The miner's concept of the finished work has its own modern parallel in the notorious case of nine David Smith sculptures found after the artist's death primed by the artist, evidently, to be painted. Critic Clement Greenberg successfully argued for stripping the primer, so the unfinished works would be like Smith's earlier bare-steel sculpture. Like the miner, Greenberg was so sure of a fixed aesthetic canon that he rejected the pieces as inauthentic and incomplete. "I will take it upon myself," ruled Greenberg, "to speak for the dead artist."
Dead artists found moreable champions at a recent Reed symposium honoring emeritus art history professor Charles Rhyne, one of the few art historians who is a member of the American Institute of Conservation. Four eminent Reedies-turned-conservators--Mark Aronson '80, Deborah Bigelow '73, James Coddington '74, and Jane Klinger '75--and John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, gave expert insight into the dilemmas of conservation today. None had Greenberg's sense of certainty, but all raised crucial issues of art restoration with good sense and great stories.
As James Coddington '74, the chief conservator at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), wryly said, the one thing we do know is that Smith did not want what Greenberg wanted for him. "Smith made one clear decision, and that is that by putting a primer on these works, they were not to be bare metal." And Smith's posthumous problems continue to proliferate, Coddington continued: Christie's recently auctioned one of the controversial sculptures with a fresh coat of white paint. "Thus the work is slowly becoming what it is, rather than what it was," he mourned.