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Interview with Conservator Christa Haiml

In this conversation among peers, local art conservators Patricia Ewer and David Marquis posed questions to Christa Haiml, another practicing conservator and educator who’s coming to the Walker this week (from Vienna) to give a lecture called “Restoring the Blue,” about Yves Klein’s painting materials and methods that will surely include the low-down on what […]

In this conversation among peers, local art conservators Patricia Ewer and David Marquis posed questions to Christa Haiml, another practicing conservator and educator who’s coming to the Walker this week (from Vienna) to give a lecture called “Restoring the Blue,” about Yves Klein’s painting materials and methods that will surely include the low-down on what exactly makes International Klein Blue, International Klein Blue. The talk is one of several events happening as part of École de Klein (a series of public programs related to the exhibition Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers) this Thursday night; a drop-in monochrome-making workshop and improvisational dances in the Klein galleries by the local performance team, SuperGroup (just look for the folks clad head-to-toe in colorful monochromatic spandex bodysuits) help round off the evening. Click here for more details.

Christa Haiml, Photo by Anja Hitzenberger

Before executing the conservation treatment on the Yves Klein painting Blue Monochrome (1KB 42), one of the works included in the retrospective, Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers, you performed a very extensive technical analysis. Conservators, to the best of their abilities, routinely perform such analysis on any type of object they conserve. It is important to be completely familiar with all the materials and their degradation properties before executing a treatment. At the Menil Collection you had exceptional resources such as two individuals (Tom Learner and Kate Duffy) who did pigment analysis. How important do you feel it is for a conservator to have access to scientists or other specialists to aid in analysis?

During my fellowship at the Menil Collection I was fortunate to have access to scientists at other institutions (such as Tom Learner at the Getty Conservation Institute or Kate Duffy at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center) to perform analysis on paint samples.

There are certainly cases, where collaboration with conservation scientists is indispensable in order to identify the materials in a work of art and help devise an appropriate conservation treatment. However, it is not always necessary to take samples from works of art and at times it is not possible, for example when dealing with pristine monochromatic paint surfaces. Much information can also be gained by non-destructive methods such as visual examination under the microscope.

In a conservation reference you related how you were able to do some very important mock-ups (a model that closely imitates the painting and its technique) in preparation for your actual treatment. Mock-ups can be very time-consuming, were you on a tight deadline? Also how accurate do you feel your mock-ups were?

The fabrication of mock-ups can indeed be very time-consuming, but can be very helpful to gain a better understanding of an artist’s technique. Moreover mock-ups can be used to try out treatment options or experiment with different materials that cannot be tested on the original painting (which is often the case with the unforgiving surfaces of monochromatic paintings).

I was not on a deadline for this treatment. In my mock-ups, I was able to achieve a variety of different surface textures and hues. The surface of one of the mock-ups I made was accurate enough to be used as a tool in the restoration treatment.

View of Blue Monochromes in the exhibition Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers Photo by Cameron Wittig

Can you describe the techniques, materials and unique challenges of consolidating the blue pigment in Blue Mononchrome or other Klein paintings?    With Blue Monochrome, do you feel the adhesion was significantly improved after consolidation?  Were there any changes in color saturation after consolidation?

In the case of Blue Monochrome (1KB 42) I did not have to carry out a consolidation treatment. However, in general it is true that the consolidation of matte monochromatic surfaces presents a particular challenge for conservators.  The paint layer in Yves Klein’s blue monochromes is underbound, i.e. it has little binding medium and densely packed, partly exposed pigment particles (that is, they are not surrounded by binding medium). When introducing a consolidant, one has to be extremely careful not to saturate the paint (which makes it appear darker) or change the gloss of the paint surface.

Do you consider your area of conservation expertise to be contemporary painting?

I was trained in the conservation and restoration of traditional easel paintings. After graduating, I had the opportunity to learn about modern and contemporary paintings during a two-year internship at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and a two and a half year fellowship at the Menil Collection in Houston. Currently, I teach in the program for conservation and restoration of modern and contemporary art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, but I also work in private practice where I carry out treatments on both, modern and contemporary as well as on traditional paintings.

Are there any overarching concerns you have with contemporary painting collections, not just in terms of actual treatment but collections care in general?

Many of the modern and contemporary paintings I treat in my private conservation studio suffered damages caused by careless handling or inadequate packing for transport.

Fingerprints on an unvarnished monochromatic paint surface or imprints of packing material on such a fragile surface can be irreversible damages. Preventive conservation (such as climate control and lighting), adequate handling, storage and packing would be some important aspects in the care of contemporary painting collections.

You teach in the program for Conservation and Restoration of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna; how does this modern and contemporary focus differ from traditional conservation training?

The conservation program at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna offers different areas of specialization: easel paintings and polychrome sculpture; wooden objects (including musical instruments); mural paintings and architectural surfaces; paper, books and archival materials. Students in the conservation of modern and contemporary art train in one of the above areas in their first and second year and specialize in modern and contemporary art starting from their third year. Training includes practical work on artworks ranging from contemporary paintings to three-dimensional objects, installations and time-based media. The curriculum encompasses lectures on modern materials, new methods of documentation, interviewing artists, ethical issues of dealing with living artists and artists’ intent.

Conservation training programs in the UK and a bit in the US have begun to suffer.  In this economic climate universities worldwide feel they need to focus on programs that can pay for themselves. Conservation (like library programs in the late 1980’s) is a very time consuming discipline to teach and several universities are questioning their viability/sustainability; some programs have actually closed (Textile Conservation Center, University of Southampton – closed, and now taken up by the University of Glasgow; Royal College of Art/Victoria and Albert Museum Conservation Programme – closed). How do you feel about the training of future conservators?  Do you feel there is less interest in this field in academic institutions in Europe? Does your program have a good number of applicants?

I cannot speak for other academic institutions in Europe, but I believe that at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna the number of applicants for the conservation program has remained relatively constant over the last few years. In fact, our program was fortunate to have been expanded with the implementation of a new area of specialization (the conservation of modern and contemporary art) five years ago.

Patricia Ewer is the principal of Textile Objects Conservation in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is a conservation professional with over 30 years of experience in treating textiles, managing, developing and staffing conservation projects. She has held conservation positions at Historic Royal Palaces (U.K.), Midwest Art Conservation Center (Minneapolis, Minnesota), Biltmore House (Asheville, North Carolina), Textile Conservation Laboratory at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (New York, New York), and The Textile Conservation Workshop (South Salem, New York). She has been a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works since 1989. Ms Ewer was recently a presenter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Tapestry Conservation Symposium (December 2009). She is co-editor with Frances Lennard of the recently published book Textile Conservation: Advances in Practice.

David Marquis, Senior Paintings Conservator
Mr. Marquis began with Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC) in 1984. He has distinguished training and experience in the conservation of historic and contemporary paintings including the structural conservation of canvas and panel paintings, the authenticity and permanence of varnishes, and the mechanical behavior of paintings. Prior to joining MACC he was at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and also an instructor of Painting and Drawing at the University of Minnesota, School of Architecture. He holds a Master’s of Fine Arts Degree in Painting and Drawing and a Bachelor of Arts magna cum laude in Studio Arts from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Mr. Marquis is a Professional Associate of The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works and a Member of the Midwest Regional Conservation Guild.

  • Ashley says:

    It should be mentioned that Patricia and David did restoration work to Yves Klein’s anthropometrey painting, Suaire de Mondo Cane (Mondo Cane Shroud), 1961 that the Walker acquired for its collection in 2004. The piece is currently on view in the exhibition Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers.

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