During the past several decades, the field of art conservation and restoration has been forced to reckon with an increasing body of fragile, ephemeral, and unstable works that defy traditional categories and institutional methods. Christian Scheidemann, a Hamburg-based, freelance conservator specializing in contemporary art, agreed to answer a few questions about the rewards and complexities of his practice. Gregory Williams recently conducted an interview with him via e-mail.
I'd like to begin with some basic questions about the discipline of conservation. First of all, what is the difference between conservation and restoration?
There is indeed a difference between conservation and restoration. Conservation is always the second thing we do. It involves things like saving the material in art works from falling apart, fixing loose paint and improving the structure of objects. Restoration would be step three: cosmetic retouching and removal of dirt and varnish in order to make the work look well-maintained. But the first thing for any conservator to do is to prevent works of art from damage, to control environmental and climate conditions, to care for proper handling and packing, to avoid unacceptable travel conditions, and to tell people to respect the work as a unique expression of a unique individual. Contemporary art is often so vulnerable that you cannot really restore it but only prevent damage. We spend half of our time in prevention and giving advice.
Do you and your colleagues perform all of these tasks?
Yes, we do. All organized conservators agree to a code of ethics, which says that you should treat any work, regardless of its value and the will of the owner, as a historically unique and irreplaceable work. We decide from case to case what to do and what to save. There is a lot of responsibility involved with these decisions.
How does one train to become a conservator?
In the United States there are universities in New York, Delaware, Indiana, and Texas where you can be trained to become a conservator. It takes about six years to get a degree in conservation. In Germany it is about the same; you have to study for four years at a university and do some practical work before spending two years in a conservator's studio.
It seems that your position requires you to have a command of various aspects of both art and science. What kind of knowledge is the conservator expected to possess?
Lots of patience and curiosity, but this is not unique to the conservator. One must know about chemistry, biology, art history, and physics, as well as have practical knowledge of those materials you wish to work with. As a furniture conservator, you should have carpentry experience; as a paper conservator, you should do exercises in bookbinding; as a conservator of photography, experience as a photographer or laboratory assistant is advised. For a conservator of painting you should have a good sense of observation and art history, as well as familiarity with all of the natural sciences. In any case, beginners should talk to museum conservators in order to be sent in the right direction.
I'm curious to know more about your clients. Do you do more work for museums or collectors?
Our studio mainly works for collectors, but also a great deal for museums and art dealers. We are often recommended by artists, who feel that their work is being understood and well-maintained by us. We work very closely with artists like Matthew Barney, Robert Gober, Paul McCarthy, Kiki Smith, and Sarah Lucas. You can imagine the range of intentions and materials we are dealing with.
As someone who works frequently with contemporary art, you must be constantly confronted by non-traditional materials. What was your most difficult assignment as a conservator? How did you overcome the problem it presented?
Besides the challenge of preserving food in art works like the fruit used by Zoe Leonard, the liverwurst for Jonathan Meese, a bed made out of Italian ciabatta bread for Jana Sterbak, and chocolate for Janine Antoni, the biggest challenge for a conservator is to work with historical synthetics like cellulose nitrates—the first generation before Plexi-glas—used by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy or natural latex used by Paul Thek, Louise Bourgeois, and Richard Serra in his early work. These problems can only be "solved" in close collaboration with scientists, for instance with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington or the Doerner Institut in Munich. We have conferences about the conservation of modern art and there are workshops and seminars on technology. In terms of the application, however, you have to experiment yourself.
We once spoke about the time you had to preserve a giant pound cake produced by Matthew Barney. Can you tell me more about that experience?
Yes, indeed, it was right after Documenta IX (1992) in Kassel. Matthew phoned me to ask if I could bake a big pound cake in the shape of an extended pill (Hubris Pill). His cake, which he showed in the installation OTTO-Shaft, had been destroyed by rats in the parking garage, which was the site of the installation. It took us about one year to find a bakery that was willing to let us experiment with paste in their work space. Finally, we found a solution, a tech-nique to build up a pound cake in the mold Matthew had sent. The problem was that either the inside was still raw after an hour of baking time or the outside started to turn black after 90 minutes. So we made a construction with wire mesh containing a void inside and it worked. Eventually, the grease had to be extracted with chemicals and the space of the grease had to be replaced by synthetics. We had acquired the necessary experience earlier with the conservation of Robert Gober's doughnuts.
Do you feel that there are some works that are simply meant to be ephemeral (for instance, leftovers from Fluxus events, certain works by conceptual artists, or props used in performances)? Or should these objects be maintained as historical documents?
Richard Tuttle once stated in a conversation with me that all his works were meant to go with the wind. He said he would never care about his materials and he liked the idea that his objects were so lightweight that they would just fly away and disappear like a cloud in the sky. However, when looking at his elaborate production of artist's books, I cannot take this statement seriously. During the early days of their careers, most artists do not really care about the materials they use; they are not meant to last forever. As interest increases from collectors and museums, they often care very much about proper materials and techniques. This, however, runs the risk of losing all the charm of fragility and ingenuity.
There are artists who encourage the decay of their work. Or, to put it more precisely, the transformation of the work. I think of Dieter Roth and his objects made out of cheese that would acquire mold, change color, and keep the spectator at a respectful distance because of the intense odor. In reference to his chocolate pieces he told me as a conservator: "The worms and bugs in my pieces are my employees. You must not disturb them; they have to do their job like any one of us." The only thing you do about these works, these concepts, is to document the changes by taking photos from time to time.
So it sounds as if there are, at least in principle, works that should be left to their own devices. Can you think of any art-related object that you would refuse to restore or conserve?
There is no work that I would refuse to restore based on quality and intention. But I would always restore my favorite art works first and luckily there is so much to be done in the conservation of contemporary art that I can set up priorities. Another aspect is that if you work in collections—private or public—the storage, environmental, climate, and general preservation conditions have to be settled and this goes for all works of art, expensive and cheap, big and small, high and low quality.
One reason I would refuse to restore an art work would be that I would not feel safe with the characteristics of the material, or that it would be too complicated in terms of advanced technology, computerized anim-ation, and so forth. In this case we would arrange for the work to be done by special-ists under our supervision in order to main-tain respect for the work as a creative idea and technical document of that time. Res-toration never means to bring a work back into its original state, but to accompany it through its period of existence.
In restoring and cleaning classic works of art, some conservators have been attacked for essentially changing the nature of the original object. Have you experienced a situation in which a work produced within the past thirty years was treated in a way that will significantly alter its subsequent historical reception?
Art works do have a life of their own; some grow up under good circumstances, some don't. Collectors and museum curators take on a huge responsibility to maintain a collection and to choose the best staff available to care for the works on hand. There has been a lot of discussion about the best possible training of conservators in order to encourage respect for an art work as a historical document and not as a document of a fashionable method of conservation treatment. Also, it has always been a great challenge to respect the age of an artifact and not make it look brand new. However, should a painting have suffered so much from damage or a cleaning treatment—for example, the glaze or the epidermis is destroyed—then we have to let the object die and not try to reanimate it with over-painting and new interpretations. If I were to recall a restoration which has significantly altered the historical reception, I would think of Barnett Newman's Who Is Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue of the mid-1960s. The color-field painting had been damaged with eleven knife slashes by a psychopath in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1992. The work was destroyed and could not be restored in the sense of hiding the damage. A New York-based conservator recommended by the widow of the artist repainted the entire surface with a lambskin roll. There is now no more texture from the artist's brush-strokes, no more changes in color, no translucency; the work is dead. But it still is on display in the collection under Barnett Newman's name.
In conserving an art object created by a living artist, how do you balance the intentions of the artist in relation to the demands of the museum or collector?
From the moment of its production and throughout its lifetime the art work has first priority. All requests from museums and collectors have to be judged against the authenticity of the work at hand. A conservator is not a craftsman who fulfills the demands of a curator. He has to make decisions based solely on the authenticity of the work.
What kinds of legal rights do artists have regarding the maintenance of their works? I'm referring to certain documents or certificates that accompany an increasing number of works from the 1970s to the present, in which the artist specifiesthe conditions of the work's installation or upkeep. Have you encountered these situations?
Apart from a few exceptions, most artists do want their work to be immortal, eternal. Some artists use the most refined and delicate materials for their purposes and of course expect the utmost respect towards the handling of the work—which they deserve. As conservators we do our very best to maintain the original state as long as possible, and we introduce shipping companies and art handlers to the specific problems of the work at hand. We examine contemporary art works and provide directions to the collector like medical instructions for a patient. I spend half of my working time dealing with protection and damage prevention. Artists interpret damage to one of their works as a personal offense, which I can totally understand.
In the press we periodically hear stories about works of art, such as the Newman painting, being attacked and harmed by individuals with varying motives. Have you ever restored a work that had been damaged by vandalism? Is this a fairly common occurrence?
In general there are two forms of vandal-ism: the first has to do with ignorance and frustration; the second is motivated by rebellion and opposition to the meaning of the object. In all museums and public collections you can find vandalism. It has been common sense so far that the object should be removed from the collection without much publicity. Vandals often want to make their problems public by attacking famous art works and they long for publicity. One should try not to give them the audience.
In Europe most employees are restricted by law from talking about certain accidents in their respective museums. However, some cases have become very public through the international media, such as the story of the series of sulfuric acid attacks carried out by a lonely and disturbed man. He destroyed twenty-three paintings and was arrested in 1979, after he had attacked Rembrandt's Jacob's Blessing and three works by Rembrandt's pupils in the Kunst-museum in Kassel. At that time I was on a team of four conservators trying to find ways to neutralize and extract the aggressive acid. It was a battle against time.
What are some of the more difficult substances you've had to conserve or restore?
Fortunately no artist has ever declared an astronaut's space suit to be
an art work. All these high-tech materials, created as part of
humanity's utopian dreams, will become a nightmare once they
disintegrate. Art works made of a composite of mixed materials are
difficult to preserve. Apart from soap bubbles, I think that latex and
rubber are some of the most unstable substances in the art world.
At what point in the restoration process does the
damaged component of a work need to be replaced entirely? Who makes
This is a very interesting question. First of all, any replacement,
whether it involves retouching a painting or replacing an engine in a
kinetic sculpture, leads to a loss of authenticity. Often it is not a
question of who makes the decision but who acts the fastest. Assistants
to artists are usually quick to replace worn-out parts by updated
technology. Recently I had to do a restoration of a kinetic sculpture
by Paul McCarthy, the Alpine Man
(1992), which depicts an old man in dropped Lederhosen devotionally
fucking a big barrel. The hip was broken apart from all the moving back
and forth. I talked to the artist on the phone and asked for his
opinion. He said, "Actually my idea was to take all these worn-out
fuckers from The Garden and assemble them into a new
sculpture, "The Worn Out Fuckers Seniors' Home," and replace the old
men with young ones." To fulfill this intention of the artist was not
possible due to the will of the respective collectors, who wanted their
authentic Old Man to be restored and maintained.
It would take days to answer your question properly, but to keep a long
story short I would say that the conservator should operate with a wide
network of artists, chemists, philosophers, historians, and lawyers. He
should work along the lines of professionals together with the Code of
Ethics, which is obligatory for every conservator organized in one of
the major conservator's associations.
How have the techniques of the conservator changed in
recent years? To what extent is the discipline still using the
time-tested methods developed in the traditional museum conservation
There is nothing more valuable than experience and time-tested methods,
even in conservation. Apart from the application of traditional
methods, conservators of contemporary art do consult commercial
laboratories on questions about synthetics, storage problems of latex
and rubber, coatings for chocolate, humidifiers for objects made of
soap, elephant dung, disinfectants, etc. Museum laboratories are
well-equipped, but they often deal with questions that arise from
within the collection. Emerging art is often not yet part of the
What are the most "routine" kinds of jobs, the jobs that must be taken when there are no pound cakes to conserve?
The most routine job is to prevent damage, to consult curators during
exhibitions, to design crates, to create a museum climate. Being
trained as a painting conservator, I do a lot of restoration of modern
paintings; cleaning, weaving the canvas holes, retouching, finishing.
Documentation of every single step of the work is one of the most
time-consuming tasks to fulfill. Another job is to find extra parts for
light-based objects, motors for kinetic works, to find through the
Internet the producer from thirty years ago of a plastic tube used by
Do you work with much art that requires maintenance of
technology? Have you had experience in trying to conserve a work whose
technology is out-of-date or no longer accessible?
We do care a lot about video art and all of its related media. To
preserve video art is not just a technical issue; it is not just a
matter of transforming an analog medium into a digital DVD or
Laserdisc. If the issue at stake is about the documentation of a
performance or maintaining cinematic material, I would agree to
transform the tape into digital media. Sometimes, however, depending on
whether the quality is good or bad, the magnetic tape will lose
information as well as æsthetic elements. This may sound romantic, but
we "historical materialists" have had the experience that through the
centuries it has always turned out that technology was the only "real
thing," no matter what philosophy, artistic strategy, or concept was
Christian Scheidemann studied art history and the conservation of medieval paintings in Germany. Based in Hamburg, he has worked as a freelance conservator since 1983, specializing in contemporary art.
Gregory Williams is an art critic and writer living in
New York. He is also an editor of Cabinet.
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