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July 16, 2021

Conservation and Science Journal “Facture” Reveals Discoveries in Modern and Contemporary Art Collection

Cover of Volume 5: Modern and Contemporary Art of the conservation and science biennial journal Facture.

Cover of Volume 5: Modern and Contemporary Art of the conservation and science biennial journal Facture.

Washington, DC—The latest issue of the National Gallery of Art’s biennial journal Facture introduces new and essential voices to the technical understanding and collaborative efforts instrumental to the creation and preservation of modern and contemporary art. Volume five features seven essays that offer expertise from National Gallery conservators, scientists, and curators, as well as outside scholars studying the museum’s collection. Four essays examine respectively the techniques and materials of Edward Steichen, Mark Rothko, Jules Olitski, and Jasper Johns, while the final three explore the challenges of conserving contemporary art. The authors examine works of art from technical, scientific, and art-historical perspectives, including critical information from the artists, their families, and their foundations.

"The conservation division is proud to mark a decade of research for the National Gallery’s publication of Facture, which provides unique insight on the nation’s collections through in-depth technical research," said Mervin Richard, chief of conservation, National Gallery of Art. "Focused on modern and contemporary art, this volume gives the reader fascinating glimpses into artists' working methods and gives context for the conservation practices described. The essays included journey through the creative process and divulge the technical secrets of these modern and contemporary works."

Essay Highlights

Back to the Garden: Edward Steichen's Sunflower Paintings
Authors: Charles Brock, associate curator of American and British paintings; Jay Krueger, head of painting conservation; Suzanne Quillen Lomax, senior conservation scientist; Kathryn Morales, conservation scientist; and Linda Owen, associate conservator of paper, Baltimore Museum of Art

In the first systematic investigation of Edward Steichen's (1879–1973) four existing sunflower paintings—two on canvas and two on paper; three in the collection of the National Gallery, one in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art—the authors explore Steichen’s experimentation and evolving color palette. Initial visual examinations indicated that the artist built up layers of paint as he rethought the relationships among his colors. The works were then analyzed using a variety of scientific techniques to learn more about his pigments and binders and to gain further understanding of Steichen's painting methods. The essay illuminates how Steichen composed his images as he progressed from a semirealistic depiction of the observed form toward abstraction. These four paintings convey Steichen’s technical mastery and restless spirit of experimentation, and they document the innovative ways he combined media and methods until he abandoned painting for photography in 1923.

Investigating Mark Rothko’s Water-Based Paintings on Construction Paper from the 1930s
Authors: Michelle Facini, senior conservator of paper; Kathryn A. Dooley, imaging scientist; Christopher Maines, senior conservation scientist; Kathryn Morales, conservation scientist; and John K. Delaney, senior imaging scientist

The National Gallery holds the largest public collection of works by Mark Rothko (1903–1970), given by the Mark Rothko Foundation in 1986. This body of work comprises more than 1,100 paintings on canvas and works on paper, of which nearly 90 are water-based paintings on construction paper. Early in his career, from 1930 to 1945, Rothko depicted interior figure scenes and various outdoor locations using transparent and opaque water-based paints applied to colored construction paper. These colored papers are backdrops to the artist’s expressive layering and mixing of paints, which are built up using both powerful linear brushwork and passages of continuous color. Rothko spent years experimenting and developing this medium, achieving various contrasting effects and mitigating elements of chance in his works. The results are playfully modern and deeply expressive, with compositional details that foreshadow his mature work. The authors studied the light sensitivity and structural insecurity of Rothko's paper supports and paints to understand the fragility of these water-based paintings on construction paper.

The Evolving and Elusive Facture of Jules Olitski
Author: Erin Stephenson, former William R. Leisher Memorial Fellow for Research and Treatment of Modern Paintings, painting conservator, Stephenson Art Conservation

Through a careful examination of hundreds of paintings, paints, brushes, and tools, Erin Stephenson presents an in-depth study of the methods of Jules Olitski (1922–2007) and underscores the artist’s enthusiasm for process as an aesthetic component of the finished work. Throughout the 1960s sprayed paint was the dominant trait of Olitski’s work. In the 1970s he began to incorporate palpable surfaces created with fast-drying polymer paints. Paintings from the 1980s feature vibrant masses of metallic and iridescent paint pooled on top of a smooth layer of dark, matte color. During the 1990s Olitski vigorously applied assorted materials to create areas of heterogeneous color, texture, densities, and finish. By the second half of the 1990s Olitski's paintings became reminiscent of landscapes, with ragged lines like breaking waves, sweeps suggestive of rolling hills, and ghostly profiles of distant trees. Finally, in the early 2000s his work became more modest in scale and characterized by a solid sheet of paint containing spherical "orbs" surrounded by an organic fusion of rich color. This essay uses written accounts and oral recollections to discuss a visual survey of Olitski's paintings. Comparisons are drawn between the academic understanding of Olitski's work and insight gained from technical study of his stylistic transitions.

Of Material Concern: Jasper Johns, Tatyana Grosman, and Handmade Printing Papers
Author: Amy Elizabeth Hughes, former Andrew W. Mellon Advanced Training Fellow in paper conservation, assistant conservator of paper

Printmaking gives artists the chance to experiment with a variety of supports after completing their image. In this essay Amy Hughes describes the importance of handmade papers used by Jasper Johns (b. 1930) during his early years as a printmaker at Universal Limited Art Editions. His prints reveal the crucial collaboration between the artist, printmaker, and papermaker. The National Gallery is the major repository of Johns's trial and working proofs, with more than 1,700 prints (1960–2001) held in its Jasper Johns Archive. These proofs offer a unique opportunity to study Johns's thought process during the conception and production of an edition. Johns created numerous editions using custom-made papers by Western and Japanese papermakers. Observations drawn from close examination of proofs in the Jasper Johns Archive are supplemented by archival research and interviews with master printers and papermakers who worked with Johns, including Bill Goldston, John Lund, Jeff Goodman, and Fred Siegenthaler. Watermark imaging techniques and fiber analysis are used to support technical details described during these interviews. The National Gallery of Art Paper Sample Collection was also consulted as a resource for further material and archival investigations, since several examples of papers used by Johns are housed in that collection.

Color Shifts: The Conservation of Adolph Gottlieb's Wall
Author: Robert Price, former Andrew W. Mellon Advanced Training Fellow in object conservation, Bank of America project conservator

Adolph Gottlieb's Wall (1969) is one of only two large-scale, painted metal sculptures that the first-generation abstract expressionist ever produced. In this essay Robert Price focuses on the treatment of the work and the question of how to repair its marred surface. After identifying Wall's original colors through comparative research of sculptural models as well as Gottlieb's works in other media, and in consultation with curators and the artist’s foundation, Price worked with a commercial paint company to create a paint whose color, texture, and optical qualities mimic Wall's original surface. Wall returned to public view in the East Building of the National Gallery in December 2019 for the first time in 50 years.

Twenty Years of Repainting Tony Smith
Author: Katherine May, senior conservator of objects

With the opening of its Sculpture Garden in 1999, the National Gallery acquired Moondog (model 1964, fabricated 1998–1999), the museum's third outdoor sculpture by Tony Smith (1912–1980). The other two are Wandering Rocks (1967), acquired in 1981, and The Snake Is Out (model 1962, fabricated 1992), acquired in 1992. This essay chronicles more than 20 years of research into a durable and aesthetic low-sheen black paint that is characteristic of Smith's outdoor works. The earliest phases of research, which began in 2000, focused on the evaluation and comparison of commercially available matte black paints. The project evolved in 2001 into a collaborative effort with paint chemists at the Army Research Laboratory to adapt a patented military coating for use on outdoor sculpture. Katherine May describes the painstaking process of finding a solution that respects the historical and aesthetic implications crucial to the maintenance of these uniformly matte black sculptures.

The Artist as Primary Source in the Conservation of Contemporary Sculpture
Authors: Shelley Sturman, head of object conservation; and Molly Donovan, curator of contemporary art

In this essay Shelley Sturman and Molly Donovan share valuable insights that underscore the balance of collaboration and compromise that is vital to the conservation of contemporary art. Through several case studies, they describe the dialogues with artists that have helped to resolve some of the challenges posed by the conservation of these works. Their examples explore how the fundamental and valuable exchanges among artist, conservator, and curator strike the right balance of collaboration and compromise. These conversations may focus on materials, process, aesthetics, changes from aging or decomposition, options for replacing materials, methodology, or ideas about how the art should be displayed and interpreted. By working with living artists and posing questions about their current and future desires for their work, conservators and curators can help ensure the best preservation of contemporary sculpture.

About Facture

Facture presents the latest research on works in the National Gallery's collection. Named for "the manner in which things are made," it seeks to foster dialogue among art historians, scientists, and conservators in the international museum community.

The inaugural issue of Facture (2013) focused on Renaissance masterworks, ranging from painting and drawing to sculpture and tapestry. The second volume (2015) explored "art in context," focusing on works from the Renaissance as well as the 20th century: Giotto's Madonna and Child, Riccio's Entombment, paintings by Mark Rothko, sculptures by Auguste Rodin, and watercolors by John Marin. Dedicated to Edgar Degas (1834–1917) in the centennial year of his death, the third volume (2017) focused on the tremendous wealth of works by Degas in the National Gallery's collection. The first to highlight the work of a single artist, it presented insights into Degas's working methods in painting, sculpture in wax and bronze, and works on paper, as well as a sonnet he wrote to his "little dancer." The fourth issue of Facture (2019) examined the complex themes of series, multiples, and replicas. Highlighting works in various media, this volume presented meticulous technical and analytical study to examine the reasons for replication, whether contemporaneously by an artist’s own hand or workshop, subsequently as a posthumous creation, or recurrently as a preferred practice. For more information, visit

Published by the National Gallery of Art in association with Yale University Press, Facture is available for purchase in the West and East Building Shops. Please visit, call (800) 697-9350, fax (202) 789-3047, or e-mail [email protected].

Contact Information

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