It all began with a casual conversation. Marco Leona, head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Scientific Research, and Carol Stringari, Deputy Director and Chief Conservator of the Guggenheim Foundation, were discussing current projects in their respective labs when the idea of a collaboration came up. Science and art form the basis of what happens in an art conservation lab, and the Guggenheim was missing the in-house science component. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to integrate research efforts at both institutions, encouraging active dialogue between curators, conservators, and scientists?
Months later, that conversation has blossomed into a fully fledged partnership between the two world-renowned organizations—a joint effort resulting in fascinating discoveries about works by eminent artists such as Alberto Burri, Alexander Calder, and Édouard Manet. Spearheaded by Stringari and Julie Arslanoglu, a scientist at the Met, the unprecedented alliance establishes a framework for scientific research within the Guggenheim conservation studio. A skilled team of conservators works behind the scenes in Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling rotunda, stewarding the restoration and long-term preservation of invaluable works of art. Now, thanks to this partnership, their crucial work is informed by in-depth technical analysis aiming to unravel the unique story of each of the objects examined.
Together, the teams from the two museums are able to collaboratively explore artworks in their respective collections; identify joint projects of mutual interest; find innovative approaches to further art historical materials research; and design new strategies to expand resources. The program is embodied by a recently created scientist position, currently held by one of the authors of this post, Federica Pozzi, and supported on a temporary basis by generous grants for specific projects. As the Guggenheim is still in the process of gathering assets to set up an independent laboratory that could fulfill the institution’s daily needs for scientific analysis of modern and contemporary works, the partnership with the Met also offers much-needed access to advanced analytical instrumentation and fully equipped chemical laboratories. Overall, the Met-Guggenheim alliance is a prototype for the cultural heritage field, as it demonstrates how resources can be shared, leading to an improved understanding of artists’ materials and techniques.
In less than a year, the team has already undertaken several research projects. We began by studying a selection of indoor painted sculptures by Alexander Calder from the Guggenheim and Met collections, including Red Lily Pads and Four Directions (both 1956). Scientific analysis has focused on documenting previously restored works, paying special attention to materials identification with respect to the paint stratigraphy. While augmenting the existing scholarship on the artist, this study traces the mobiles’ history based on technically derived evidence and informs ongoing conservation treatments at both institutions.
Édouard Manet’s Woman in Evening Dress (1877–80) has provided inspiration for a second, major research initiative that will give conservators deeper insight into the artist’s materials, techniques, and artistic process. The painting has a discolored varnish on the surface that obscures the lively brushwork, shifts the colorful palette, and distorts the work’s spatial relationships. In addition, historical photographs indicate that the picture was cut down and looked significantly different in Manet’s studio after his death. In this context, we are currently combining well-established analytical techniques for materials identification with more experimental mathematical methods in an attempt to identify areas of later reworking against Manet’s original composition.
Another important focus of our work is an extensive scientific investigation of paintings by the Italian artist Alberto Burri, in support of the Guggenheim’s upcoming exhibition Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting. Through our joint efforts, we have been attempting to elucidate the rich and often challenging body of work that the artist produced between 1948 and 1994. Born in 1915 in Città di Castello, in the Italian province of Perugia, Burri had an early career as a surgeon. While serving as a physician in the Italian army during World War II, he was interned in a POW camp in Hereford, Texas. It was there that Burri chose creating art over practicing medicine, and where he began his lifelong use of unorthodox materials. Burlap was readily available in the army, used for tents, camouflage, and sacks to carry wheat and other goods. Burri began to use sacking material or burlap as a canvas, stretched onto salvaged wood and covered with a ground layer—a traditional painting construction. When he returned to Italy, he continued using burlap as his primary material, adding selections of fabric, thread, paint, resin, and gold leaf. Some of these sacks were appropriated from post-WWII UNRRA and Marshall Plan relief sacks, while most of them he salvaged from a local mill in his hometown. His skill as a surgeon is apparent in the hand- and machine-sewn seams that, along with folds, tears, and patches of fabric, form the composition of each “painting.”
These works which accentuate burlap as the primary material were titled Sacchi (sacks) by the artist and constitute just one of his 11 series, each of which was defined by and titled after the material, color, or process primarily used: Catrami (tars), Gobbi (hunchbacks), Muffe (molds), Bianchi (whites), Combustioni (combustions), Legni (woods), Ferri (irons), Combustioni plastiche (plastic combustions), Cretti, and Cellotex. The artist’s methods were highly experimental, but his formal concerns and design were meticulous. Burri was also an innovator: he was one of the first artists to use Vinavil, a polyvinyl acetate (PVA) resin that functioned as an adhesive, coating, and binder for his paints. He also experimented with plastic sheeting in the early 1960s, manipulating the then-novel material with an oxy-acetylene flame to create voluminous, rippling effects and chiaroscuro through melting, charring, and cooling.
An interdisciplinary study of the materials and artistic practices used by the artist has been conducted over the last three years with magnanimous assistance from the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri in Italy and many other generous owners of Burri’s work. Painting, object, and textile conservators, along with Pozzi and Arslanoglu, have investigated several examples from each of Burri’s series in depth. The scientific study informed the material and process essays, co-authored by Emily Braun and Stringari, that will be published in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition this fall.
To get a behind-the-scenes look at the scientists’ work and learn about some of their fascinating discoveries, visit the Met’s blog. There, Pozzi and Arslanoglu discuss their methods as they continue this collaborative two-part series about the partnership between the Guggenheim and the Met.
Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting is on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York October 9, 2015–January 6, 2016. The exhibition is organized by Emily Braun, Distinguished Professor, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, and Guest Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.