This lecture is part of the Divine Disorder Conference held February 24-26, 2015.
“How is the Conservation of Outsider/Folk Art Unique? Or is it?” By Barbara Appelbaum and Paul Himmelstein
Barbara Appelbaum: We’re going to switch the topic, from the things, to the process of conservation.
I’m always in, trying to pin down exactly how to describe what conservators do. This is another stab at it. How many people are conservators? How many aren’t?
There’s going to be a lot of these issues that I’m going to mention, that will come up in a lot of the papers in the next couple days. Let me start.
The job of professional conservators is to preserve things that have been selected for long term preservation by others. That’s something we don’t necessarily think about very often.
The kind of things that we preserve are so varied that one of the big problems about writing about conservation is that you can’t figure out a word to describe the stuff that you’re treating. I usually simply call them objects, which confuses conservators a lot, but cultural property doesn’t seem to be a very pleasant way to describe them.
Conservation treatments really address two goals at the same time, preservation and use, which includes; museum exhibitions, home decoration, education, and research. The preservation part is entirely material and fact based. Information about the physical object comes from examination which also gives us information about the object’s history as well as its physical attributes.
The second goal, I don’t think “Use” is necessarily a great name for that either, but we’re stuck with it. The second goal has intangible aspects, meanings, values, and aesthetics. Information in this area includes projected use, the owner’s feelings, and also comes from our own knowledge of history. There’s no one right way to treat any object another thing that I think some of my colleagues start to squirm when this topic comes up. Everything we treat has so many unique qualities that we really have to start from scratch in our heads at least when we have something to treat.
One of the interesting phenomena related to objects and their different meanings happens with portraits. In art museums, portraits are art, and the artist’s name is in big letters at the top of the labels. In history museums, the big labels are the sitter. Often nobody in each of these places cares about the other.
A lot of objects have entirely other meanings in museums. How old they are, where they come from, whether they came from a shipwreck, or another kind of archaeological source, the reason that people see things in museums changes all the time, which is partly why sometimes deciding on treatments gets very complicated.
Planning a conservation treatment requires information that we get from examining the object, also, information from the owner or custodian, and, of course, sometimes from our colleagues and other professionals. Some conservation treatments do not make visible changes to an object, but of course most do. It’s very important, I hope it’s obvious but sometimes not, It’s important that the conservator discuss possible changes with the owner as part of the treatment plan. None of us want our clients to be overly surprised at the end of a treatment. We a lot of times base certain parts of our treatments to what the client wants.
Knowing the history of an object helps us to determine what museum people sometimes call “Its time of most significance.” This usually falls into one of three categories, when it was new, when it was in use, or when it was collected. Works of art are usually in the first category. We want to see the work as the artist’s hand left it, and the best possible depiction of his or her intention. Outsider art is normally in this category.
One of the interesting things about the history of outsider art is it got to be art early on in folk art, early on was more thought of as the arts and crafts kind of thing. Objects like carriages furniture and machinery are often shown as they appeared during used rather than when they were new.
Some utilitarian objects are collected when they’re no longer fit for use. They may be broken or have missing parts or simply look tired. Conservation treatment can bring the item to a state close to what it looked like when it was used. Usually, when utilitarian things are exhibited as they were used, we’re not talking about art museums anymore. We’re talking about history museums or living museums or other kinds of places.
The as found state is much less common. Certain historical objects such as 9/11 artifacts or houses left as they were when their owner died are examples. These tend to be situations with a high emotional or commemorative component. Clearly Paradise…that site, is one of these where you almost want to see the dead owner standing in the shadows when we visit.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when collectors of folk art started to lend to art museums, some of them took up this idea of the as collected idea and refused to allow even layers of gray dust to be removed. Perhaps because the collectors themselves had found these previously unappreciated objects in out of the way places, they may have wanted the objects to reflect the condition at the time that they discovered them. Whatever the motive, this preference luckily has mostly yielded to the museum model of judicious cleaning and folk art is treated like other art categories, although it took a while to get there.
The original name of the Folk Art Museum in New York was the Museum of Early American Folk Arts, as in arts and crafts. Many of the pieces in their collections are utilitarian objects that were appropriated by 20th century collectors as works of art. This includes ceramic jugs, Shaker furniture, weather vanes, quilts, advertising, signs, and a lot of other things.
While Paul and I were talking about this, we realized that we’d never seen a weather vane mounted so that it turns in the wind. I think that would be interesting to see what weather vanes looked like when they were weather vanes.
Changing from arts and crafts to art has many implications. One is that humans are attracted to art, and they want it to be preserved and permanently accessible to the public. Art usually has higher monetary value than mere decorative or arts and crafts items. The process of making these things in the public eye means that art dealers get involved. Once that happens, as is seen in many of the biographies of outsider artists. The dealer’s hand in all of this can make a big change in what is produced.
The one conservation related difference with folk art is that there are times when folk art collections are not repaired. The small damages and that sort of thing or small losses aren’t repaired to the degree that most conservators would do with traditional art.
One of the interesting things I find about outsider art now that it’s gotten sort of commercialized, is that it’s defined by the kind of person who made it, even though if you put on exhibits of outsider and traditional contemporary sculpture, for example, you really wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between one another. A lot of contemporary artists who come out of art schools are making things that are as I want to say, “wacky” as some outsider artists are making.
Outsider art has gotten the title of art from the beginning. It may be that because most outsider art is paintings. It’s works on paper. It’s sculpture. That fits in with mainstream art quite easily. Site specific art is a whole different category. Usually site specific art, I don’t know that people use that expression, but we’re talking about buildings a lot of times with furnishings and of course a lot of times with sculpture gardens. This is really a situation where normally you want it to stay in the same state as when the owner died.
Usually the artists create sculpture and set the placement of the sculpture. Everything involved is considered part of the work of art. As we I think know and as we’re going to see later preserving this sort of thing is really difficult, and requires community input. I’m looking forward to seeing how this works here. I think that the discussion we had before my paper was interesting because of the number of people who were involved in the project.
If you’re interested in learning more about some of these issues about decision making and who makes the decisions and how they make the decisions, there are two very good sources.
One is the “AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.” If you’re not a conservator and you haven’t read this, they’re quite interesting documents. They go very much further than just ethics. The website of the AIC, which is the American Organization for Conservators, if you Google AIC and put in conservation, because there’s a lot of other organizations that are AICs, you can get on AIC website. They’re called core documents if you have trouble finding them on the site.
The other thing that I have to recommend is my most recent book which is called “Conservation Treatment Methodology,” and is on Amazon. Many people who are not conservators seem to find it very interesting. Some, my friend conservators, find it very hard to read. If you can make sense out of that, I’d like to hear that explanation.
I don’t know if you want to ask questions now or if some of these weird topics will pop up in a lot of the papers. There’s obviously a lot of different ways of looking at these things. As I say, I don’t know if you want questions now. Paul’s going to show pictures.
Paul Himmelstein: I have pictures.
Barbara Appelbaum: You got to have pictures.
Paul Himmelstein: Now we can get back to this. I guess if I open this up, I’ll let you… To try and answer a little more of the question that’s at the top of our talk about whether there is a difference between the conservation of folk art and outsider art and other things, I think that we’re trying to show in the few slides that I’m going to show that there really is…There are some differences, but most of it is shared and that we don’t see this as a very separate topic, that the idea that we treat each object as it comes along I think is much more important than whether these different categories should be separated.
I asked before a specific question about framing because it’s something that particularly interests me, but here you see two paintings, one Tinsel painting and one by a man named Ralph Fasanella from the Folk Art Museum.
The one on the left came with a strip frame. It was the one that Ralph had put on it, I think more out of financial consideration than anything else. I’m not sure he actually chose it because he felt it was appropriate.
The effect that frames can have and that we understand now in American art particularly and in European art too, frames have become incredible important and unfortunately incredibly expensive. They do make a huge difference in the appearance of these things and the choice of what kind of a frame to put on a particular work, and what a particular artist might or might not have wanted for their particular thing is one that often gets left as a haphazard choice at the end. I don’t think it should be. It’s a really critical decision. It clearly is a decision that should be made as you begin to do the treatment.
The other thing that we face all the time are missing parts. The gentleman on the right from the Newark Museum had a cigar originally. He’s a cigar store figure that had a cigar. The people at the museum decided they didn’t want to replace the cigar. One of the problems is if you put a cigar in, what kind of a cigar was it? Is it long? Is it fat? Is it whatever. No one had any idea. There were no photographs that showed it. On the left, a piece of sculpture that had a sword. Again the owner, an institution, decided, perfectly reasonably, I think that we had no idea what the sword look like originally, so it doesn’t get a sword.
The way these are interpreted by the public and viewers is affected by whether we replace these missing pieces or not, and I think that’s a really important decision that needs to be discussed, rather than just assuming that we don’t do it.
The figure on the right, a weather vane, was treated, obviously, with a lot of paint loss. The question comes up constantly, how much of the loss do we compensate for? It would’ve been possible to in paint this to make it look the way it did when it was new. It was used, it belongs to the Folk Art Museum. No it doesn’t, it’s a private collector, sorry.
The decision early on was, consolidate the paint that’s there and don’t put anything back. The piece on the left belonged to a private owner. It had been hung from the neck. It had been pulled apart, and it was put together, and there was some compensation made. It’s a personal piece. It always had looked like a whole piece, and so we put it back to make it look like a whole piece. Very different decision, very different use, very different interpretation. As Barbara and I were talking, Barbara mentioned, I’d love to see these things.
Weather vanes are not supposed to be still, they moved around and also, there’s always this question. They were seen from a very low vantage point. The question of where you put these things, it’s interesting that that large piece from Paradise Garden which was up on a building is now shown at almost eye level, which changes its appearance considerably.
How do you make those decisions, and should you then try and actually show it at a high vantage point, where it might have tended to be from the start? This is a piece of an airplane from World War II, brought to us. It was a relic. As found on the left, the owner wanted it to look much more visible.
It was the image that was important here, and so it didn’t change colors much, as the photograph would indicate, always a problem. It was shown is the image. It’s a kind of relic, but in a different way. It’s in a plexi box, and he can hang it on his wall. It’s owned privately, again, so that makes a great deal of difference in how the final version of this looks.
A fireman’s hat. It came in as up in the left corner. Again, it’s very difficult, when there are missing pieces, for the ordinary viewer to understand or to fill in where people who are either scholars, or collectors, or knowledgeable viewers say, “Oh, I understand how that was used. I understand what it looked like.” We could have left it in the condition at the upper left, but this belongs to an institution, and it was within discussions with the institution. They wanted it back the way it looked originally. It makes sense, because obviously the fireman didn’t use it. This break occurred after use, and it was to demonstrate what a fireman’s hat would’ve looked like when it was used as a fireman’s hat. Again, these are questions of, how is this going to be used for educational purposes? How does the viewer see these things? What message does it give the viewer?
Conservation treatments often don’t take into account what the message is that the viewer has to take away from these objects. They are telling someone a story, and if the story is interrupted or not visible to the viewer, it doesn’t serve the purpose it is intended to serve.
The piece on the left is a contemporary work. It’s a bee. It’s about 18 inches long. It’s heavy, because it was made in Europe, it came to this country, it broke in half. We’re not showing you the details, it was excruciating to put back together because of its weight. It’s quite heavy. It was intended to hang upside down, like this. We actually reversed the photograph that we took of it during treatment. It has to hang from its legs, and there are several versions of this. The artist, actually people buy these to hang in their homes.
We had a photograph of this from a collector in Europe who had one of these to hang in their kitchen. It’s very lifelike. It’s even a little hard to see here, but it’s quite startling. The legs were made out of very thin and poor quality aluminum, and one of them had broken during transit, along with the body, whatever it is.
The stomach and the thorax had separated right there, which is of course, the weakest point. We had it for months and months before we figured out what to do with it. Putting it up again, in the person’s home, was one of the most difficult parts of this.
We had to figure out how to drill, and there are screws that go through the little paws on it, whatever you call them, at the end of the legs, you can see them right here and here. These are the weakest points, and we had large sighs of relief when we left this thing and it was still hanging on the ceiling after we put it up. It didn’t break again.
There’s Charlie McCarthy. This is owned by a private collector. It’s one of the original versions of Charlie McCarthy, there aren’t many of them. We were asked by the owner to put him in a seated position. Why? Because it was supposed to go into a bookshelf that was of a certain height. It could’ve been shown standing, it might have been used, it probably was used standing, although it might have been on Edgar Bergen’s knee when he showed it, so who knows? We did make a knee. Also, it was rather convenient because this little block here is hollow and has silica gel in it, and it’s in a plexi case. Again, “How is it going to be exhibited?” is one of those questions that comes up constantly, particularly, not just in private practice. In any place whether it’s going into a home, or into an institution, the question of what it’s going to look like when it’s on exhibit, and how much access you need to have when it’s not on exhibit. All those questions need to come up.
This was a trunk. This is not the Lincoln trunk; this was supposed to have belonged to Wild Bill Hickok. It has all these documents inside that are somehow related to him. The owner did not want it to look new, they wanted it to consolidate it, essentially. It was not supposed to look as made. It’s really supposed to look as found. Some of the documents were secured so that they weren’t falling off the thing, but the value of this, to the owner at least, was that it looked like it had been used by, if it was Wild Bill Hickok, great.
These decisions are made, again, specifically in conjunction with the owner. Here’s a piece that belonged to the Folk Art Museum, a Day of the Dead figure. The hair, which is a wig, obviously, came in this condition. We had lots of discussions with the curators about what it’s supposed to look like. Barbara worked on it. We didn’t use hair softener, or we didn’t wash it. It was braided slightly to make it look a little less, it’s a startling piece. Also, this was the way we set up in the lab, because it has to have all these parts that look like it did when it was collected, at least, or when it was exhibited originally, or when it was made.
We needed to work with them to come up with some method of attaching the looms properly, and all the rest of it. It’s interesting that the photographs we saw of the collection in this museum are almost all flat pieces. That’s why I asked the question before, “How do you decide how to exhibit these things that probably, when made, were loose drawings, as most drawings are?”
As we know, European drawings were mostly shown or collected in albums. The way they’re shown now in museums has nothing to do with the way they were intended to be seen by the artists. Often, they were not even intended to be seen. They were used as process drawings for a work of art that was being made.
The question of how you exhibit them, and how you present them to the public, and how they understand what they were intended to look like, I think is very much shared by any work on paper, and those decisions really should, again, be thought out. What we see often in museums now, with old master drawings, are very simple mats with ivory mattes, redwood mats, whereas in the 19th century they might have had a very elaborate French mats that were and very elaborate frames, and before that people actually looked at them in their bound volumes.
It’s very different when you look at a drawing in your lap, or on a desk, in a volume than when you look at it on the wall as a work of art. It changes your whole connection with these flat pieces. Again, Barbara and I have always talked about making these decisions as decisions rather than automatic things that you just do. That is, the discussion needs to take place.
This is an Egyptian Coptic slipper that was owned by a dealer. The important part of this, aside from the fact that it’s one of a pair, actually, this piece at the top, the part that made it into a sandal was crushed and not attached very well. It was important, in order to show what the use of this piece was, that this actually be supported so that it looked like it did when it was either used or might have been used. Actually, Barbara used, I think pipe cleaners, wasn’t that? Yeah, pipe cleaners are a really useful thing sometimes.
The three dimensional quality of this piece was, it’s extraordinary in its design, and actually Barbara did an insert underneath parts of them so that the design was visible without actually restoring the whole piece. Visually, it was back to what it might’ve looked like when it was actually either, as I said, in use.
Here, I’m afraid these photographs are kind of misleading in some way. It’s Russian; it’s a painting on a window shade. It was done by, I think the grandmother of the owner. It came to us, in this condition, with missing pieces here. You can see all the white things.
The owner wanted it to look like it did when it was made, so we filled in all of these white areas with, this is not actually Gesso, which it looks like on the photograph, but it’s three dimensional pieces of I can’t remember, was it rag board? rag board, and then woven in so that they really did look, when you look at it, like the window shade.
Then they were in painted, and one of the problems that you have, I think there are other times when you might leave these either toned or what we call a neutral color, which is never actually a neutral color. It’s neutral today; tomorrow it’s 1982’s color.
We filled them all in, and looked at them, and when you looked at the piece, it looked complete. One of the reasons besides the desire of the owner to have it look like it did when his grandmother made it is, when you have things like this that are white or whatever, your eye goes to those first.
That’s what you see, and that’s not the point of something like this. Trying to get those additions to fade into the background so that you look at the piece, and not what we’ve done, is always a real hard thing to do. That’s it.
Protocols for initiating a conservation treatment are essentially the same for everything: a physical examination to determine the nature of the materials and structure, its current condition, and on-going deterioration. The examination also gives the conservator clues as to the history of the object and its previous treatment or repair.
Planning a conservation treatment also requires information supplied by the owner or custodian, including the future use of the object and the owner’s feelings about it – what they like about it, and what they think is wrong with it.
The conservator’s goal for treatments is two-fold: an improved presentation and long-term preservation. Potential changes in the appearance of the object as a result of treatment are an important part of the treatment plan; both parties need to come to agreement about its ultimate appearance. Such changes should not be a whim on anyone’s part, but rather should be informed by the history of the object: What point in an object’s life is most significant?
The usual choices are when new, when in use, or as collected.
Things we call art are usually in the first category. We want to see signs of the artist’s hand and the best possible depiction of his or her intention.
Utilitarian objects like carriages, furniture, or machinery are often shown as they were during use, although very fancy utilitarian objects that would have been kept pristine in their past life are kept in top shape if possible.
Many utilitarian objects are collected when they are no longer fit for use; they may be broken, or have missing parts, or simply look tired. In many cases, conservation treatment can bring the item to a state close to what it looked like when it was used.
The “as found” state is less common. Certain historical objects, like 9/11 artifacts, or houses left as they were when their (presumably famous) owner died are examples. These tend to be situations with a high emotional component.
In the nineteen seventies, when collectors of folk art started to lend to art museums, some collectors took up this idea and refused to allow even layers of gray dust to be removed. Perhaps because the collectors themselves had found these often unappreciated objects in out-of-the-way places, they wanted the objects to reflect the condition of their discovery. Whatever the motive, this preference has mostly yielded to the museum model of judicious cleaning.
Let’s look at some common categories of Folk and Outsider Art to see how they fit into these three patterns.
Traditional folk art
Traditional folk art was the first category taken up by museums. (The original name of the Folk Art Museum in New York was “The Museum of Early American Folk Arts.) The objects are largely utilitarian things that were appropriated as art by twentieth-century collectors. The category includes ceramic jugs, Shaker furniture, weather vanes, quilts, and advertising posters, among others.
Calling this material “art” has many implications. One is that humans are attracted to art and want it to be preserved and accessible to the public. “Art” has higher monetary value than mere decorative or craft items, and therefore gets the attention of dealers, and, eventually, presence in art museums.
The aesthetic of traditional folk art includes a respect for certain signs of age – no one removes corrosion from weather vanes. [However, this distinction does not belong to folk art alone. We also do not remove corrosion from Chinese bronzes, and many kinds of ancient art are exhibited with visible damage.]
Movable Commercialized Outsider Art
Outsider art has received the title of art from its beginning, probably because despite some unusual subjects and materials, the forms are familiar. Outsider art includes paintings, drawings, and sculpture, and, in many ways, is similar to “inside” contemporary art.
The category has, however, an unusual identity: it is defined not by what it looks like, but who made it. It would be difficult, for example, in a gallery with both outsider and academic-based contemporary art to tell them apart. They also often share a look of newness that is part of its appeal. Other than fixing damages, conservators’ role with contemporary art of both origins is to protect against light damage and physical damage in order to keep the look of modernity.
This category consists largely of buildings and sculpture gardens. In many cases, the artist both created the sculpture and set their placement; the overall design is considered sacrosanct. Given outdoor exposure, often on materials not designed for it, these works of art are difficult to preserve.
Paul Himmelstein and Barbara Appelbaum have been partners in the New York conservation firm of Appelbaum and Himmelstein since 1972. The firm carries out conservation treatments on paintings, painted textiles and objects, and consults for institutions and private collectors on matters related to collections care, including lighting, environmental control, and building renovation and construction. Together they have worked on a variety of unusual materials and objects: movie costumes, mummies, painted silk textiles, and a trunk that belonged to Abraham Lincoln.
Mr. Himmelstein received his conservation training at the Intermuseum Laboratory, Oberlin, Ohio, and was a consultant conservator at the Brooklyn Museum for seven years. He is a past president of the American Institute for Conservation, and was the co-organizer of three symposia co-sponsored by the Association for Preservation Technology and the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) dealing with the problems of housing collections in historic buildings. He serves on the ASHRAE Committee on Museums, Archives and Libraries, and on the Illuminating Engineering Society Committee on Museums and Art Galleries. Recent projects include the relighting of the interior of the Hyde Collection, conservation consultation on the complete renovation of the New Jersey State Museum, and consultant for the new Asian Art wing of the Harn Museum. He was recently a presenter at the Building Museums Conference 2011 in San Francisco.
Ms. Appelbaum taught a course at New York University for fourteen years on collections care, and in 1991 published a book entitled Guide to Environmental Protection of Collections, which has sold over 4000 copies. She served as Treasurer and Vice-President of the American Institute for Conservation for five years, chaired its Certification Committee for several years, and headed the AIC Publications Committee, which received more than $500,000 in grant funds from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.
She is also a member of the Editorial Board of Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts, an international on-line journal published by the International Institute for Conservation and the J. Paul Getty Conservation Institute, and is the author of Conservation Treatment Methodology, (Elsevier, 2007; Barbara Appelbaum, 2010). She is working on a new book about collection care in museums.