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The Conservator’s Role in Honoring Artistic Intent

When objects conservators design a treatment for a corroded sculpture, they often have to grapple with the issue of the artist’s intent.

For instance, would Henry Moore at age 29, who made a sculpture with a shiny metallic surface, be in agreement with Henry Moore at 75, who, when interviewed about a treatment, stated that he quite liked the idea that surfaces went green, dry and streaky with time?

One way a conservator can help tease out these contradictions is to interview contemporary artists about the materials and techniques they use and then record how these artists would like their sculptures cared for in the future.

Artist Al Farrow with his sculpture The Spine and Tooth of Santo Guerro previously on view at the de Young

Contemporary artist Al Farrow was at the museum to discuss his sculpture, The Spine and Tooth of Santo Guerro, 2007. A thought provoking sculpture, it is made of metal, bone, tooth and cloth. But what intrigues our visitors is that on closer inspection, they realize that the metal cathedral is in fact made of bullets, lead shot and revolver parts carefully welded together to form the edifice. 

Detail of The Spine and Tooth of Santo Guerro

Mr. Farrow and our conservators talked about the construction of the sculpture, reviewed fragile areas and rationalized how best to handle the sculpture. He also advised on how to get spare parts should they become necessary, and how to transport the sculpture safely. The discussion segued into a conversation about the philosophy of warfare and how ironic it was that Mr. Farrow has now become a collector of war paraphernalia. During this process, our conservators took photographs, made notes and even learned a few technical tricks.

Al Farrow, The Spine and Tooth of Santo Guerro, 2007. Steel, brass, gold, bone, fabric, and tooth, 64 x 50 1/2 x 74 in. (162.6 x 128.3 x 188 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum Purchase, gift of Dr. Thomas Jackson and Dr. Kathleen Grant, 2008.10

One amazing fact we learned was that the artist used paint purchased in quarter-ounce sized bottles to paint this large sculpture, the same paint used to paint model trains. The scale of Mr. Farrow’s work is far larger than that of model trains, so he orders cases of these tiny bottles to paint his sculptures! Knowing what paint was used makes any future conservation treatment much easier to design, as we won’t have to first establish what paint was used to coat the surface, saving us hours of research, analysis and testing.

“Why this paint?” we asked Mr. Farrow. He explained that the pigment (color) in this paint was incredibly finely ground to make the surface of the model trains look very black by using only a thin layer of paint, which preserves surface details. If the pigment was not a finely ground, the paint would go on too thickly, and cover details of relief and texture on the models. Mr Farrow likes being able to put very thin layers of paint on his sculptures so that details are preserved while maintaining good pigment saturation, a quality that comes through clearly when viewing the surface of the metal base in The Spine and Tooth of Santo Guerro.