Learning about the Jackson Pollock Restoration Project with James Coddington

Artsology received an invitation to attend an event at the Museum of Modern Art to meet with James Coddington, who is the Chief Conservator at the museum. Coddington was presenting the re-installation of three Jackson Pollock paintings in the public galleries after an 18 month hiatus, during which time the conservation department had examined, documented, analyzed, and provided conservation treatment to these paintings. We had the opportunity to ask questions and learn more about this conservation project at MoMA.

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Artsology: What prompted the decision to remove these paintings from public view and start the project to restore them?

JC: The original awareness that these paintings needed conservation actually came from the efforts in organizing the 1998 Jackson Pollock retrospective which took place at MoMA. In researching the exhibition, the curators found some photographs of the paintings in 1962, and comparing those photographs to the current works in front of us revealed some differences. As we would scan across the surface of the painting, the eye would stop and recognize that certain passages didn't read the same.

interview with MoMA chief conservator

Artsology: How could a painting "change" over time?

JC: In the case of One: Number 31, 1950, we found documentary evidence of letters, reports, and a key photo, which made it clear that One was restored some time after 1962, and it definitively identified incongruous areas which we observed to be an earlier restorer's overpaint rather than Pollock's work. In the case of Echo, we saw a canvas discoloration due to characteristic degradation processes. Exposure to the atmosphere, heat, and light typically causes yellowing of natural fibers (the canvas used for this painting is raw canvas with no gesso or priming). In Echo’s case, however, the yellowing was uneven — the top of the canvas was more discolored than the bottom — and we felt that this gradation of discoloration was drawing attention away from the original composition.

Jackson Pollock paintings at MoMA

Artsology: When you talk about the yellowing of the raw canvas of Echo, how does one fix something like that?

JC: We consulted paper and textile conservators as well as paintings conservators who have worked with similarly discolored canvases. We tested small areas to determine what materials and methods might most gently produce our desired result. We found that a small amount of moisture, first applied to the canvas and then blotted away, reduced the discoloration in an easily controllable way. By applying this method over the top quarter or so of the canvas, we were able to produce a more consistent overall tone.

Artsology: You mentioned a "key photo" while investigating the history of One: Number 31 - what did the photo reveal which proved that the changes came from an earlier restoration?

JC: One is one of Pollock’s “drip” paintings, where he had the canvas positioned on the floor rather than on an easel. The multiple layers of dripped and poured paint create a complex series of paint interactions. For example, some layers were applied so thinly that they appear to merely stain the canvas with color, while slightly thicker, wet-into-wet areas show different colors blending, swirling, and bleeding together. But a close inspection revealed areas where we saw a different kind of texture, one that appears to be fussily applied, laboriously constructed using repetitive, tiny brush strokes. The breakthrough in determining that this was the result of a prior restoration rather than Pollock’s own work came when we located a detailed photograph dating to 1962, which showed the canvas in a different state than what we were seeing in 2012. Since Pollock died in the summer of 1956, our 1962 photograph rules out the possibility that this paint had been applied by the artist or in consultation with him.

Artsology: Did the prior restoration take place at MoMA?

JC: No, our file on One shows no record of treatment by MoMA’s conservators, indicating that any prior restoration would have occurred before MoMA acquired the painting in 1968. In our research, we used x-rays to reveal the internal structure of the painting, and we could see that the underlying original paint appears to have suffered cracking. The paint added during the 1960′s restoration covered the cracks as well as some original undamaged paint, so we knew that Pollock’s paint hadn’t come off, but rather that it was intact underneath the overpaint. The key to this aspect of treatment was to test solvents that would dissolve the overpaint but not affect Pollock’s paint.

photographic details of Jackson Pollock paintings

Artsology: Were there other problems beyond the overpaint?

JC: One also had some canvas discoloration, and several decades of accumulated dust and grime. But we also found some things that occurred during the process of creating the painting, things that Pollock hadn’t specifically added. For example, there’s some small fragments of wood that could have come from the stick that Pollock used instead of a paintbrush. We also found a fly which had landed and became stuck to the wet paint – those are just studio accidents, so that’s not something that we would remove from the surface.

Jackson Pollock paintings

Artsology: What prompted or inspired you to become a conservator?

JC: I was a biology major at Reed College, but it was Charles Rhyne’s introductory art history class that caused me to change direction. That class taught me, among other things, that art is everywhere; but it also taught me a lot about the materials that art is made from. At some point a light bulb went off in my head, that I could connect my interest in science with my love of art history. After that, one thing just led to another.

Artsology: What was your career path that led you to MoMA?

JC: After graduating from Reed in 1974, I went on for a master’s degree in art conservation from the University of Delaware. My first job was working for a private conservator in Washington, D.C., and then in 1984 I had an opportunity to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I jumped over to MoMA three years later, in 1987, and have been here since.

conservator at MoMA