When Robert Rauschenberg made his Elemental Paintings in 1953, he flouted conventional expectations of process and materiality. Instead of oils, he reached for dirt, paper, and clay; instead of painting, he packed, assembled, and stacked. The results were unpredictable for both viewer and artist. When grass suddenly sprouted out of a large Dirt Painting, the artist decided to care for the accidental vegetation, regularly watering it while it was on exhibit—it would later be known as Growing Painting. In another dedicated to John Cage, mold began to spread across the surface, creating a living composition.
Few of the works from this series survive today. The Dirt Painting (for John Cage), while extant, is so fragile that it can no longer be hung on the wall, and is instead presented horizontally—more garden bed than painting. It's a 90-degree move that, undeniably, alters the meaning and experience of the work. But when art goes off script, those in charge of its survival have to follow.
Rauschenberg, and all the other Postwar and contemporary artists who threw out the rulebook in favor of experimentation, forced major revisions in museums' approach to conservation. The debate forges on today: When materials are unstable and begin to decay, to what extent should the conservator intervene? What would the artist have wanted—or, in the case of living artists, what do they want, and are their intentions subject to change? Did they originally envision an immutable, time-defying object? Or would they consider signs of deterioration part of the work, with time as an active agent in the artistic process?
New vocabularies have emerged around these loaded questions. Sociologist Fernando Domínguez Rubio draws distinctions between "docile" and "unruly" works of art—the more unruly an object, the tougher it is for a museum to stabilize, classify, and showcase it. And when an artwork's material makeup causes it to deteriorate on its own, conservators speak of "inherent vice." Contemporary art conservator Glenn Wharton, in an article that outlines the challenges of his profession, summarizes the issue thus: "In acquiring works with unstable 'found' objects, synthesized modern polymers, and other new technologies, museum collections shifted from the predictable to the unknown."
Some conservators who have tackled these great unknowns have wonderful success stories: for example, the Bruce Conner sculpture—once deemed hopeless—that MoMA recently managed to save. Or that time, years ago, when conservator Carol Mancusi-Ungaro figured out the perfect recipe to reverse premature discoloration in the dark, moody paintings of the Rothko chapel.
In other cases, however, conservators get less lucky. As of yet, there is no magical solution for dealing with perishable plastics. Latex, for one, grows yellow and brittle with time, as is evident in the aging of Eva Hesse's curtain-like sculpture, Expanded Expansion, and many of her other unruly works, which rarely travel and are exhibited with great caution, if at all. When conservators are out of options and works are beyond repair, they are "considered effectively dead," writes Glenn Wharton. "They are not exhibited and are archived in museum graveyards solely for research purposes."
Then there are those works whose clock is ticking because the materials are becoming obsolete. To save Dan Flavin's works from those terminal museum graveyards, institutions are stockpiling fluorescent light bulbs before they go off the market.
And when inventory runs out? Then it'll be a good time to remember these words by Hesse, spoken shortly before her death: "Life doesn't last; art doesn't last. It doesn't matter."