Art conservation today is a far more subtle and complex proposition than perhaps Wilde or even Greenberg may have realized. As scientific analysis and art historical inquiry provide increasingly powerful tools for conservators, the growing awareness of inevitable cultural change calls into question the very idea of permanence and objectivity. None of us, after all, can stand outside of time. "What we really need to come to terms with here in regard to the David Smiths," argued Coddington, "is accepting the works as unfinished, as a view of the process. I would propose to let the works argue among themselves."
Yet sometimes conservators have no choice but to make educated guesses on behalf of a dead artist. Coddington described the problematic restoration of MoMA's Water Lilies triptych by Monet. The panels lay neglected in the late artist's studio, damaged by Allied shrapnel and birds less respectful than Greenberg. When MoMA acquired them in 1959, their surfaces were cleaned of bird droppings, and the canvases were lined and varnished.
In 1989, restorers made a startling discovery--like the David Smiths, this Monet was unfinished. "We found a passage where original paint went over an abrasion, indicating that at least some of the abrasions were by Monet," said Coddington. Previous restorers had assumed that all the abrasions resulted from the posthumous abuse. MoMA's restorers let the Monet's abrasions be, deducing that this was his intention--probably. At most, said Coddington, restorers can hope to "bring the most information to bear in order to narrow the range of subjectivity." The historical hindsight of past conservation decisions made through myopic analysis, time and career pressures, and simple lack of foresight makes today's conservators tread lightly, continually fearing the unavoidable limits of understanding and unquestioned presumptions.
Above from left to right, furniture and decorative arts conservator Deborah Bigelow '73, chief conservator at New York's Museum of Modern Art James Coddington '74, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum John Walsh, curator of the Yale Art Gallery Mark Aronson '80, chief conservator of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Jane Klinger '75, and Reed emeritus professor of art history Charles Rhyne. Photo by Fred Wilson