Can Science Save Modern Art?

More importantly, should it? The growing debate over conserving art that’s meant to decay.

Can Science Save Modern Art?
[Image: Eva Hesse detail via Flickr J Neuberger]

Art conservationists work hard to halt the onward march of time, reversing the natural decay of the materials the artist chose to work with. We view master works from hundreds of years ago in temperature and humidity-controlled conditions, no flash photography, no touching, only indirect light. It’s easy to lobby for the painstaking preservation of a 15th-century painting to maintain the look the artist originally intended. The preservation of modern art, meanwhile, can bring up greater challenges: How do we preserve nontraditional materials? And what if the artist wanted her art to decay?


In Nautilus magazine, Luba Ostashevky explores the case of Eva Hesse, part of the Minimalism movement in the 1960s. “Where earlier artists may have unwittingly made their art fragile, these artists deliberately turned away from durable materials,” Ostashevksy writes. “The legacy of their lives and of their art challenges us to look squarely at the fleeting nature of our lives.”

Image: Eva Hesse, Sans II, 1968. Fiberglass and polyester resin (1936-1970) SFMOMA via Flickr user rocor

Over the years, the organic latex Hesse used in her installations has melted in some places, and become hard and brittle in others. Conservationists aren’t entirely sure what to do with non-traditional materials like Hesse’s. “We are feeling around in the dark,” according to Tom Learner of The Getty Conservation Institute.

Even if conservationists can stop one of Hesse’s installations from dripping latex onto the museum floor during an exhibition–as conservationist Michelle Barger did using cheesecloth and adhesive for a 2002 show in San Francisco–they can’t necessarily do anything about how the material has shriveled and changed color over the years. But considering the artist intended to create work that was transient and impermanent, that disfigurement is as much a part of the piece as the original material.

Read more at Nautilus.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.