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Masterpiece Back On View After Gum Incident

Friday, June 30, 2006

The Detroit Institute of Arts has one of the finest Conservation Labs in the country, and it's a good thing. It was certainly needed on February 24, 2006 when a 12-year-old visiting with his school placed a wad of chewing gum on the painting The Bay, by Helen Frankenthaler. Conservators in the lab have dedicated their efforts to analyzing, repairing and preserving art, and although damage from visitors is extremely rare, the DIA's conservation staff was well prepared to handle this unfortunate incident.

After initial assessment and treatment of the painting, the museum is happy to report that a successful restoration has been achieved and The Bay is on view once again. How exactly does that happen? Take a behind-the-scenes look as the museum's own “CSI” team attacks such a problem once it receives the call.

Conservation Department Goes Into Action

What do you do when someone sticks gum on a masterpiece? Remove it, and immediately, to make sure any further staining doesn't occur, but this must be done very delicately to prevent additional damage. Paintings conservator Alfred Ackerman was the first on the scene. Equipped with micro tweezers, he quickly removed the gum and saved it so it could be analyzed. Then, wearing a jeweler's magnifying loop, Ackerman removed tiny pieces of gum residue that were caught in the canvas weave. While still in the gallery, tiny, controlled applications of deionized (very, very pure) water and a fast evaporating solvent were employed in the area of the stain to remove anything immediately soluble like oils and saliva.

From there the seven-foot-tall painting was removed from the wall and taken to the museum's state-of-the-art conservation laboratory for examination and further treatment. In the meantime, the research began. What are the components of gum? How would these interact with the paint? In order to find out exactly what effect it would have on the painting, conservators needed to know precisely what they were dealing with. Since they knew the brand of gum, it was easy to find out what it was made of. A little gum chewing was also necessary to get a sense of how sticky the gum could get and the amount of moisture that might be transferred to the canvas. In addition colleagues from other museums who specialize in modern paintings were consulted about possible cleaning solutions.

Science Joins History: What About The Artist?

In situations such as these it is also important to know about the artist and how he or she worked. Conservators and curators discuss the artist's intent and working style to help determine the most appropriate way to approach a conservation treatment. That is particularly true for The Bay, as Frankenthaler's experimental and breakthrough stained-canvas technique posed its own conservation challenges. Frankenthaler had been experimenting with new a medium of water-based, acrylic tube paints, allowing her to achieve the pools of color as the thinned out paint soaked into the unprimed canvas. The Bay was her first successful painting made with acrylic paints.

Moving Forward

After the 48-hour drying period Ackerman studied the stain under a stereo-microscope. Tests with various fast-evaporating solvents were performed on the stain and an area of similar paint on the tacking edge, which was pulled onto the back. One was chosen that dissolved the residue without having an adverse effect on the paint film. The conservator spent about two hours removing the stain using Hexane (a fast-evaporating petroleum distillate), a cotton swab, and tweezers – all under a microscope. At this time, as the darkened residue around the perimeter of the stain was removed, it was observed that a few of the canvas thread tips in the middle of the stain where the student pressed or applied pressure to the gum were slightly lighter. The tackiness of the gum appeared to have removed some of the air-born dirt that had lodged into the fibers of the painting over time. Ackerman, in turn, delicately applied a gray pastel with a small brush to tease the color to its pre-gum state.

Always considered as a stunning example of Frankenthaler's work, The Bay is hailed by art historians and contemporary art enthusiasts alike. The year after the DIA purchased it, The Bay was included in the 33rd Venice Biennale (1966), and subsequently exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, among others. The DIA acquired The Bay in 1965 and has since acquired three other Frankthaler works on paper and two paintings. The museum is happy to report that this extraordinary painting is on view once again. So make sure to visit and see the restored masterpiece for yourself.