so that I didn't have to think about that.
LS: Did using the panel solve the problem of how to hang the work?
SAM: Yes it did.
LS: There are appraisers, auctioneers and dealers who feel that if a work is mounted, its value is diminished. I think that this opinion comes from years of having seen poor or improper mounting technique. Still they are against the practice under any condition. Do you feel that way?
SAM: No, because I came to the idea from the Japanese way. I had been working in Japan on mounted panels. You can go into certain art stores there, very old fashioned art stores, and pick up prepared panels.
LS: Big ones?
SAM: No, they are traditional sizes up to 20 x 30". But if you want them bigger you can order them and if you want papers on the surface you can order them. You can order any size you want. Handmade Japanese paper goes up to 9 x 12'...made by special people of course. I have some pieces like that. It's heavy beautiful paper. When you order like that you might have to wait a year or two or three or four, because they make it when they get around to it.
LS: Going there doesn't facilitate the order?
SAM: It doesn't mean a thing, as I found out. I even went to Shakui in the papermaking areas and got drunk with the papermakers, which is the main thing you have to do. I did the whole thing and it didn't speed up the process much because it's some kind of mystical...yes it probably is...some kind of mystical process. Papermaking in Japan is marvelous to watch.