Conserve or Restore? In History or Art, a Quandary

Curators wrestle with how to restore the work of David Alfaro Siqueiros

By Tessie Borden, Autry National Center
Published on LatinoLA: August 24, 2010

Conserve or Restore? In History or Art, a Quandary

How far should a curator go when trying to preserve a great masterpiece or historical artifact for future audiences? That question is key to the raison-d'?¬tre of museums today. And the answer to it has changed over the years.

"The policy (that is) really universally accepted in conservation is to stabilize, not to try to re-create or re-paint material," said Jonathan Spaulding, chief curator at the Autry, at a press conference on July 29 to preview the Autry's exhibition on the life and work of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. "Siqueiros, when somebody gave (an indication) that they might do something like that, his reaction was, 'Do not mess with my painting!' That's the policy, really, in conservation around the world today, is to stabilize."

But not so long ago, conservators went much further in their quest to bring deteriorating masterworks back to life. Some believe that happened during the restoration conducted from 1980 to 1994 of Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes.

"There was a lot of controversy about the way the Sistine Chapel was, quote, restored, because they took a lot of interpretive liberties with color," Spaulding said. "The cleaning became, in a sense, a form of repainting . That was what Siqueiros was worried about."

Spaulding and Luis C. Garza, originator of the Autry's upcoming exhibition Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied, were at Olvera Street to allow journalists a close-up view of Siqueiros' mural, Am?®rica Tropical, one of three murals the artist completed during a short and turbulent stay in Los Angeles in 1932. It is the focus of the Autry's exhibition, which opens on Sept. 24.

"This is a living archaeological site, if you want to put it that way," Garza said. "The work continues on it. It's part of the history of El Pueblo and the city."

Indeed, since 1988, the mural's rehabilitation has been a project of the Getty Conservation Institute, which as of 2006 had committed $3.95 million to protect, study and stabilize the mural. The City of Los Angeles at that time had contributed somewhat more than $3.75 million to the work. In September, work is expected to begin on a viewing platform and visitors' center at Olvera Street that will allow public access.

Only months after Siqueiros painted the controversial mural depicting a South American peasant crucified under an American eagle in front of a Mayan pyramid, angry city boosters began efforts to cover it up. The part that could be seen from Olvera Street was whitewashed. Two years later, the rest had been covered over. Not until the 1960s-1970s did renewed interest in the mural -- and the fading of the whitewash -- prompt efforts to save the badly damaged work.

At the moment, the mural is protected from the elements by a rigid covering, with a flexible billboard over it that shows an artist's rendering of what the mural may have looked like, in its relatively faded condition. That is what the reporters saw on Thursday when they stepped onto the roof of the building next to the Italian Hall, on whose wall the mural was painted. And that is what likely will remain after all the covering is removed and the conservation work is done.

At that point, viewers will see the image, but not the vibrant colors that Siqueiros originally used to send his graphic message. So why not go the rest of the way with the restoration?

"The approach of the Getty Conservation Institute to the treatment of Am?®rica Tropical is one of minimal intervention. We want to stabilize the mural and still keep the hand of the artist," said Leslie Rainer, a wall paintings conservator for the project at the GCI. "We feel part of the story of the mural -- the censorship, the whitewash, the neglect and the exposure to the elements -- all of that is part of the story of this painting." In some ways, it would be whitewashing the mural again if it were to be restored to be bright and new.

Over time, the technology around conserving is also constantly improving, making it possible to stay faithful to an artist's original intent without reinterpreting it, Spaulding said.

The question of how to paint an outdoor mural so it can withstand the assault of the elements was a lively discussion in the 1930s among architects like Richard Neutra and Sumner Spaulding. Siqueiros attacked the problem with constant experimentation. At the time, he was attracted to industrial materials and surfaces, such as spray paint and concrete -- in part because he had no patience for the "old technology" of fresco painting, which incorporates pigments directly onto drying plaster.

"Concrete. Spray paint. Projection systems. All of this was a new language for Siqueiros," Garza said. "This was a revelation for him."

Ironically, Siqueiros' new techniques have not survived the years very well.

"He was thinking about the ability to withstand the elements, but none of his exterior murals in this new technique have really proved terribly stable," Spaulding said. "They've failed. So the technical challenge of trying to stabilize it now is significant."

Spaulding is philosophical about the conservation question.

"Every medium is unstable in its own way," Spaulding said. "The digital technologies, their platforms decay. You get plastic tape and the tape will go. You get a hard drive and the hard drive breaks down all the time . People created eight-track video art back in the Seventies. Now, museums have to find the old machines to play these things. Every new invention eventually faces its own obsolescence."

About Tessie Borden, Autry National Center:
I'm a former newspaper journalist with a passion for both history and the arts. I'm interested in the history of the Americas, the American West and California. I've been with the Autry since Feb. 2010.
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