Artists As Restorers... Of Their Own Artwork

Art is long and life is short, according to the old Roman saying, but sometimes art doesn't hold up its end of the bargain. The canvas warps, the metal bends, the paper turns brown; new artworks may look like old works in a short period of time, leaving their buyers perhaps feeling as though they have been had. One such collector brought back to New York gallery owner Martina Hamilton a painting she had purchased there by the Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum that now looked as though the "painting was falling off the canvas," Ms. Hamilton said.

Art is sold "as is" by galleries or directly from artists. (Can you imagine Consumer Reports reviewing art?) Still, dealers hope to maintain the goodwill of their customers, and artists don't want to develop a reputation for shoddy work. But it's not fully clear what responsibility artists bear to their completed work, especially after it has been sold. That's particularly the case for artists who purposefully use ephemeral materials in their art (bee pollen, banana peels, lard, elephant dung, leaves, mud, moss and newspaper clippings, to name just a few examples) -- isn't it the buyers' responsibility to know what they are getting?

Mr. Nerdrum, who is known for formulating his own paints (and constructing his own frames), was contacted by Ms. Hamilton about the deteriorating painting, and he directed the dealer to offer the buyer her choice of other works by him at the gallery in the same price range. The collector, however, didn't want any other Nerdrum painting in the gallery, so the artist rehired the same model he had used originally and painted the image anew. The matter took a year to resolve.

David Novros, a Manhattan artist, was asked in 2006 what to do about a 1965 acrylic lacquer painting in the Menil Collection in Houston that had extensive "cracks, canyons and fissures" all over the surface, and he decided "to remake the work with the same materials as before." The work, "6:30," is now dated "1965/2006." Back in 1990, the Museum of Modern Art had come to Mr. Novros about a 1966 painting in its collection whose canvas had discolored, also affecting the handmade plywood stretcher. He scraped off the old paint and put on new. The museum labels the work, titled "VI.XXXII," as "1966 (repainted in 1990)."

Artists' experimenting with materials is only one reason contemporary art may not hold up even in the short run. Another is that the training of artists nowadays rarely includes educating them about the properties of the materials they use. Sometimes, artists shortchanged their own art because of a lack of money, a problem not unique to artists alive today. Early in their careers, Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siquieros and French cubist Fernand Léger both painted on burlap sacks, while Marc Chagall made designs on bed sheets and Franz Kline worked on cardboard. And sometimes the artists simply lacked the technical know-how to make their art last.

In 1995 the Museum of Modern Art purchased the complete set of Cindy Sherman's 1977-80 untitled film stills, considered some of the most important photographs produced in the contemporary era. Nowhere on the accompanying labels or on its Web site does the museum acknowledge that these prints were run off at the time of the purchase from the old negatives, because many of the original black-and-whites had been processed carelessly, resulting in severe color shifts and fading. "When people bring in an early work that's technically all wrong -- it's turned silver or something -- we print out another one," said Janelle Reiring, director of Sherman's gallery, Metro Pictures.

A more recent instance of redoing the past occurred in 2006 when Damien Hirst's 1991 shark-in-a-tank work "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," which had been deteriorating badly because the artist hadn't used a sufficient amount of formaldehyde, was replaced. Owned by hedge-fund billionaire Stephen Cohen (he bought it in 2004 for $12 million) and currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the work "was restored following the advice of conservators. There is only the one work under that title," according to a spokeswoman for London's White Cube gallery, which represents the artist. In fact, Mr. Hirst cleaned out the tank, sawed in half another shark, and made sure that this one was more properly pickled.

Maintaining the monetary and historical value of a work of art requires a range of counter-measures, some of which intentionally are kept vague.

A question arises of when or if to call in the artist if physical problems arise with the artwork. Tom Learner, a conservator at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, leans toward contacting the original artist. "I believe in using the artist as a conservator, and paying the artist as an expert," he said. "The artist has a better grasp on what should be done." He added that collectors need to know that if they "are buying works that have untested materials, these kinds of problems are part of the deal." Glenn Wharton, a "time-based media" conservator at the Museum of Modern Art, agreed, claiming that "I'm all about working with artists, when artists are still alive," although he noted that "when artwork is sold, other players come into the picture and the artists give up some of their rights." These and other conservators noted that they would not want to replicate the problems that caused works to deteriorate in the first place.

An artist's sense of obligation to his or her work sometimes may be time-limited, contracturally -- public art commissions usually contain a clause in the agreement stipulating the artist's responsibility for "patent or latent defects in workmanship" for between one and three years -- or because of evolutionary changes in the artist's life and work. Frank Stella said that he may be willing to help repair one of his works if "it's not more than two or three years old." He uses different materials for specific works and, "after two or three years, I don't have any of the materials left over. I don't have the expertise to deal with it; if I were to attempt a repair, I'd make a mess of it."

Back in the 1990s, Stella refused to take part in the restoration of a 25-year-old sculptural painting that had been brought in for repairs to Brooklyn conservator Len Potoff, who had contacted the artist as a matter of practice. "He said that he couldn't do it," the conservator told me. "He's not where he was 25 years ago, and he couldn't put himself in that zone. At the time, I was really put out, but now I find that point of view commendable."