Lipstick Urinals, an 11-year-old sculpture by Rachel Lachowicz at the Denver Art Museum, is a series of three porcelain urinals that appear to have been dipped in hot, ruby-red lipstick. Scratches and fingerprints left by curious museum visitors in the thick coating have marred its surface.
It's now up to conservator Carl Patterson, who started his career restoring ancient artifacts at the British Museum, to return Lipstick Urinals to its original glory. "It's going to be a nightmare," he says.
For centuries, conserving and restoring fine art meant stripping layers of yellowed varnish off oil paintings and removing soot from marble busts. But the 1990s vogue for "body" art and "shock" art has transformed the work of art conservators, forcing them to figure out new ways to preserve dung, blood, food, animal body parts and other materials favored by contemporary artists.
At New York's Museum of Modern Art, conservators are trying to keep bugs off the Thai rice in Rirkrit Tiravanija's 1993 untitled installation, which features a rucksack, a camping stove and ingredients for a meal. At the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, one of the toughest puzzles is a crumbling latex body suit featured in Paul Thek's 1968 sculpture Fishman.
Pig intestines are stymieing the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. For nearly a year, six conservators there have toiled to repair a 1993 work by Colombian artist Doris Salcedo consisting of strips of cured entrails wrapped around a metal bed frame. At the moment they are researching how sausage is made.
New York's Whitney Museum of American Art opened an $8-million restoration lab last month, while the Detroit Institute of Arts just installed $2.1-million in equipment to restore large 20th century works. The Denver Art Museum has spent nearly $1-million in the past year on conservation, largely, it says, to address the needs of works less than 15 years old.
The Denver museum is straining to shoulder the costs of an ambitious $100-million expansion that will more than triple the art on display by 2006. It recently mailed museum members a plea that the conservation department "urgently needs support." When the appeal raised only $15,000, they went back to local business benefactors for help. The Brown Palace Hotel donated old bed sheets, while a Denver hospital X-rayed objects for internal damage and Patterson scoured bridal shops for netting to conserve textiles. The problem: "They always have pink," he says, "and I need colors like puke green."
Patterson studied archaeology in London after he graduated from Duke University's medical school. A stint at the British Museum led to archaeological digs in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, before he came to the Denver museum a decade ago as its first full-time conservator. One of the bigger projects waiting for him here was Linda, a life-size realistic plastic sculpture of a bronzed nude woman. It was turning black. He called in the artist, John DeAndrea, to do touch ups and a hairdresser to style its tresses.
More recently his challenge has been figuring out how to stick the rubber rat back on a huge painting in the museum's lobby with a glue that would last. He used an epoxy mix that he formulated. His team's next big project: fixing the peeling paint and warped plywood in an outdoor sculpture by artist Red Grooms.
Museums have come to rely on both new art and shock art to increase attendance. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art didn't have dedicated contemporary-art galleries two decades ago; now, they're among its most visited. One of Denver's biggest draws in the past year was its exhibit of 20th century design that ranged from rubber dish scrubbers to garbage cans.
And offbeat contemporary works are gaining blue-chip status on the art market as they change hands at dizzying prices. For the first time, contemporary art outsold Impressionist masterworks at the big New York art auctions last year. A partially used bar of soap inlaid with neat spirals of body hair sold for $3,000 when artist Tom Friedman, whose works are about intimacy and obsession, sculpted it in 1990. Christie's International auctioned it for $54,000 two years ago.
Some artists argue that decay _ even on objects that are now priced in seven figures _ is a part of the art. Janine Antoni, whose chocolate and soap Lick and Lather works are in several prestigious museums, says rotting keeps them alive. "I like it when the soap cracks and ages," she says. Curators regularly phone her with pleas to remake parts of her work. "I groan," she says, when those calls come in. She did consent to remake a 1994 chocolate bust last year after a museumgoer in Europe bit off the nose.
Even when artists are willing to help restore their work, some museums try to keep them out of the loop. "A few swipes of paint and suddenly a 1960 Rauschenberg is a 2003 Rauschenberg," says Harry Parker, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "The last thing a conservator wants to do is let the artist get his hands on a work again." Which brings up one of the messier issues in conserving contemporary art: Because much of it looks random, does a conservator have to be utterly meticulous?
Not always, according to Jim Coddington, chief conservator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York _ at least when it comes to works by Anselm Kiefer. Regarded by many curators as Germany's greatest living artist, Kiefer likes to glue sand, straw and sunflower seeds to his hugely complex canvases. "If you find a tiny piece of a Kiefer on the floor and can't find where it fell off," Coddington says, "it's probably not a big deal."