April 2, 2019
I wrote a letter in response to an October 29, 2018 New Yorker article (“Color Blind” by Margaret Talbot) which the magazine offered to print in a diluted version. I said no. Recently I was asked by George Bisacca to write something on the subject of “restoration-conservation” and I thought it would be a good opportunity to publish the New Yorker letter.
Over the past twenty or thirty years, I have written and spoken a great deal about restoration and/or conservation. My comments are available on the websites of the Getty, the Rothko Chapel, etc. In addition, I have had a lot of friends who are restorers (Dana Cranmer, Jim Coddington, Bradford Epley, Kiernan Graves, Luca Bonetti, and many more). These people know a great deal and I have valued their work and communications. In fact, I have had more contact with them than I have had with curators. They know the physical and historical reality of painting—they do their best to preserve the work in response to that reality.
On the other hand, there has been a trend on the part of some restorers, curators, historians, etc., to over-step their roles. The museums have encouraged the restorers to use their increasingly large technological tool boxes for entertaining PR oriented projects that they think will be of interest to their audiences.
Apart from the awful faux painting (derived from pigment analysis) that I discuss in my letter, the use of computer programmed lighting (in an attempt to replicate the original appearance of Rothko’s paintings at Harvard and perhaps the Rothko Chapel in Houston) is another example. The hubris demonstrated by these sorts of activities does a mis-service to the sadly degraded work as well as the attempts of reputable restorers.
October 26, 2018
To the Editor,
Re: “Color Blind” by Margaret Talbot, October 29, 2018, New Yorker.
That Mark Abbe, in 2000, was not aware that most Greek and Roman sculpture was painted suggests the deplorable state of art “history” as it is taught in places like the NYU Institute of Fine Arts. The cure for this idiotic view of Hellenistic, Cretan, Greek, Roman, Sumerian, Native American, Medieval Gothic, and all other pre-Renaissance sculpture is to look at the objects and the paintings of these cultures.
Anyone looking at the kore from Parthenon can easily observe the beautiful use of paint in conjunction with the sculpture. This is easily done with the naked eye. It is only because the “experts” and their technologically-minded helpers have no idea about the nature of painting that they have not only misunderstood the work but in their attempts to remedy their mistaken observations have introduced a technically oriented idea about how the sculpture was painted. They are laughable…
The painting of the Greeks is generally gone from the walls but the Roman murals (both painted and in mosaics) exist and I do not understand how anyone who has seen this painting would think that the Greek and Roman painters would approach their work on sculpture in the ham-handed style that the restorers, archeologists, historians, etc., have presented.
No wonder people are appalled by the reconstructions. Yes, you can correctly analyze the pigments and the other materials, you can even get an idea about the method of painting, but that would not teach you how to paint on the sculpture with the sort of genius these people possessed.
I have seen restorers using the exactly correct materials, while they failed to understand the poetry, the ambition, or the intentions, of the painter. Does anyone think that the sculptors of the Parthenon would have allowed a kind of “Disneyesque” paint job to go over their work?
Abbe and Van Voorhis may learn which pigments and techniques were used in painting the sculpture but they will never learn the art. They will never feel the painting while they imagine the socio-political incidents of “slave boys.” The painting is beyond technical comprehension and the facsimiles do more harm than good. Rather than a disgusting imitation, people should concentrate on extant painted sculpture and the complimentary painting of the time—Fayum, Pompeian murals, Cretan pottery, etc.
Let us imagine whole buildings made with the same degree of brilliance that produced the things we have left.
Just because the experts have misunderstood the relationship between painting and sculpture since the Renaissance, there is no reason to continue misunderstanding it in our own age of technological infatuation.
Taking care of the painting, sculpture, and architecture that has been made for the past 40,000 years requires armies of highly trained and motivated workers. Luckily, we have seen such people at work after the floods in Florence, in the desert of Dunhuang (China), and after earthquakes in Assisi—to name just a few examples. Saving the creative activities of humankind in an age of barbaric warfare and global climate change is a high calling, but mortuarial plastic surgery has no place in activities of honest practitioners.