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The Artist’s Intent in Flux

Rebecca Gordon and Erma Hermens


This paper questions whether the concept of the artist’s intent and its connection with the physical fabric of an object/artwork still holds sway. It outlines some ways in which the artist’s intent can be identified and raises issues of reliability and value that often result in it being viewed with some reservation. This will be explored specifically in relation to modern and contemporary art in order to promote a rounded approach to the interpretation and conservation of a work of art.

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1The biographies of artworks tell stories of alterations and interventions, loss and damage. They may be created by individual artists or executed by assistants; they may be products of a workshop, copies, serial endeavours, or creative concepts in their own right. This mutable notion of the autonomous artwork calls into question traditional understandings of both authenticity and the artist’s intent. In a profession that traditionally respects above all the ‘significance and the physical properties of the cultural heritage item’ (ICON 2002), what role does the concept of the ‘artist’s intent’ play in the conservation of a work of art? Is the intangible intention at odds with the work’s materiality or should one inform the other? This paper will discuss the notion of the ‘artist’s intent’ and will question whether the concept and its connection with the physical fabric of an object or artwork still holds sway. It will discuss various manifestations of the artist’s intent in relation to contemporary artworks and will conclude by questioning the reliability and value of contemporary documentation of the artist’s intent.

The value of authenticity in conservation

2The concept of authenticity appears in charters and codes of ethics of organisations such as ICOM-CC (1984) and ICON (2002), as a core value driving decision making in conservation and restoration. However, with new approaches towards interpretation, display and ‘use’ of collections, (for example, the increasing importance of public outreach), challenging conservation and display demands often require a re-evaluation of traditional authenticity values. Present conservation theory moves away from one state of authenticity – where the moment of production is seen as the primary expression of the artist’s intent – towards, for example, a tautological theory confirming the artwork’s authentic state at any given moment (Muñoz Viñas 2005, 2009). An anthropological approach with an emphasis on object biographies is often adopted (Van de Vall2011; Van Saaze 2009), particularly in cultural heritage, and international conferences have established the now widely acknowledged idea of an artwork’s multiple authenticities (Hermens and Fiske 2009). Therefore, the concept of authenticity in these theories occupies a wide range of positions and interpretations.

The synonymy of authenticity and intent

3As Lowenthal said of authenticity, the artist’s original intent is a concept in flux (Lowenthal 1995a, 1995b). It has taken on different meanings and values over time and its application in the conservation context is a topic of contention. Despite wide adoption of the artist interview as an integral part of contemporary conservation decision making, the variability and subjectivity of the source continues to prove problematic, which is not surprising considering the grounding of the modern profession in scientific objectivity. Tallying the artist’s intent with the authentic ‘state’ of the object (Laurenson 2006; Ashley-Smith 1999: 99), often understood to be its original material constitution, appears to provide measurable indicators of artistic decision-making and, therefore, tangible evidence of the artist’s intent. This inevitably links authenticity and the artist’s intent to the integrity of that physical fabric over time, set in its own cultural context. However, if aspects of the physical object are lost, intentionally or unintentionally changed, or indeed deemed insignificant, how do we identify or preserve the artist’s intent?

The artist’s intent and degradation phenomena in contemporary oil paint

4Although we tend to focus this discussion on modern and contemporary art – namely installations, so-called temporary or ephemeral artworks, and new media artworks, mostly because they are particularly problematic for conservation ethics and methodology – other seemingly ‘traditional’ artworks such as modern paintings also pose increasingly complicated conservation problems. At the recent conference ‘Issues in Contemporary Oil Paint’, organised by the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) in March 2013 (Amersfoort, The Netherlands), research was presented on various disfiguring effects of degradation phenomena due to processes inherent to the composition of modern paints. Such phenomena include the formation of crystals on the surface of a painting, as was the case with Max Ernst’s La Horde (1927) held in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. What resulted was a white haze, which can be removed but does not ensure the avoidance of its re-emergence in the future, which could occur if it continues to be exposed to moisture.

5Another degradation phenomenon is the dripping of paints due to segregation processes of composite materials. These phenomena impact tremendously on the original appearance of the affected work and create huge problems for conservators and curators alike.  Understanding the processes that cause this degradation is complex. These phenomena seem to derive from the many additives to modern paints either by the manufacturers or by the artists themselves, and are therefore not always based on systematic production procedures.

6So far, one of the preliminary outcomes of the research on these degradation phenomena, as indicated during the discussion at the symposium, is that the application of a varnish layer could potentially prevent or substantially slow down these processes. During the symposium, this was proposed as a possible temporary measure as ongoing research is needed to establish alternative treatment solutions.

7However, this immediately creates a dilemma as, in most cases, the explicit wish of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century painter was or is ‘not to varnish’. Instead they prefer, for example, the aesthetics of a matte surface or indeed employ the play of contrasts between matte and gloss, as can often be found written on the back of the canvas, accompanying documentation or artists’ statements, or articulated in interviews. This dilemma revives the old debate about the protective quality of varnish layers, which led many conservators to apply them to late nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings that were never meant to be varnished. The degradation processes, however, are complex and their effect can be dramatic. Do we want to preserve the authentic appearance of the paint layer, which might necessitate varnishing in a selective and carefully judged manner to prevent degradation (e.g. whether matte, gloss etc.); or do we respect the artist’s wish not to varnish, probably leading to regular treatments of the paint surface to decrease the effects of degradation or, if left untreated, resulting in a degree of degradation that is difficult to contain and disfigures the appearance of the work? Do we accept a ‘discrete’ application of varnish, mimicking the desired matte surface or selective matte and gloss application, as a compromise between preservation and respecting the original appearance? After all, the artists will most likely not have been aware of the degradation processes inherent to the material.

8This is, as yet, an open ended discussion as continuing research may find other preventive measures that are equally effective but do not conflict with the apparent ‘original intent’. Yet, when considering degradation and subsequent changes of appearance in historical paint layers, both in colour and in texture, we tend to accept the loss of the ‘authentic’ surface, and consequently a full appreciation of the artist’s intent. This assumes that we can more easily contain the artist’s intent in traditional artworks, even though much of it may be lost, as the ‘objecthood’ of traditional artworks is seen as more stable, being the stimulus for the work’s interpretation through scientific evidence.

9The ‘contemporary oil paints’ case, however, seems to take its place somewhere between traditional and non-traditional art, and thus challenges such assumptions. Many of the degradation processes take place rather quickly after the artwork’s production (e.g. dripping of paints started 5-7 years after making) and must have been known at one point by many artists. Research should not only address the identification of the physical and chemical degradation processes, as well as the manufacturing of these paints, but also reactions of artists to the changes in their works, which is key information that is often overlooked. Do we concede that once the artwork has been created its significance changes and should be open to secondary intentions outside those of the artist? Do we accept the degradation of modern paints along the same vein as our acceptance of the degradation of paint layers with smalt, or ultramarine disease? Should we move away from our understanding of the original intent and preferred authentic state of an artwork being the moment of its production? Should we use any knowledge we may have of that ‘initial’ state to interpret the work, but refrain from trying to regain it through restoration, accepting the work’s present state as authentic?

10As is quite clear from this series of questions, this subject tends to evade conclusions and leads to inevitable ambiguity. But the discussion can gain from addressing non-traditional artworks where the physical integrity is insignificant or secondary to the conceptual identity of the work.

The artist’s intent and contemporary artworks

11The primacy of the artwork’s physicality has been undermined since the transition from manual labour to intellectual labour with the inception of the Readymade (Roberts 2007). Artistic expression now centres on the creative process rather than the product of that investigation. The function of the hand of the artist has become that of ‘placing, ordering and selecting’, according to John Roberts, inviting the labour of others into frame (Roberts 2007: 88). This shift in artistic practice has implications for the identification of the artist’s intent. If the artwork is made from ephemeral materials, is situated in the dematerialised tradition, or is temporally or contextually contingent, the artist’s creative decision-making may not be evident in the artwork’s material attributes. Similarly, the work may evolve with every reinstallation, taking on different forms and significances in each new context. This potential variation between the different instances of an artwork levies even more importance on understanding the work’s identity, particularly when it is to be reinstalled or is in need of conservation. This is not simply ‘good practice’, but is a legal obligation of those responsible for the artwork’s care (Garfinkle et. al. 1997). In order to fulfil this obligation to protect the artist’s work from modification, misrepresentation and destruction, it is first necessary to ascertain the intended communication embodied by the work. This is where the artist’s intent comes in.

12Yet, if the record of the artist’s decision-making process is not available in the work’s material properties, how are these intentions to be identified? With emphasis shifting from materials as clues to the artwork’s ‘preferred state’ towards its conceptual premise, the conservator’s attention invariably has to refocus upon the artist’s communications surrounding the work. Instead of consolidating the artwork’s ‘original’ materials, the conservator is now concerned with ascertaining the artist’s intentions in order to understand the significance of the artwork’s materials and whether or not they should be preserved. This intention can be gauged through artists’ statements, contracts, supporting documentation and artist interviews or questionnaires.

Artist’s statement

13An artist’s statement, for example, communicates something of the concepts and ideology that underpin the artist’s practice. This naturally colours the way the work should be approached and provides a grammar by which the artist’s work can be discussed. One such example might be the specification that now tends to accompany all of Lawrence Weiner’s (b.1940) work, which was first published in the catalogue of ‘January 5-31 1969’, Seth Siegelaub, New York. It reads:

  1. The artist may construct the work

  2. The work may be fabricated

  3. The work need not be built

  4. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership (Weiner 2003: 894).

14The artist is communicating something of his indifference to the art ‘object’. It can be built; it can be left as an intangible idea. The work need not be fabricated by the artist himself, emphasising Weiner’s intention that the receiver should determine its material condition. In a later conversation with Ursula Meyer, published in 1972, Weiner asserts, ‘I personally am more interested in the idea of the material than in the material itself’ (original emphasis) (Weiner 2003: 894). The artist’s statement then often provides a general ideological context in which to position the work under discussion.


15A form of documentation that often relays tighter delineations from the artist is a contract accompanying the work. It does not necessarily focus on the legalities of a transaction (this would tend to be a separate document if the work is being sold), but provides a formal outline of appropriate methods of installation and display of the work, the artist’s attitudes towards material degradation and conservation treatment, and the responsibilities of both parties for the care of the work’s physical and conceptual identities. If either party deviates from what is outlined, the contract is broken and the experiential and conceptual access to the work may be jeopardised. Paul Schimmel, former chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, summarises this well:

It is important to capture, take hold of, try to fix, and somehow preserve the intentionality of the artist. It is not just a question of the artist making something and the curator or the collector interpreting it... This is something that requires a shared responsibility. (Schimmel 1999: 136)

16A contract or certificate is one way for the artist to uphold his or her responsibility in this sense, giving the curator, collector or conservator an authoritative source to work from. A contract, by its very nature, provides determinations, rather than recommendations, thus becoming a vehicle for the artist’s intentions. Naturally, some artists are more rigorous with these instructions than others, and there will always be an element of interpretation that will shape the final outcome.

Supporting documentation

  • 1  Subsequent quotations of Borland come from the interview with Rebecca Gordon 2009.

17Accompanying the contract would normally be supporting documentation such as installation plans, technical drawings, photographs of the installation and constituent parts, as well as images and documentation of its de-installation. This amount of information is best practice, but in reality may err towards the minimal. However, even this may offer insight on the artist’s intentions, providing key information for those responsible for the work’s reinstallation in the future. The Turner Prize nominated artist Christine Borland referred to the importance of documentation in an interview with Rebecca Gordon in 2009 when she was asked at what point a work she created would cease to be the ‘authentic’ work. Borland answered that she always tries to make sure there is at least one good example of the work, ‘the piece that I’m proud to say, “this is the work”,’ either on first installation or in documentation (Borland 2009).1 Documentation plays a particularly important role in this process. Borland recounted an example of an exhibition in Belfast that she was particularly pleased with but felt that the photographic documentation did not accurately represent the work. As she knew that the work might be shown again elsewhere, she decided to go to Belfast with a photographer to document the exhibition. Although she was careful to explain that this was not necessarily the fault of the gallery, it illustrates her valid concern for a ‘correct’ presentation of her work. It is this concern, she explained, that causes people to think that she is very ‘nitpicky’ about the initial presentation of work. ‘But’, she continued, ‘that’s because, in my mind, I am making some sort of benchmark for possible future presentations, to say, “Look at the number of times I sanded that down… That’s the standard that I would expect”.’ In taking care to define the determining features of the work that enable the viewer to meet with it in a way that encourages an informed response, Borland is recording her intentions for the work. And yet, although they may seem obvious to her, she admits that sometimes her work is still presented in a way that is disappointing to her: ‘Works have been shown in ways that I’ve thought, “How could they think that’s okay?”.’ Particularly for artworks from a dematerialised tradition, the role of documentation – whether written, schematic or photographic – can be central in communicating and representing the artist’s intention.

Artist interview and questionnaire

18A qualitative method for gaining insight into an artist’s practice and determinations is the artist interview. Over the past twenty years (since Mancusi-Ungaro’s Artist Documentation Programme in 1990), it has steadily developed into an intrinsic device in the documentation toolbox of the curator and conservator. A structured methodology has developed to support this process, from the Concept Scenario for Artists’ Interviews (developed by ICN and SBMK during a pilot interview project 1998-1999) and the Guide to Good Practice (INCCA, 2002) to the more recent publication in 2012 of The Artist Interview (Beerkens et. al. 2012), which outlines the method and practice of the interview for the conservation and presentation of Contemporary Art. Framing the artist interview in this way is perhaps a response to the scepticism that has trailed this form of documentation since its adoption for the purposes of conservation. A qualitative method of research, it is no wonder a discipline with its modern roots in scientific empiricism was initially suspicious of its subjective nature. However, with the appropriate grounding methodology, the subjectivity of the interviewee (and, of course, the interviewer) can be properly channelled, making it a particularly valuable source: the silences, exaggerations and modifications bring secondary information about what the interviewee is seeking to communicate or designates as significant. If the exchange is filmed, as is increasingly common, further information is offered, as ‘a filmed interview goes one step further by offering tone to each statement’, Mancusi-Ungaro explains (Mancusi-Ungaro 1999: 392). A questionnaire is often used to seek detailed information about the materials an artist used in a work – the brands, codes and quantities. However, the rate of return can often be poor if not used in conjunction with an interview. An in-depth interview, on the other hand, offers a platform for dialogue and the opportunity to probe beyond the artist’s ‘statement’.

Reliability and value of the artist’s intent

19Despite the tendencies towards immaterial practice, it is clear that the contemporary artist’s intention can still be gauged, even though it might be communicated and discovered in a different way to that of historical artists. When the artist’s intent is identifiable in the artwork’s objecthood, the conservator’s emphasis naturally is on the materials for clues as to the artwork’s ‘preferred state’. With emphasis shifting towards the concept behind the artwork, the conservator’s attention invariably has to refocus upon the artist’s communications surrounding the work. After all, ‘their essence lies in the artistic idea and not in their realization’ as Chiantore and Rava acknowledge about ephemeral and conceptual artworks (Chiantore and Rava 2012: 166). Instead of consolidating the artwork’s ‘original’ materials, the conservator is now concerned with ascertaining the artist’s intentions in order to understand the significance of the artwork’s materials and whether or not they should be consolidated. However, questions remain about the desirability and consistency of this information.

20A common hesitation around the documentation of the artist’s intent is that it might change over time. The conservator Barbara Sommermeyer notes that it is often difficult for an artist to step back from their work and view it through the perspective of creative distance (Sommermeyer 2011: 146). Instead, the artist may want to update the piece in light of his or her current practice and preference for materials and processes, offering suggestions to conservation issues that contravene conservation ethics such as the replacement of original materials. However, the question here is not necessarily whether artists should be allowed to change their work in a collection, but rather which instance of the artist’s intention is most ‘authentic’?

21This brings us back to the ongoing discussion about an artwork’s authenticity: is one moment in the artwork’s history more authentic than others; and should the ‘original’ materials take precedence in this definition? If we choose not to anchor the artist’s intent in the moment of the artwork’s creation, we presumably move into the realm of flux, in the same way as Lowenthal described authenticity as ‘a concept in flux’ (Lowenthal 1995b: 369). We would then be free to align the artwork with any point along the trajectory of the artist’s intention for the work. If we follow the art historian Michael Baxandall’s understanding of ‘intention’, as ‘not a reconstituted historical state of mind... but a relation between the object and its circumstances’ (Baxandall 1985: 15), the fixing of the artist’s intention to one historical moment may not be necessary. In this case, the aim is not to reconstruct the artist’s state of mind at the moment of the work’s creation, but to understand the decision-making process that defines the identity of the artwork and how that is expressed. Indeed, this might require a certain amount of distance on the artist’s part in order to fully appreciate the significance of these decisions. The authenticity of the work could therefore be described as being dependent on the circumstances and realisation of the communication of the artist’s idea, not on the fixing of that communication to one specific rendering (namely the work’s point of creation in the studio or gallery).

22It should be noted, however, that ‘intentions’ are more than ideas or thoughts about the work. They are actionable sanctions that should correlate with the identity of the work itself (Irvin 2005). In this sense, the work should not simply be subject to the whim of the artist; the artist’s intentions must tally with the evidential markers of the artist’s creative decision-making leading to the work’s communication. Whether this potential fluctuation in the artist’s intent is approached with apprehension or acceptance presumably depends on the margin of flexibility in the way an institution deals with material instability.


23With the interchangability of terms and the synonymy of intention and ‘authenticity’, the understanding and use of ‘artist’s intent’ has become confused. Yet it remains desirable – indeed fundamental – in the assessment, treatment and interpretation of contemporary art. Its potential variation need not lead to mistrust but when understood as a qualitative, subjective source it can provide nuanced and valuable information beyond expectation, much in the same way as the subjectivity of the oral history source is one of its greatest assets. It can provide insight into the artwork’s conceptual position within the artist’s oeuvre and the artist’s view of the artwork in light of the development of his or her practice. It also enables the question to be answered about whether any material instability or decomposition is the result of a desired process or aesthetic, or whether the artist simply was not aware of more successful techniques or materials at the time. Whether materials are then allowed to be replaced in the name of technical advancement again lies with the ethos of the institution. We are, after all, in an era of compromise. However, to come back to Baxandall, the reliability of this potentially variable intention stems from it being evidenced in the artwork and the context of the work’s creation.

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1  Subsequent quotations of Borland come from the interview with Rebecca Gordon 2009.

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Electronic reference

Rebecca Gordon and Erma Hermens, “The Artist’s Intent in Flux”CeROArt [Online], HS | 2013, Online since 27 October 2013, connection on 24 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Rebecca Gordon

Dr Rebecca Gordon is the Research Assistant for the Research Network for Textile Conservation, Dress and Textile History and Technical Art History at the University of Glasgow, funded through a grant from the Getty Foundation. Her main research interests include the concepts of authenticity and material significance in contemporary art, with particular focus on the artist’s intent and conservation issues.
School of Culture and Creative Arts, 8 University Gardens, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, G12 8QH, UK.

Erma Hermens

Dr Erma Hermens is the Lord Kelvin-Adam Smith Senior Lecturer in Technical Art History and leads the Technical Art History strand of the Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History. She is the Convenor of the MLitt programme Technical Art History: Making and Meaning. Trained as a paintings conservator and with a PhD in the history of art from Leiden University, she has organised several international symposia in this interdisciplinary field. She is chief editor of the new online edition of ArtMatters: International Journal for Technical Art History, funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, School of Culture and Creative Arts, 8 University Gardens, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, G12 8QH, UK.

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