On October 22, 2013, the “Cultures of Conservation” class visited the MoMA Conservation Lab to meet with Chief Conservator Jim Coddington about aspects of painting conservation and installation. Class member Martina D’Amato reported the following site visit review.

This site visit to the MoMA with Chief Conservator Jim Coddington was fascinating in that, unlike previous class visits, our discussion took a decidedly theoretical turn which enabled a different kind of conversation from previous site visits.

Walking into the lab, it was clear that work was under way on several canvases perched on easels, including a large Arshile Gorky. Above a cabinet were a row of blue-painted samples, ranging from a cobalt to a deeper indigo-based blue, and I couldn’t help but wonder if these were tests for the conservation of a work by Yves Klein.

Coddington, who trained at the Winterthur Conservation program and initially worked with Old Master paintings, approached us and placed on the table one of the basketballs from Jeff Koons’s iconic work Three Ball 50/50 Tank (1985). After pointing out the degraded state of the ball due to mold and efflorescence, he launched into a discussion about the recent conservation of this work. Koons, who was involved in the conservation process, came to the decision along with the museum to have custom-made Spalding balls to replace the existing ones. I asked how this decision might have been different if Koons were no longer alive to approve something as invasive as replacement. Coddington noted that with Koons, the decision would be easier than most because his aesthetic is so pristine and requires a newness value in its appearance.

Conversely, he used the example of a Wesselman painting with applied printed matter from the 1960s, where the curator and conservator decided against partial replacement of this material even after getting the approval from the artist himself, the reason being that “these [old] materials…may look a little abject, but…they tell us that they are of that time.”

In other instances it can be more problematic. Coddington discussed at length what he synthesized in his article “Amnesia”—that is, that artists want to preserve their artworks. He suspects that this is one reason why traditional media is still so prevalent and experimental materials are not yet the norm. He did note, though, that artists take it upon themselves to gain an understanding of materials and also understand basic conservation issues.

Once again, our class was confronted with the idea of the “artist’s intent.” Jim noted that even when the artist is no longer present to give their opinion on a conservation matter, he does believe that through material and technical study, conservators are capable of grasping the artist’s intent. He also expressed the inherent differences between the art historian’s understanding of artist’s intent—abstract and philosophical—compared to the conservator’s understanding of it—material and physical.

Apart from this theoretical basis for comprehending the artist’s intent, Coddington noted that in his practice a big factor with acquired works, where the artist is not present to give their opinion on treatment, relies on the condition at the time of acquisition. He used the hypothetical example of the late Arthur Danto’s red canvases. If Coddington were presented with the two canvases, both in a similar state of degradation, but the artist had specified no treatment on the first of the works and had not mentioned the second work, then Coddington would obey the artist’s wishes to not treat the first work, but, without the artist’s consent, he would determine to conserve the second work in the state in which it was acquired.

For the last part of our visit, Jim showed us a presentation on a particular conservation project regarding the installation of the museum’s suite of Kandinsky paintings. These presented an interesting case study in works previously unidentified as a set, but for which the museum uncovered a great deal of information on their possible original layout in an apartment on Park Avenue, for which they were originally commissioned. These documents prompted their reinstallation in one possible arrangement, and this project illustrates what can be accomplished when the rare case occurs in which documentary evidence for the original location and intention can be identified.

All in all, this visit was among the most informative, as it acted as a launch pad for a philosophical discussion of conservation’s aims versus its practical application and it was a way for students to “pick the brain” of a conservator in terms of the similarities between his own theoretical approach and praxis regarding issues in conservation.