The Artful Science of Mending Works on Paper | Conservation Lab

The paper conservators at Alvarez Fine Arts Services, a private studio in New York, restore everything from Matisse prints to beloved family heirlooms.

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Oct 11 2016, 2:40pm

Mending tears with Japanese paper. Photos courtesy of Alvarez Fine Arts Services unless otherwise noted

While conservators in a museum setting work towards exhibitions that are scheduled years in advance, private practitioners often have to work at a much faster clip, while still upholding the required methodological and ethical standards. “More and more, our schedule is governed by auction dates and major art fairs around the world,” notes Jason Marquis, the studio manager at Alvarez Fine Arts Services, a New York-based private paper conservation studio founded by Antonio Alvarez and Scott Krawitz in 1984. With Art Basel less than two months away, the Alvarez team, which includes four full-time conservators, is gearing up for a busy season.

On the plus side, those intensive turnaround times—along with a diverse client base—make for a rich variety of projects. In addition to taking on work for smaller museums that do not have an in-house paper conservation staff, the Alvarez studio primarily does business with auction houses, art dealers, and collectors, who are looking to treat artworks before they are exhibited or sold. Meanwhile, some projects are brought to them because of their personal, rather than cultural, importance—like letters and diplomas. “But we don’t think about value when things come through here,” explains Marquis. “We treat everything as though it’s priceless, whether it’s a sentimental drawing from someone’s grandmother, or a million-dollar work.”

As Marquis guides me through their sunlit, 11th floor studio in the Garment District, I get a sampling of the motley assortment he speaks of. A few feet away from a print signed Matisse—which will soon be treated for “mat burn,” a discoloration caused by contact with an acidic mat board—conservator Christopher Skura is studying four boxes of antique fishing lures that are dirty and torn.

Antique fishing lure boxes. Photo by the author

“According to the collector,” says Skura, “the boxes are worth even more than the objects.” And while the client was hoping to have the labels removed, cleaned, then put back on, Skura is instead recommending a less aggressive approach that will leave the labels as is, and extract the dirt with dry sponges. “What is technically possible isn’t always ethically sound,” says Marquis—a magic phrase he often has to use with clients. “It’s like going to the doctor and asking for a treatment, and the doctor has to explain why it’s not such a good idea,” adds Skura.

Conservator Pamela Goeke showing off the Jasper Johns watermark present on every page of the book she is treating. Photo by the author

On a nearby workstation, something is being pressed between two glass plates, with a sign on top reading “Johns’s Book.” Conservator Pamela Goeke explains that she has been working on 33 prints that were produced by Jasper Johns and Samuel Beckett in the 70s, and originally arranged as an accordion book. After treating each page for oxidation and foxing (in layman’s terms, discoloration and dark spots), they will need to be relaxed by humidifying the fibers of the paper, and then flattened between a sandwich of blotters and Gore-Tex to reduce the undulations caused by wetting.

Winslow Homer drawing, before and after. Photo by the author

As for oxidation—a common issue—Marquis pulls out a drawing by 19th century landscape artist Winslow Homer to describe the usual course of action. A suction table was used to rinse the work with deionized water, which passed straight through the paper without disturbing the media, and pulled out the soluble acids that were responsible for the yellowing. Works that are more stable, meanwhile, can directly be submerged in a bath, which is set up in the back of the studio.

Medical illustration showing signs of mold and other damage, due to Hurricane Sandy. Photo by the author

Several medical illustrations are also tucked away back here. They await treatment on wire racks, smelling distinctly of mold. This archive of original illustrations, produced for a medical textbook in the 20s and 30s, suffered major damages as a result of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “The insurance claim finally got approved,” explains Marquis. “These blooms here—they’re the exoskeletons of mold spores,” he explains, pointing at a bright pink stain. Most of the surface mold was removed before the drawings came into the studio, so as to avoid cross-contamination, and the next step will be to lighten the appearance of the stains with water and hydrogen peroxide.

Mending tears with strips of Japanese paper

There's a lot more to rifle through—for example, their beautiful collection of watercolor pencils, used to fill in areas of loss, or the flat files filled with different varieties of Japanese paper, the go-to medium to fix tears—but I sense it's time for me to go. There's an Impressionist painting whose full moon has turned into a crescent because of paint losses, drawings that need to be reframed, and a piece by Thomas Hart Benton, due to hit the auction block soon, with areas of gouache that have chipped off. In other words, there’s still plenty of work to do, and the clock is ticking.

Andy Warhol, Mao, 1972, before and after treatment (which included cleaning, mending tears and losses, and flattening to remove undulations)

Gustave Baumann, Cedar woodblock print on paper, before and after treatment (which included shaving away paper board with a scalpel, and rinsing to remove oxidation)

Lilian Westcott Hale, Portrait of a Boy, graphite on paper, before and after treatment (which used a cleaning solution locally to reduce appearance of foxing stains)

To learn more about Alvarez Fine Art Services, click here.

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