REINHARDT'S BLACK PAINTING Reinhardt's Black Painting, 1960-66, photographed under visible light after laser cleaning at Art Innovation, Oldenzaal, the Netherlands. Image: Courtesy of James Martin, Orion Analytical, LLC
When artist Ad Reinhardt's painting arrived at New York City's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2000, it was damaged beyond repair. Cracks in the original paint, combined with ill-conceived restoration attempts, had conspired to turn this once vital example of 1960s minimalist art into a black slab devoid of Reinhardt's original monochromatic vision.
But its sorry state also made the piece, part of Reinhardt's "Black Square" series painted between 1960 and 1966, the perfect specimen for art conservators at the Guggenheim, and its Manhattan neighbor, MoMA–The Museum of Modern Art, eager to test out the latest restoration technologies. The painting could not be salvaged but researchers were able to glean invaluable information by trying out the newest techniques for refurbishing neglected, damaged and timeworn artwork. The results of their six-year study are now on display at the Guggenheim as part of an exhibit set to run from Friday through September 14.
The exhibit features photos and videos of conservators, scientists, curators and artists working to restore Reinhardt's five- by five-foot (1.5- by 1.5-meter) square monochromatic painting. The AXA Art Insurance Corporation in New York City donated the painting for the research after determining that it could not be restored.
In its original glory, Reinhardt's work at first glance appeared to be little more than a black slate; closer examination, however, revealed that it was actually a grid of nine squares, each consisting of subtle variations of black, with flecks of blue, green or red color. Led by Guggenheim chief conservator, Carol Stringari, a team of specialists examined the painting's 20 layers of paint, varnish and sealant. Their goal was to study rather than restore it and, toward that end, Stringari and her colleagues were able to take samples from all areas of the work, not just the edges.
One of the more significant experiments involved the combined use of a laser to clean portions of the painting and laser-induced spectroscopy (LIBS) to analyze the chemical composition of the removed material. "This is definitely the first attempt to clean any sort of monochrome painting with a laser," Stringari says. "You use the laser to burn off submicron layers." The LIBS analysis let the conservators know when they had penetrated new layers—each of which contained different types of chemicals—all the way until they reached the painting's original surface.
Although LIBS was not used to restore this particular artwork, Stringari says it has the potential of being used as part of the restoration process in the future. The conservators were able to successfully clean two squares in the painting, each 20 inches (50.8 centimeters) in length. The laser cleaning and LIBS analysis systems are now being fine-tuned and would likely be used only in instances where more traditional approaches—solvents, heat treatments, enzyme removal and others—are unable to conserve or restore a work without damaging it. Although the technology could be moved closer to mainstream art restoration work with enough funding, it is still "extremely expensive" and possibly a decade away from being used consistently, Stringari says.
AXA spokesperson Rosalind Joseph says the insurance company contributed several hundred thousand dollars to the Guggenheim and MOMA to help them conduct their research. After all, it is not only art lovers who will benefit. If new restoration efforts succeed, it also could save insurance companies a lot of money in claims for damaged artwork.