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No Preservatives | Preservation, Perfection, and Patina: Eleonora Nagy Discusses Conserving Judd’s Art

Eleonora Nagy working on a Donald Judd in her studio. Photo by Shelley M. Smith.

In this two-part blog post, I’ll be looking at the care and fabrication of Donald Judd’s artworks and furniture.  Today, I explore the conservation of his artworks with Eleonora Nagy and next Wednesday, I’ll explore the fabrication of Judd’s furniture with fabricator Jeff Jamieson.

For a long time, I’ve know that Eleonora Nagy is an expert at conserving Donald Judd’s artworks, but it wasn’t until after her presentation last month at the American Institute for Conservation’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia that I really got to know her.  You may know her from the flattering New York Times profile about her work on the Paul Thek exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art (The Improvised Remedies of an Art Healer, which was accompanied by the equally flattering NYT video, Using Science to Conserve Art).

Nora holds Master degrees in Fine Arts and Art Conservation and has 20 years of experience working at institutions including the Tate Gallery, Musee de Quebec, Canadian Conservation Institute, and the Guggenheim Museum.  Today she is the principal conservator and owner of Modern Sculpture Conservation, LLC.  Since 2000, she has been a consulting conservator for the Whitney and is recognized for inventing new conservation methods and taking on and resolving unusual projects. Her conservation interest focuses on the works of Donald Judd, Alexander Calder, David Smith, Paul Thek, and modern metals.

I invited her here to talk about the work she’s done over the years working on Donald Judd’s artworks.

Donald Judd © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, NYC 2011. Courtesy Judd Foundation Archive.

Richard McCoy: How did you first become involved in the conservation of Judd’s artworks?

Eleonora Nagy: I first began treating Donald Judd’s works in 1995 while working at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The Guggenheim has a significant collection of Judd’s works.

On very short notice I worked on the treatment of a “Stack.”  I started the project assuming that reaching out to my colleagues specializing in modern art would provide me with sufficient advice on how to proceed. Soon I realized that good information was scant, especially about how to treat Judd’s metal works.

It was then that I realized that I had to “deep dive.”  And you know the usual result of a deep dive is that you either surface, or sink.

Necessity is a good teacher. I worked on the Guggenheim project around the clock both mentally and physically and ultimately came up with some new ideas that worked. This news got around and my colleagues then started to call me about their problems with Judd’s works.

Since then, I have been deeply involved in developing treatments for Judd’s work and have become known as a specialist for his work. Also, I have been publishing and lecturing on topics related to Judd’s work that range from preventative conservation, storage, transport, maintenance, and installation to inventive new treatments.

RM: How did this work lead you to become involved with the Donald Judd Foundation?

EN: While I was couriering the shipment of one of Judd’s works to the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, I met Marianne Stockebrand, who was both a board member of the Judd Foundation and director of the Chinati Foundation.  She invited me to become a founding member of the Judd Foundation’s Advisory Committee for Conservation and Restoration.

I have been working with the Judd Foundation ever since.  Among other contributions, I wrote the Guidelines for the Care and Handling of Donald Judd Works in Metal, which is available on the Foundation’s web page.

RM: This is such an excellent resource.  I’m so glad that this was put on the Internet.

EN: Yes, but we had to be very cautious in deciding what information to put there. One must understand that good willing but uninformed individuals may cause damage to Judd’s works instead of improving them.  We had to to ensure that these instructions did not lead to such mishaps.

I’ve received many phone calls from conservators telling me that the Guidelines are wonderful, but they ask why we didn’t put detailed descriptions of conservation treatments on the web.

RM: I wondered the same thing.

EN: Access to the website is difficult to control. If you provide detailed treatment information to people who are not trained conservators, they may not realize what kind of potential hazards they can get into by just following instructions. You might end up inadvertently damaging or putting works at risk instead of saving them.

The Judd Foundation’s intent is to underline the importance of employing a credited conservator for the actual treatment of his works. A shortlist of recommended treatments as a suggested reading for conservators will be available on the Foundation’s website in the near future. The General Maintenance is the first component that we published on the web; this is addressed to the general public, collectors, art handlers, registrars, and conservators.

I want to point out that Judd Foundation offers support via the telephone or e-mail for individuals and conservators who have specific questions.  [Contact information is listed on the Foundation’s web page, and there also links to two PDFs of Judd’s writings, “On Installation,” and “Complaints Part II”]

Donald Judd's Art Studio in Marfa, Texas © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, NYC 2011. Courtesy Judd Foundation Archive.

RM: I learned a lot from The Guide, particularly when considering how to install the IMA’s work, Untitled 1967, which is part of the “progression series.” I wonder if you could estimate what percentage of Donald Judd’s artworks are installed correctly in museums today?

EN: Compared to other works of art, an unusually large percentage of Judd’s works are installed incorrectly, but I cannot tell you how many. Incorrect installation is unfortunately equally common in museums as in private collections.  To install one of Judd’s artworks correctly, you really have to get acquainted with all of his concepts and also generally the minimalist movement.

It can be a complex task to install a Judd correctly, but again the Judd Foundation help line can provide you with the information you need to do it right.

RM: What do you think of the recent Judd exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery, which is drawn from his 1989 exhibition at the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Baden-Baden, Germany?

EN: The exhibition is superbly done. The installation reflects very well Judd’s concepts about display: that is, ample dispersed daylight, spacious, orderly placement, and no overcrowding of artworks. The architecture does not overwhelm or distract our attention from the works within.

It really does look excellent. Those that see it will have a good understanding of Judd.

The staff at Zwirner worked very hard to present these artworks at the highest level. They sought the best advice; worked with the Judd Foundation and Flavin Judd [Donald Judd’s son who recently discussed the exhibition in a profile on the New York Times].  They also hired Craig Rember, manager at Marfa and a specialist on the installation of Judd’s works, and me to help put the show together. The staff responsible for the care of the works at Zwirner also read the Guidelines on the Judd Foundation’s webpage and other relevant conservation literature.

Installation view, "Donald Judd," at David Zwirner, New York, 2011. Judd Art © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photos by Tim Nighswander / IMAGING4ART. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.

RM: Recently, at the American Institute for Conservation’s Annual Meeting, you gave the talk, “Treatment of Donald Judd’s Untitled 1977: Retaining the Original Acrylic Sheets.”  I appreciated your approach and craft work on this project, but I was most interested in your discussion around retaining the original acrylic sheets instead of replacing them.  Can you talk about the concept of authenticity of materials and replacement as it relates to Judd’s artworks?

EN: With modern and contemporary works of art, this is a major ethical and philosophical issue.  If an artist is alive, it is possible to obtain a comprehensive statement on this topic, and then this issue can be easier to navigate.  If the artist is no longer alive, I find it extremely difficult to trace what is and what is not important for an artist to retain in an artwork.

When sources are deficient to decide what to keep and what not to keep, then I go for the safer option: I retain the original material. The question of what is and isn’t important to an artists can be quite complicated to sort out because there are many individuals that may have his or her own stake and interest in the matter: the artist’s assistants, fabricators,  family, estate, foundation, or conservator.

Judd made unique works of art, despite the fact that they were made with industrial processes.  Detailed fabrication stamps on the works  distinguish the finisher, indicating that the individual skills of the the fabricators were central to the craftsmanship that Judd cared so much about. Judd’s work are rather unique, especially if you compare them to Rodin, who typically had made many editions of his sculptures.

Acrylic sheet removed from an element of a "Stack" work by Donald Judd in preparation for cleaning and reattachment. Photo by Eleonora Nagy.

RM: I think many would think that because of his fabrication process that the artworks were meant to look “perfect” or not made by hand.

EN: They do look extremely neat, and represent a high level of craftsmanship of the time, but they are not “perfect.” In every single Judd work I’ve ever thoroughly inspected, I’ve always discovered some level of “imperfectness,” which relates either to the person who fabricated it or to the specific machinery that was used to make it.  These are not blemishes to correct; they are part of the authenticity of the work and represent its unique character.

I talked to several of his assistants and fabricators, who described the difficulties they had to go through in making Judd’s works. They describe in detail how many sets of tests and trials they had to do because Judd demanded something that was technically very difficult to produce.  Because of these technical demands it’s clear that Judd was a particularly challenging customer to his fabricators.  They did their very best for him.

Donald Judd Inspecting an Artwork at Bernstein © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, NYC 2011. Courtesy Judd Foundation Archive.

RM: I think it’s even harder to try and maintain perfection.  The IMA’s Judd is now more than 40 years old.  With this in mind, how can we understand the notion of patina on one of his artworks?

EN: No statement written by Judd is known that would answer this question. I’ve had a lot of discussions with Judd’s assistants, fabricators and friends about this, particularly with Dudley Del Balso, who was probably Judd’s most organized, long time assistant, [and] who was noted for her excellent record keeping. Also, I had long chats with  Stockebrand (his partner and a principal Judd scholar). James Dearing also shared with me his understanding of Judd’s thoughts about conservation issues.

They concur that Judd expressed several times that he is not against natural, even patina as it relates to the graceful aging of his artworks.  What he really disagreed with and always got terribly upset about were damages: scratches, fingerprints, and dents that come from handling or ignorant treatment of his works. Mishandling his works made him very upset and he complained about this even in his writings.

My understanding is that if a fresh, shiny metal surface gradually turns to an overall slightly darker hue and gradually develops an even and uniform patina, then according to the people I consulted, this did not bother Judd at all.  He accepted graceful and even aging of his works. Fingerprints, smudges, stains or any other features that disturb or visually break up the uniformity of a play or flat surface are features that he disagreed with, and therefore needed to be treated and eliminated.

People who say that Judd’s artworks have to always look completely brand new and shiny, may lack a proper understanding of the natural oxidation processes of uncoated metals and the nature of Judd’s works, thereby they may actually shorten the life span of the these works instead of lengthening them, as Judd intended.

The IMA's Donald Judd, "Untitled 1967." © Judd Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

RM: What about pieces that need to have finger prints or other stains removed?  This is usually done with abrasives.

EN: I have been successfully developing cleaning methods that eliminate the use of abrasives in such treatments. My goal is to present original Judd works to the public in a couple of hundred years, and not replicas.  To do this we have to consider the long-term future of these works before we polish these thin metals to non existence with harsh abrasive methods.

Installation view, "Donald Judd," at David Zwirner, New York, 2011. Judd Art © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photos by Tim Nighswander / IMAGING4ART. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.

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