The Allure of Paper: Conservation

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As the paper conservator at the Amon Carter, I oversee the collection of works on paper---totaling nearly 10,000. Part of my job is to ensure that the works of art to be included in a show like The Allure of Paper are stable enough to be placed on exhibit. Once I receive the list of works the curator would like to include in a show, I spring into action. I examine each object closely, looking for problems like flaking paint, weak or torn hinges, tears, or any other problem that would make the piece unsafe to display.

For The Allure of Paper a few works needed conservation treatment: Edward Hopper’s untitled charcoal drawing, John Henry Hill’s small watercolor sketch Nevada Falls, John Abbot’s Cardinal Grosbeak, and Arthur Davies' Certosa Monastery. Most had minor issues that needed to be addressed before they could safely hang in the galleries for four months.

Conservator looking through microscope in the lab.
Using magnification enables me to examine a work closely, as well as make very subtle repairs.

Edward Hopper’s charcoal drawing had several small edge tears and creases, making it vulnerable to further damage. Because the drawing was executed on poor quality paper (newsprint), over time the paper had darkened. Its condition required that light levels be kept low, and it remains covered during non-public hours.

Edward Hopper's charcoal on paper Untitled (Captain Gardner K. Wonson House)
Edward Hopper (1882--1967), Untitled (Captain Gardner K. Wonson House), ca. 1923--28, charcoal on paper, 2004.31

Documentation photographs are taken before and after conservation treatment. Above is the before treatment photograph.

After examining the object, I write up a treatment proposal that the curator and I agree upon. For this piece I repaired the tears with wheat starch paste and thin Japanese paper strips. The repairs secure the tears, stopping them from getting larger.

Condition report for Edward Hopper's charcoal on paper
Treatment proposal for Edward Hopper’s charcoal drawing

Once I’m finished with treatment I write up a report detailing what I’ve done and what materials I used. Each object in our collection has a dedicated file where documentation is kept detailing its history.

In addition, for every piece on the exhibition list I make note of its exhibition history. Works of art on paper are vulnerable to overexposure to light and environmental conditions. To protect the art we limit the lifetime exhibition of a work on paper, keeping it off view in our vaults for years between shows to slow down its inevitable deterioration. We also limit the light levels used in the exhibition. Some works are so vulnerable that for the duration of the show we cover them with custom-fitted drapes to protect them when we are closed to the public.

Conservator lifting cover over Georgia O'Keeffe watercolor.
Georgia O’Keeffe's Light Coming on the Plains No. III (1917) is covered by its custom-fitted drape during non-public hours.

Post written by Jodie Utter, conservator of works on paper

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