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Conservation Treatment: Bathing Scrap Metal Drypoint #6

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Conservators and curators bathing Heizer’s Scrap Metal Drypoint #6 at the National Gallery of Art. Photograph by Adam Enatsky.

Much of the visual impact of the Scrap Metal Drypoints arises from the rhythmic relationship between the plates’ variegated markings and the whiteness of the paper. Light, acids, and other environmental pollution can have deleterious effects on paper, and since its printing in 1978, Scrap Metal Drypoint #6 has developed perimeter staining and overall discoloration. In Heizer’s monumental outdoor sculpture and land art, the type of work for which he is best known, he welcomes, even courts, the contingent effects of atmospheric, environmental, and meteorological intervention. When asked about the Scrap Metal Drypoints, though, Heizer was explicit that evidence of the effects of environment and time were undesirable. In preparation for the exhibition, conservators and curators, in consultation with the artist, devised a treatment plan that would mitigate the discoloration of the paper.

At seven feet long and three and a half feet wide, the print proved challenging to handle, particularly when swollen with water; maneuvering the massive sheet required strength, delicacy, and extreme caution. Over a three-day period, the print was thrice bathed in calcified water in a custom-built tray. This series of baths removed much of the paper’s general discoloration, but did not otherwise affect the print. Once the print was lifted from the bath and dried overnight under blotters, the conservators examined the remaining stains and selectively treated them by applying weak solutions of bleach. A final bath removed all remaining chemical solutions from the paper. The pretreatment condition of Scrap Metal Drypoint #6 had rendered it unsuitable for public exhibition. Following treatment, its appearance is such that it may be shown alongside the five other Scrap Metal Drypoints without its condition detracting from the overall visual harmony and tonal balance of the series.

This video documents the treatment conducted by the paper conservators at the Gallery (2:40 minutes).

Paper conservator Michelle Facini gives a detailed account of the conservation treatment in this podcast (19:40 minutes).

 

Banner image: Still from the short film In the Lab: Michael Heizer’s Scrap Metal Drypoint #6, by the National Gallery of Art.