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The Object in Transition: A Cross Disciplinary Conference on the Preservation and Study of Modern and Contemporary Art

Tom Learner


L’auteur, senior scientist à l’Institut Getty et partie prenante du projet « Objets en transition », revient sur la conférence qui s’est tenue en janvier dernier à Los Angeles. Il retrace les temps fort de cette rencontre internationale, ainsi que les perspectives d’avancées et de recherches en conservation d’Art contemporain, tout en invitant le lecteur à prendre connaissance des débats par le biais des vidéos mise en ligne : elles resteront le media privilégié de l’événement, car à ce stade, aucune publication d’actes n’est prévue.

The author, senior scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute revisits the conference “The Object in Transition” held in Los Angeles last January. In his article he gives an account of the high lights of the debates and focuses on new opportunities for research and progress in contemporary art conservation. He invites the reader to visit the online video conference (post prints are not available).

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“Since the middle of the twentieth century, artists have increasingly turned to a variety of new materials and techniques for art making. Many of these materials and techniques have produced objects that alter rapidly in appearance and require some level of intervention to enable their continued display. These works pose strong challenges to the fields of conservation and art history. There is often no codified method for conserving such works; further, the insistent but uneven rate of deterioration present in many objects has left us with countless works of art that now diverge starkly from their original form. The practical and interpretative problems that arise in relation to durability and ephemerality in modern and contemporary art are exacerbated by an art-historical methodology that tends to privilege theoretical interpretation over concrete object study. The descriptive knowledge that originates in object- and technique-based study has increasingly left the field of art history, falling instead within the domain of art conservation. Curators and historians of contemporary art have in recent years shown renewed interest in object-based study, but the requisite training is no longer part of advanced art-historical study. Conversely, conservators by necessity study art through the empirical and scientific analysis of objects. However, the challenges posed by modern materials often lead to decisions about an object's preservation and acceptable aging that are based on more subjective inferences about the artist's original intent—an interpretive concept that many art historians view with some skepticism.”

1This was the intentionally somewhat provocative opening statement from The Object in Transition, a conference co-organised by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and the Getty Research Institute (GRI) that was held at the Getty Center in Los Angeles on 24th-26th January 2008. It aimed primarily to further the discussion on some of the more complex and controversial issues related to the conservation of contemporary sculpture, painting, and mixed-media artworks. Although frequently aired by the conservation community, there is still much unease about many of these issues such as: the relative importance of “concept” and “materials” in many contemporary artworks; the weight given to an “artist’s intent” when devising a conservation strategy; and the point at which the degree of deterioration in an object renders it essentially “dead”. These dilemmas get particularly problematic when they seem to be in direct conflict with some of the well-established and almost sacred ethics of conservation practice, perhaps most obviously the notion of “reversibility”.

2It has long been recognised that any discussion on how to deal with these issues should involve a cross-disciplinary dialogue, primarily between conservators, art historians and curators, although other segments of the art profession (for example, dealers, insurance agents, private collectors etc), as well as – of course – the artists themselves cannot be overlooked. Many conferences and meetings have attempted to facilitate such a discussion, and those that I have witnessed have always been truly fascinating. However, I have also found that the nature and sheer number of difficult and complex issues that are always raised makes it almost impossible to know where to start in attempting to resolve them. There are three factors that - in my opinion - seem to hamper the true extent of potential progress in these discussions, namely that conservators and art historians/curators often seem to speak two very different languages (and it is therefore rare to get a true dialogue going); that the discussion tends to remain rather broad with a barage of conservation problems, artists and materials all being debated at the same time (and it is therefore also rare to get beyond the periphery of any of the specific issues); and that many conservators are unwilling to talk openly about some of the treatments that have been undertaken (due to the very sensitive nature of many of the issues).

3With this in mind, the organizing committee for The Object in Transition (Carol Mancusi-Ungaro and Elisabeth Sussman from the Whitney Museum of American Art; Andrew Perchuk and Glenn Phillips from the GRI; and Kris Kelly and Tom Learner from the GCI) attempted to facilitate the discussion by doing a number of things: 1. every presentation would involve at least a pair of speakers, typically a conservator in dialogue with an art historian or curator, to debate the conservation issues of a specific work of art; 2. in many cases it was possible to bring the works of art in question to the Getty Center, in order that every conference delegate could view these works “in the flesh”  and therefore be more likely to participate in the discussion; 3. we sought out potential presenters who were willing to address quite controversial issues, but were ready to discourage the audience to react to anything in a hostile or derogatory fashion; and 4. the case studies would be broken up at various points each day to make way for larger panel discussions where some of the broader issues could still be addressed.

4The works that were present on site were: Roy Lichtenstein’s Three Brushstrokes (located on the Getty campus), along with the painted wooden maquette for the piece; 6:30 (both the original 1966 and the reconstructed 2006 version) and VI:XXXII by David Novros; two of the three sections of Eva Hesse’s Expanded Expansion, and a discarded Unfinished Painting by Barnett Newman.

5Realising the difficulties for many people, particularly outside of the US, to travel to Los Angeles, another important, and perhaps rather innovative, aspect of the conference was to have the entire event filmed and available for viewing on-line. Of course, this makes writing a review of the conference slightly redundant, as instead of taking my word on the salient features of the discussions, anyone can now watch the sessions and make up their own minds. It will therefore suffice - having placed the conference into context - to limit my descriptions of each presentation to a very basic outline, in the hope that they might whet your appetities to visit the website and hear the discussions directly.

6The link to the conference videos is:​conservation/​publications/​videos/​object_in_transition.html

Thursday, 24th January

7At the public panel discussion The Object in Transition: Contemporary Voices, three of the leading artists in the world today—Rachel Harrison, Paul McCarthy, and Doris Salcedo—discussed the production of their work with curator Elisabeth Sussman and conservator Christian Scheidemann. The artists went into great details about their very different creative process, what their materials and fabrication processes mean to them, which materials are likely to be ephemeral in nature, and what the implications may be for the long-term survival of their art. This event was also filmed, and is available for viewing here:​conservation/​publications/​videos/​conservation_matters.html

Friday, 25th January

8The day began with IJsbrand Hummelen (Senior Research Conservator at the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage) and Nancy Troy (Professor of Art History at the University of Southern California) discussing Piet Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie (for an image of the painting click here). The painting was worked on by Mondrian over many years, including a period of very heavy re-working in the days leading right up to his death in 1944. Much of this re-working involved the use of coloured sticky tape as a means for experimenting with composition. Subsequent conservation treatments attempted to get the painting back to the point immediately before his death, based primarily on photographic documentation, but as new evidence emerges it appears that mistakes may have been made. In addition to being an impressive example of conservators and art historians working together to establish the chronology of the various points in the paintings history, the principal conservation dilemma here is trying to decide the composition to which it should now be restored.

9Next, Roy Lichtenstein’s outdoor sculpture Three Brushstrokes was discussed by Jack Cowart (Founding Executive Director of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation), Julie Wolfe (Associate Conservator at the J. Paul Getty Museum) and Glenn Phillips (Senior Project Specialist for Contemporary Programs and Research at the GRI (see here for an image of the sculpture). Here, a collaboration of a slightly different nature was outlined, with a conservator working closely with an Artist’s Foundation and – through them – the artist’s assistant, to decide on the most appropriate colour scheme that should now be adopted. The condition of the sculpture is fine, but the current smooth surface finish (spray-applied paint) is very different to the original (a more textured, brush-applied layer), and in some colours – most notably the yellow – it is also completely the wrong colour. A finish that is likely to be much closer to the original colour and texture is seen on the painted maquette for the work. One interesting complication arises in that Lichtenstein moved away from a brush-applied system to a spray application later in his life, so depending on when he might have been asked, he would probably have given very different answers to which finish he preferred.

10Next up was Heather Galloway (Conservator of Paintings at the Intermuseum Conservation Association in Cleveland) and Stephanie Wiles (John G. W. Cowles Director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College) debating the recent treatment of Sol Lewitt’s, 49 Three-Part Variations on Three Different Kinds of Cubes. This dialogue went to the very core of one of the conference’s recurring themes: that of the relative importance of original material (in this case the original paint applied to the sculptures) and the artist’s concept (that the paint should be perfectly white and free of any blemish). So when the paint layers on this piece had lost their pristine condition and started to crack, it was decided to strip off the original paint and repaint it, a most irreversible treatment! It was reasonably straightforward to follow the logic that without such a drastic approach, the piece would be very different from what was important to LeWitt, and indeed what is admired in much of his art, but the big unknown (which was definitely recognised by the speakers) is how future generations might view the value of the original materials differently, even in this type of conceptual art. For more information on the treatment, see here.

11The morning was rounded off with a panel discussion on The Painted Surface, with all the morning’s speakers participating, and chaired by Tom Learner (Head of Contemporary Art Research at the GCI). As with all of the panel discussions, one of the aims here was to permit the broader issues to be debated, and move beyond the dilemma posed by specific case studies. That said, all three of the morning’s case studies were initially debated in more depth, along the lines of the importance of the surface qualities of the various painted surfaces in question, and how they might differ to art historians and conservators. The issue of repainting was a focus for much of the discussion, from the almost routine approach take for outdoor painted sculpture, to the far more difficult notion of justifying the treatment for paintings and indoor sculpture.

12In the afternoon, Pip Laurenson (Head of Time-Based Media Conservation at Tate) and Anne Wagner (Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of California, Berkeley) gave a joint paper entitled Nauman's Edge, in which they described their experiences of learning from each other by a constant dialogue over what they each saw in Bruce Nauman’s sculpture and installation work, specifically over the significance of his edges. They claimed a very different dialogue to what they felt was the more “usual” method of collaboration between conservator and art historian, in which the art historian essentially does the initial batch of research that would then feed into the conservator’s examination and treatment (although many in the audience probably did not identify with that model either). One of the issues they definitely differed on – at least initially - was over the concept of artist’s intent, and this was also an important and recurring theme in the conference. Here, Pip admitted that at first she was “searching for the answers in [Nauman’s] statements” that he gave during an interview with her, whereas Anne stated she held the belief that you “should never believe what the artist says, because it is always a motivated statement”.

13James Turrell, Trace Elements: Light into Space was then discussed by Andrew Perchuk (Assistant Director, Contemporary Programs and Research at the GRI) and David Turnbull (Assistant Conservator at the Denver Art Museum). When the work was originally installed in 1994, viewers recall experiencing a "magical" burst of deeply saturated blue light, but only if they remained in the viewing space for at least 20 minutes. Shortly after this, Turrell's assistant substituted a dimmer brand of light bulbs, largely because the originals were no longer manufactured, but also because Turrell wanted viewers to remain in the space for even longer before they were rewarded with the blue sensation. However, the museum’s curator wished to witness again the vivid hues she remembered, so went against the artist’s wishes and increased the intensity of the lights. Of course, in this instance, the turning up of light levels is still a very reversible process, so the decision was perhaps not as controversial as it might have been in other art works, but it served as an excellent example of how much weight the profession should place on an artist’s wishes, especially if they appear to alter with time. The other real dilemma here is how a conservator is supposed to document this piece in order to assist with future installations.

14Finally, Lynne Cooke (Curator at the Dia Art Foundation), Gary Garrels (Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs and Chief Curator at the Hammer Museum), Pip Laurenson, Anne Wagner, Glenn Wharton (Research Scholar at New York University) took part in the end of day panel discussion, entitled Artist's Voice: History's Claim, chaired by Carol Mancusi-Ungaro (Associate Director of Conservation and Research at the Whitney Museum of American Art). We will all be aware of examples where conservators (and curators) have worked closely with artists in order to assist in the conservation of their work, usually evoking the term “artist’s intent” to justify the treatment chosen. But, interestingly, here the discussion started off with each panelist being asked to present an example of when they went against an artist’s wishes, which made for a really fascinating series of short presentations (although not all the panelists were able to present such a scenario). Ninety minutes of lively discussion ensued, with plenty of questions and comments from the audience, and some of the topics covered were examples of how encounters with artists had advanced the understanding of their work; the relative success of paintings being repainted by the artist or by a conservator; the ability to learn more (or be thrown off the scent) about what is important in a work by dialogue with the artist beyond the material properties of the object; and the problems of not being able to predict all the questions to ask an artist during an interview.

Saturday 26th January

15The discussion of David Novros’s paintings, 6:30 and VI:XXXII, was particularly fascinating as it involved the artist himself, talking with Jim Coddington (Agnes Gund Chief Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York), Brad Epley (Chief Conservator at the Menil Collection) and moderated by Lynne Cooke (Curator at the Dia Art Foundation). The panel debated the two different approaches that had been taken by MoMA and the Menil over the restoration of two very similar paintings, both of which were multi-component, shaped canvases, with a monochromatic opalescent paint layer over their entire surfaces. Both had darkened considerably since they had been created, and several very disfiguring cracks had started to appear, at least on the Menil piece. The approaches (both of which were taken with the consent of the artist) were that the MoMA painting was repainted (in 1990), requiring the removal of the original tinted top layer and a reapplication of the white ground layer before the new paint layers were applied; whereas at the Menil, a copy was made by the artist in 2006, keeping the original (which has already been repainted) for study purposes. All three works hung in the conference display area for direct comparison, and – of course – there was much debate about which approach had been more successful, and how you would even define success; and the implications for allowing an artist to re-visit his/her work several years after its initial creation.

16The morning was concluded with the discussion on Eva Hesse’s, Expanded Expansion (for an image of the piece fully installed click here) between Michelle Barger (Deputy Head of Conservation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), Carol Stringari (Chief Conservator at the Guggenheim Museum), Elisabeth Sussman (Curator, and Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art), and moderated by Jill Sterrett (Director of Collections and Conservation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). For many delegates, this was the highlight of the conference, in that Expanded Expansion has almost become an iconic image of the struggles being faced by conservators of contemporary art, in particular with an important and highly influential piece that has deteriorated to such an extent that it cannot be installed and displayed. Indeed, the debate about this and other Hesse pieces has been going on for many years, and one of the questions immediately posed by the panel was “why are we still talking about this piece?”. The panel showed recent footage of working with the artist’s assistant Doug Johns (also present at the conference) in making a material mock up a small section of the piece, that threw signifiicant light on the process of fabrication, how the piece may have appeared and behaved originally (in terms of the flow of the fabric) and, actually, how quickly the latex started to discolour. But it also drew much unease about the potential next step of this process, ie the making of a new version of the piece that could be displayed.

17The final set piece was a dialogue between by Yve-Alain Bois (Professor of Art History at the Institute for Advanced Study) and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, who delivered a “double act” on Encountering Newman. The two speakers have worked together extensively in the past, examining a number of influential artists, but in particular Barnett Newman for his catalogue raisonne, and they recounted and compared how they have viewed several works by Newman, including most recently an unfinished and discarded work that was found in a box of fragments in the artists studio, and which had been temporarily mounted so that it could be brought to the Getty Center for display at the conference. As they debated what this discarded piece really was (for example, whether it should be stretched up and displayed in a gallery as a work, or kept back out of public view, and available only for examination in a study centre?), and why Newman discarded it, it was obvious to see how effective they work together in collaboration, in bouncing ideas off each other, and bringing different evidence to back up a certain theory. Perhaps most interesting was to hear how they often fundamentally disagree, including – in this case – over the correct orientation of the painting.

18The conference was concluded with the second major panel discussion, this one entitled Life and Death of Objects. The panel comprised Yve-Alain Bois, David Bomford (Associate Director of Collections at the J. Paul Getty Museum), Jim Coddington, Christine Mehring (Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago), Jill Sterrett and was moderated by Jeffrey Weiss (the then Director of the Dia Art Foundation). Again, it would be impossible to do justice to this session in just a single paragraph, but one of the key issues here was when objects have altered so dramatically from their original appearance (with Hesse’s Expanded Expanision being such an excellent example) then what is it that is left? There is certainly a value to keeping and – in some instances – displaying the original object, but at what point should they be proclaimed an artefact or, beyond that, a relic? Other key issues that came up was the reminder to view our conservation actions now as interpretive and belonging to a specific part of history, and that they are therefore likely to be viewed differently by future generations; that – as with traditional art - an editing process is inevitable that will result in only a portion of current artworks surviving the next centuries; and finally the role of market value (the “elephant in the room”) in keeping certain works in displayable condition.


19it should be stated that there was much nervousness in putting this conference together, in particular over the sensitivity of some of the issues being raised, and the fact that very strong and different opinions were certainly present in the auditorium. However, the debate never once seemed to cross the boundary from a passionate and heated disagreement into finger-pointing or aggressiveness, and I hope I am not going too far to suggest that we also succeeded in one of the primary goals of the conference: to get a true dialogue going between the various sections of the art profession. It seemed that for much of the debate, we really did all talk in the same language. I feel also that some of the main, and extremely difficult, dilemmas that are being constantly faced by conservators of modern and contemporary art were confronted directly and – in some cases – in depth, and the feedback we have received so far suggests that real progress was made by filling a lot of heads with a lot of food for thought on the journeys home and beyond. The danger now, of course, is that the momentum of so many of the discussions will fade, but the GCI and GRI are actively looking into ways of playing a role in attempting to prevent that from happening, and would be very willing to talk to anyone with similar ambitions.

20I sincerely hope that anyone reading this short summary of The Object in Transition will now be strongly tempted to hearing the full dialogue of any or all of the sessions from the conference. There are no plans at present to produce written papers or proceedings, so the conference videos will remain the primary method of dissemination for the event.

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Electronic reference

Tom Learner, “The Object in Transition: A Cross Disciplinary Conference on the Preservation and Study of Modern and Contemporary Art”CeROArt [Online], 2 | 2008, Online since 21 April 2009, connection on 07 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Tom Learner

Tom Learner is the head of contemporary art research at the GCI. He came on staff in January 2007 after a number of years of working with the Institute as a partner at Tate in London, on the GCI's collaborative modern paints research project.
Tom became interested in conservation during his chemistry studies at Oxford University, and while obtaining his master's degree, he did volunteer work at the university's Ashmolean Museum, where he could see the application of science to the work of conservation. After graduation in 1988, he earned a postgraduate diploma in the conservation of easel paintings at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London; he followed these studies with an internship at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, that was split between scientific research and hands-on paintings conservation.
In 1992 Tom became a Leverhulme research fellow in conservation science at the Tate Gallery, concurrent with his PhD studies at Birkbeck College. His thesis focused on the characterization of acrylic and other twentieth-century painting materials. Four years later, he took a regular position at Tate, ultimately becoming their senior conservation scientist (source: Getty Institute).

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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