Volume 14, Number 2, May 1992, pp.5-6

Profile: Richard Craig Wolbers

by Chris Stavroudis

Professor Richard C. Wolbers is perhaps best known for his contributions to painting conservation, as summarized in the title to his seminar "New Methods in the Cleaning of Paintings." The innovations can be listed: solvent gels, resin soaps, enzymes, emulsions, reactive fluorescent stains, ultraviolet fluorescent microscopy, but the "new method" is more than the sum of the parts; it is an approach to problem solving.

"Conservation is not a hard science. It's a blend of different things. There is something unique and special about what a conservator is."

Richard is an associate professor in the Art Conservation Department at the University of Delaware. He coordinates the science instruction and research projects in the master's degree program at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in the Conservation of Artistic and Historic Works and supervises the painting conservation majors (serving as their principal instructor in the second year and monitoring their third-year internships).

The dualistic nature of his teaching responsibilities--science and paintings--parallels his interests and background. Discussion of Richard's work is often prefaced by his background in biochemistry. Richard received his bachelor's degree in 1971 from the University of California, San Diego, with a major in biochemistry and a minor in psychology. Of equal importance to the development of his conservation sensibilities is the MFA in studio art and art criticism that he received from the University of San Diego in 1977 while working as a researcher in a biochemistry lab.

"It is a tough thing to be labeled a scientist. Working in a lab gave me an approach to problem solving. It was a chance to see how [biochemists] solve certain problems; the materials they could draw on to do certain things, and how they could put things together to solve certain problems."

Richard worked from 1971 to 1977 as a research associate in a neuroendocrinology lab at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies working on hypothalamic release factors, which are brain releasing factors for hormones.

"But when I was there, the man that I worked for was interested in art; painted himself. He showed me that you could do art and still be a scientist, or be a scientist and still do art."

Moving to Denver, Colorado, where his wife was pursuing a master's degree in architecture, he eventually met painting conservator Carl Grimm, then at the Rocky Mountain Regional Conservation Center. In 1980, he began a pre-professional internship under Carl. In 1981 he was accepted into the Winterthur/University of Delaware art conservation program. Upon receiving his master's degree in 1984, he was hired by the Winterthur Museum as assistant paintings conservator. In 1986, he was made associate paintings conservator, and his responsibilities were augmented to include teaching the introductory course in painting conservation for the Winterthur/University of Delaware art conservation training program and supervising the second-year paintings conservation majors. In 1988, he became an associate professor in the Art Conservation Department at the University of Delaware. In addition to supervising master's level science instruction and the paintings majors, he is a co-chair of the dissertation committee in the recently established doctoral program.

In his internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Richard was confronted with an "insoluble" problem. A Picasso had been treated with rabbit-skin glue in the past, and the excess had not been removed from the surface. The desiccated, oxidized glue was unsightly but, more importantly, was peeling the delicate paint layer away. His background in biochemistry made the idea of using an enzyme to digest the glue seem obvious. But how could the enzyme be allowed to do its job without endangering the painting below the glue layer? This is where the "tool making" began. Knowing the enzyme required an aqueous environment (and clearly, the painting would not tolerate a water bath) the enzyme was mixed into an aqueous gel base. Because the contact area is so small between the solid glue surface and the surface of the gel, other "tools" needed to be employed to allow the enzyme to work at its maximum effectiveness: detergents to allow the glue surface to be wet by the waterbased gel, and to tie-up reaction byproducts; pH buffers; co-ions, etc.

As a conservator, I want tools that are versatile enough to allow me to feel like I'm not just that astronaut pumped into space without any control over the space capsule. You know, I don't want to be a Mercury astronaut...little better than a monkey shot into space. I want to have some control; I want to feel like I can have some decisions, some choice making about what I use. And anything that gives me that kind of latitude--so much the better. So I raise and lower the pH, I chose different soap structures, I use emulsions sometimes rather than solvents or soaps by themselves, sometimes I'll even use solvents. I can tune a dial; I can make something different.

Many conservators have learned how to use Richard's methods, but perhaps the least understood aspect of the new techniques is the chemistry,. He feels his job is to be a facilitator, to teach the chemistry necessary so that any conservator who is interested can understand more about the cleaning process. Richard is quick to point out that his contribution to the field is to provide more options to the practicing conservator. As using water-based systems to clean materials that are traditionally cleaned with solvents is counterintuitive, the difficult part is knowing when a newer, more complicated treatment is preferable to an older, simpler technique.

More than anything else, I want to show people that there are so many choices out there. At first the choices of materials and methods is pretty daunting. But once you get into it, you see the uniqueness of everything, of surfaces and materials.

At present, along with his teaching duties, Richard is actively researching the question of removing residues. In fact, that will be the subject of his presentation at the WAAC Meeting.

There hadn't been a lot of work done on measuring the amounts of materials that might be left behind when surfactants and certain other kinds of aqueous materials were applied to paint surfaces. Initially, I was really interested in simply measuring the amounts of material that were getting left behind under various application conditions. Now I've branched out a little bit. It's not enough to measure how much is there, I want to know what sort of factors lead to deposition of residues and what factors facilitate their clearance from surfaces. I also am interested in measuring which things really work better than others.

I don't think I quite appreciated early on how complicated everything really is. That appreciation comes from trying to design an experiment to measure simple things.

How should WAAC Members prepare for the day-long presentation at the Santa Fe meeting? Richard said that we should come with an open mind. We should be thinking about the normal problems we are all faced with in treatments.

Right now, It seems like I'm spending a lot of time talking about designing the tool, but really, the point is to get past that and to use it for something useful.

The presentation will be about the selection of available materials to solve various problems. Sort of a conservator's shopping tips--what things might work better than others under certain circumstances.

Conservation-Related Publications

Wolbers, R.: "Developing Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) as an Aid in the Detection of Asphalt Containing Paint Films," Conservation Graduate Student Conference in Cooperstown, NY, May 1983.

Wolbers, R.: "The Use of Direct, Reactive, Fluorescent Dyes for the Characterization of Binding Materials in Cross-Sectional Analyses," May 1987 AIC Conference General Session Paper, Vancouver, BC, AIC Reprints.

Wolbers, R.: "Aspects of the Cleaning of a Pair of Portraits Attributed to William and Richard Jennys," June 1988 AIC Conf. General Session Paper, New Orleans, AIC Reprints.

Wolbers, R.: "A Radio-Isotopic Assay for the Direct Measurement of Residual Cleaning Materials on a Paint Film," September 1990, Preprints of the Contributors to the Brussels Conference, Sept. 3-7, 1990, IIC, London.

Samet, W., J.H. Stoner, and R. Wolbers: "Approaching the Cleaning of Whistler's 'Peacock Room,'" September 1990, Preprints of the Contributors to the Brussels Conference, September 3-7, 1990, IIC, London.

Wolbers, R.: "Compatibility of Historic Paints," in Paint in America, Jonathan Fairbanks, ed., to be published January 1992 by the Barra Foundation, Boston.

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