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Follow that Art! Six-Sided Planes Gets a Makeover by Paintings Conservation

Last week Balcomb Greene’s Six-Sided Planes made its first entry into the Museums and the acquisitions process via the registration department. This week, the painting heads upstairs to the paintings conservation lab for a little makeover.

My name is Elise Effmann and I’m an associate paintings conservator at the Fine Arts Museums. Conservators are entrusted with the care, treatment and technical study of artworks in the collection. When a painting comes to the Museums as a proposed acquisition, our department must examine it to provide the curators with information about how it was made, and to determine if there are any potential problems with the acquisition due to its condition.

After Six-Sided Planes was received by the registration department, it was brought to the paintings conservation studio on the second floor of the de Young. I examined the painting on an easel, then under the microscope and finally with ultraviolet light. Clearly well cared for during its life, the painting has changed very little since it was painted in 1937. However, even though it is in excellent condition, Six-Sided Planes did have a few minor issues affecting its appearance. Most noticeably, the canvas had grown slack on its stretcher and developed corner draws on the right side. There were also two tiny losses of paint near the signature and a few black scuffmarks near the edges.

Documentation of all stages of any treatment is an important part of our practice, so I wrote a report summarizing the painting’s current condition and then photographed it before beginning the treatment.

Before treatment with raking light

After my examination was complete, I met with curator-in-charge of American art, Timothy Anglin Burgard and chief curator at the de Young, Julian Cox. I spoke to the curators about the minor structural and aesthetic issues affecting the painting and how to address them. Later in the week Museums director John Buchanan also came to the studio to view the work prior to the Acquisitions Meeting.

When it was clear that we would move forward with the acquisition of Six-Sided Planes, I procured written permission to treat the work from the gallery offering the painting to the Museums for purchase.

First, I removed the wood framing strips that were nailed into the sides of the painting. The slack canvas and related corner distortions were a result of inadequate tension provided by the stretcher.

Slack corner (before treatment)

I returned the fabric to plane by expanding the stretcher and thus increasing the tension of the canvas.

Corner (after treatment)

Next, I filled the tiny paint losses with a water-soluble gesso-type material and retouched them to match the surrounding paint using conservation-grade paint.

Loss (before treatment)

Loss (before treatment with raking light)

Loss (after treatment)

I was able to visually reduce the black scuffmarks at the edges with pastel pencils.

Scuff (before treatment)

Scuff (after treatment)

As is standard conservation practice, all the materials used in the treatment can be removed at anytime in the future without damage to the painting. I took photographs of the painting when my work was complete and attached a protective Fome-Cor board to the reverse of the painting to prevent inadvertent damage in handling.

After with raking light

Tune in next week for the big show−find out if the Museums’ Board of Trustees votes to approve the purchase of this modern masterpiece!