POLONI, O. Life doesn't last, art doesn't last, it doesn't matter, 2005

Posted on Sun, 10/12/2008 - 07:33

Author: Olivia Poloni
M.A. Student Art Curatorship
University of Melbourne
Date: October 2005

Image removed.


Unstable materials and ephemeral art: consider the practical and ethical issues raised by the conservation of twentieth century art in public collections. Focusing on particular material, production method or artist, discuss the issues of artistic intent, inherent vice and the responsibility of the gallery staff in preserving the work for future generations.

‘Life doesn’t last, art doesn’t last, it doesn’t matter’1

The conservation of twentieth century art in public collections is undergoing a constant change and adaptation to the evolving materials used and the purpose to which they are being used for. This change is evident through everyday conservation practice and was debated on an international arena at the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works 20th International Congress - Bilbao, Spain - 13-17 September 2004 titled ‘ Modern Art, New Museums’. This conference highlighted an array of issues that proved prevalent in museum conservation today, the topics ranged from ‘Conserving Junk and Movement: Machines by Jean Tinguely’ to ‘ Modern Plastics: Do They Suffer From the Cold’ to ‘Characterization of Alkyd Paint Media By Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry’. American Ed Ruscha is just one contemporary artist who poses problematic with the conservation of his corpus. Ruscha has used a number of unusual organic materials on his canvas and paper; amongst these are gun powder, axel grease, tomato sauce and chocolate. This essay looks into the issues surrounding the conservation of contemporary works of art, and in particular exploresthe problems associated with the works of art by Ed Ruscha, principally his work Chocolate Room that was exhibited in the 1970 Venice Biennale and acquired in 1995 by the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles permanent collection.


Ijsbrand Hummelen and Tatja Scholte in their paper from the‘Modern Art, New Museums’ conference ‘Sharing Knowledge for the Conservation of Contemporary art: Changing Roles in a Museum without Walls?’ points out a number of important factors.2 In this paper they explain that due to the ephemeral and conceptual nature of contemporary work it is important that the ‘tacit’ element of these works is thoroughly discussed, documented and preserved along with the physical works.3 Hence after the acquisition of a contemporary work of art, it is not unusual for the artist and the museum staff to engage in a continuing dialogue in order to capture the meaning of the work for conservation purposes. This is a necessary process, since for many of these works we still have to decide precisely what is meaningful and what should be conserved.4

Contemporary conservation has also taken on a larger role in the documentation and storage of a work of art. Extensive interviews and writing has proven great success in documenting the concepts of an art work, especially when it is the concept that is being acquired, not an actual object. For conservators, this change in the approach to dealing with contemporary works is hard to fathom, as their job traditionally involved a physical object and keeping this object in its original state for as long as possible. Now their job largely incorporates the physicality of the documentation that accompanies a contemporary work of art which can hold the utmost importance over the object; so the idea stays alive for generations to come, and perhaps not the physical object.


To what extent is the conservator conserving work when the artistic intent was the work’s inherent vice? The Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material highlights a number of key factors with the conservation of contemporary art, and all works of art in general. They point out in their code of ethics that respect for the object and the significance it has to the person or people who created it is always above anything else. They also state that preventative conservation is the most critical way of preventing deterioration of an object and promote long-term preservation.5 That is to control the objects environment in the museum, storage, handling and freight, so to slow down any possible deterioration.


The ethical issues of conservation with a contemporary work of art have changed since conservation originated in the late nineteenth century. Contemporary calls for a difference in approach to art becauseephemeral and conceptual pieces are not concerned with keeping the work alive for the longest possible time. Often the actual piece is not a physical object, but a concept which is acquired by an institution and hence preparation and documentation becomes the primary objective of the contemporary conservator. Conservators must now understand that artistic intent is the number one importance when treating a work of art, and that the object’s purpose in a public collection is for public’sappreciation. Robert Wilmot says,

Conservation is a compromise between unrealistic permanent storage for almost perpetual longevity and a total disregard for the object. Using it up, trying to get it to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.6

Wilmot goes on to say that the consumer society we live in does not plan for the future and does not take into consideration the viewer of the future, and hence;

the Art Gallery’s role is to reflect the art world in which it finds itself for those members of the public who wish to partake, then what business has it to intervene and try to forestall the natural process of deterioration, for it is evident that more and more artists care little beyond the exhibition date or what happens to the work after it has been ‘sold’ or finished.7

He plays devils advocate here by suggesting that the artist is disinterested in their work after the life of exhibition, to bring forth arguments against this claim. Wilmot’s suggestion that artists care little about their work after it leaves their hands is a grand assumption not to be taken lightly. There are artists who create a work of art for the moment, and do not consider its physical future, however there are artists like Ed Ruscha who chose certain mediums to their work to envisage its life span and how the work may alter in that period. This is where artistic intent is primary to the conservation of all contemporary works of art and artist interviews, archives and relations are important.


International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art states that their aim is to collect information on working methods, the use of materials and techniques and their meaning, the artist's view on deterioration and conservation as an important part of the artistic intent.8 Ed Ruscha was asked by curator Henry Hopkins to create a work for the 1970 Venice Biennale. The work Ruscha produced and exhibited for the five month period in Venice spanning through the whole of summer was Chocolate Room which consisted of 360 chocolate silkscreened sheets of paper.9 These sheets of paper were hung flush against each other so to create a room of chocolate.Hopkins hoped to present an exhibition that heightened American printmaking at that time. Ruscha’s interest in chocolate originated from Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder ; Neal Benezra attributes this time to exploring ‘process rather than the production of refined objects’.10 This work was subsequently acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1995 as a pivotal acquisition of Ruscha’s work and major example of that period in art history. Ruscha has a long association with working on paper thatincludes gunpowder drawings and other works on paper formed from found and organic substances. Ruscha explains his fascination with using raw organic materials as,

The first work that I did involving vegetable matter and organic materials came out of my frustration with materials. I wanted to expand my ideas about materials and the value they have. I was concerned with the concept of stainingsomething, rather than applying a film or coat or skin of paint on a canvas. I started looking at ideas as though they were stains.11

Chocolate Room can be seen as a precursor to the new wave of installation art in the decade after and is also linked with the contemporary art of Smithson who developed earthworks and organics.12 At the time Ed Ruscha was invited to participate in the 1970 Venice Biennale he says he was spending time in London experimenting with printmaking at Editions Alecto. Here he also tried print making with organic substances such as daffodils, tomato sauce, caviar and axle grease.13 Ken Allan notes that,

Drawings that fill a room with the smell of chocolate suggest that our experience as viewers is crucial to determining the nature of Ruscha’s inquiry. Perhaps by thinking about Ruscha’s drawings as images, ideas, and as the record of the physical interaction of different substances all at once, the message written on their surface, such as ‘eye’, ‘ babycakes’, and ‘I was gasping contacts,’ achieve a sense of completion that exists apart from words.14


Hence we can see the critical importance of artistic intent and respect for the object and its creator when faced with the conservation of Ruscha’s work. Ruscha purposely used these materials in his work to highlight certain senses over others, but also to explore themes that are particular to the deterioration of the materials in his work. Neal Benezra comments,

Ed Ruscha has defied old assumptions by pressing painting into dialogue with diverse aspects of culture and not merely the culture of painting, thereby extending the medium beyond its former boundaries. Ruscha has become a painter of historical importance by channeling his frustration with the medium and its weighty traditional into work of the first order.15

The acquisition of Chocolate Room in 1995 by Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles created great fervor in the press and amongst the museology field. One article in Los Angeles Magazine comments that, ‘Ants attached in Venice, and sticky fingers left their marks during an exhibit at MOCA in 1995’ this article also makes note that the museum staff stated ‘since no one is suppose to taste the walls, freshness is not a concern – as long as the chocolate doesn’t melt’.16 Throughout the five month viewing of Chocolate Room in Venice viewers had taken offense as the work which seemed ‘provocative at the very least, if not politically charge’.17 Graffiti slowly made its way onto the chocolate covered walls, and this with the problematic notion of ants ‘accelerated the natural reclamation of the piece’.18 This inherent vice is ultimately the artistic intent of the piece as Ruscha was interested in exploring entropy and the notions of process within art and existence. These same themes can be seen as early as 1960 in Ruscha’s corpus in a pivotal work titled Insect Eating Paper in which involved a tromp-l’oeil bug eating and excreting its way up and empty page, ‘apparently devouring its own representation’.19

The use of chocolate in works of art has been experimented with historically. Sonja Alhauser specifically used chocolate as the medium to make exhibition cases. She was interested in the works looking realistic, however, allowed to degrade. She encourages viewers to eat the art, and what was left over after the exhibition was thrown out.20 Some artists who use organic materials as a medium do not utilize the medium for its inherent vice, like Joseph Beuys who made sculptures from human fat and did not intend for them to degrade, but when they did accept it,unlike Alhauser and Ruscha who use the specific organic substance as a comment on degradation and the circle of life.21 If inherent vice is a deliberate part of the work, then the intervention of an art conservator makes no sense, however if the artist used an unstable material unbeknown to them then the art conservator should look into the possibilities of stabilizing the materials.‘Preventative measures should be taken to slow the deterioration of chocolate by exhibiting and storing it in a stable environment, and establishing good housekeeping policies for control of pests.’22

In the case of chocolate, and with Chocolate Room the two differing viewing situations lead to different deterioration modes. Firstly at the Venice Biennale insect infestation, wondering hand and pens caused accelerated deterioration. Whereas stored safely at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in a controlled environment the work will last a longer life span. ‘Chocolate keeps astonishing well, and is more stable than many of the materials used by contemporary artists. Although there is a loss in flavor and various oxidation products will have developed , including fatty acids, the chocolate can still be structurally sound’ as evident in Chocolate Room whereby 25 years after the work was originally made and shown the MOCA acquisition consisted of the concept of the work, and also original sheets.23

MOCA … has stored the sheets in boxes and stashed them in the basement; the museum will replace cracked, broken, and crusty pieces with new chocolate sheets using an improved recipe from 1995.24

Throughout the late sixties and early seventies Ruscha experimented with a variety of media which included paper stained from substances such as bleach and spot cleaner, as well as salad dressing, chocolate syrup, castor oil, mustard and motor oil. Works such as News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews, and Dues were works on paper printed from materials such as axle grease, black current pie filling, raw egg, and chocolate syrup. After this period of print making with non-conventional materials Ruscha found it had to actually put paint to canvas, and this is when he started to again experiment with organic materials, but this time on canvas. Ruscha works such as Vanishing Cream (1973) and Various Cruelties (1974) further explore his preoccupation with staining, ‘by staining fabrics such as canvas, moiré , rayon and stain with beet, blueberry and cherry extract, egg yolk, spinach, tea and other equally quirky and decidedly non-traditional substance’.25 Ruscha directly comments,

There was a period when I couldn’t even use paint. I had to paint with unorthodox materials, so I used fruit and vegetable dyes instead of paint. I had to move some way, and the only way to do this was to stain the canvas rather than to put a skin on it.26

Sarah Greenburgremarks on Ruscha’s use of bleach in his earlier works such as Stickup, don’t move, smile whereby Ruscha has bleached out spots where words would normally appear. Greenburg says ‘It looks like the bleach has eaten away at now invisible words that were once painted on the linen base; they have an aggressive feeling’ Ruscha responses to this by saying ‘I like the nasty undertones. The language takes you into a world of criminality’.27 Here we can see that Ruscha has specifically used a medium because of its inherent vice, to eat away at the canvas. These is a point where the contemporary conservator would not use their skills to keep the work from deteriorating, but instead use preventative conservation to stabilize the work and keep it from other forms of deteriorations, but leave the artistic intention of inherent vice.


Hummelen and Scholte reiterate that importance of the museum staff documenting artistic intent and understanding as a crucial elements to their position. They believe it is the responsibility of the gallery to capture information and say ‘artists are interviewed about works they have created in the past: the way they worked, their original intentions, the use of material and techniques’ and go on to state, retrospective interviews with the artist, as primary source, contribute essential and unique information to our understanding of studio practice and artistic conceptions. It is the professional’s responsibility to validate the information that is collected.28

Due to the nature of ephemeral art documentation by the gallery is crucial to the life and intent of the work of art. The acquisition of an ephemeral or conceptual work may in fact mean the acquiring institution is purchasing the concept of the work, and not an actual physical object. In this case the role of gallery documentation is central to the ‘transmission of meaning and intentions in conservation, maintenance, (re)installation, re-creation, reproduction and other forms of (re)production’.29 Andrew Durham reiterates that it is the responsibility of the gallery to preserve the artistic intent as well as the physical properties of a work, and this is done through thorough preventative conservation practice, respect for the work of art, and respect for the artist.30

Issues in the conservation of contemporary works of art prove problematic because the nature of ephemeral and unstable works. The main point AICCM makes clear in their code of ethics is to always respect and carry on the artist’s intention. Documentation from the artist and between gallery professionals and the artist is critical when establishing the artistic intent of works and moreover making decisions on the conservation of such works. It is important to establish the meaning of the work before conservation can be considered, for without the artistic intention the true work will not be on display. This is right for the idiosyncratic nature of contemporary works such as the art of Ed Ruscha. Ruscha is a strong example of the challenge in contemporary art conservation with unstable materials. He is aware of the deteriorative qualities of the media he uses, and uses it exactly for that reason. Ruscha in his art challenges the traditional role of the conservator and brings forth the imperative practice of preventative conservation.

1. Eva Hesse as quoted in A. Durham, ‘Going, Going, Gone’, Museum Practice, Summer, 2003 p.33
2. Ijsbrand Hummelen & Tatja Scholte, ‘Sharing Knowledge for the Conservation of Contemporary Art: Changing Roles in a Museum without Walls?’ International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works 20th International Congress ‘Modern Art, New Museums’ - Bilbao, Spain - 13-17 September 2004
3. ibid. p.1
4. ibid. p.1
5. AICCM ‘Code of Ethics and Code of Practice’ (www.aiccm.org.au) p.7
6. Robert Wilmot, ‘Conservation of Contemporary Art – A Question of Ethics’ AICCM Bulletin p.53
7. ibid. p.53
8. International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art, http://www.incca.org/ (30 August, 2005 10.30pm)
9. Cornelia Butler ‘Information Man’ Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha’ 2004 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York p.29
10. Neal Benezra, ‘Ed Ruscha: Painting and Artistic License’ in Kerry Brougher (Ed.) Ed Ruscha Thames and Hudson (England) p.152
11. ibid. Butler. p.31
12. ibid. p.36
13. Sarah Greenberg ‘Word Player’ Royal Academy of the Art Magazine Summer 2005
14. ibid.
15. ibid. p.155
16. Kate Sandoval ‘Space Invaders: When Museums Think Big’ Los Angeles Magazine Inc 4/1/2001
17. ibid. p.37
18. ibid. p.37
19. ibid. p.37
20. Lorraine Adams ‘How Degrading! Contemporary Art & the Ravages of Age’ Washington Post 12/01/2003 p.G01
21. ibid. Adams, p.G01
22. op. cit. Wharton p.165
23. op. cit Wharton p.164
24. op. cit Sandoval p,1
25. op. cit Adams. p.153
26. ibid. p.153
27. op. cit Greenberg
28. op. cit. Cornelia Butler p. 5
29. op. cit. Ijsbrand Hummelen & Tatja Scholte p.8
30. op. cit. Durham p.32


  • AICCM ‘Code of Ethics and Code of Practice’ ( www.aiccm.org.au) (1/9/2005)
  • Lorraine Adams ‘How Degrading! Contemporary Art & the Ravages of Age’ Washington Post 12/01/2003 p.G01
  • Ken Allan ‘A Photographer – In – Spite – Of – Himself?: Ed Ruscha in New York and Los Angeles’ in X-tra vol 7, Issue 9 (x-traonline.org/vol7-3/allen-ruscha.htm)
  • Neal Benezra, ‘Ed Ruscha: Painting and Artistic License’ in Kerry Brougher (Ed.) Ed Ruscha Thames and Hudson (England) p.152
  • Cornelia Butler ‘Information Man’ Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha ’ 2004 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York p.29
  • Sarah Greenberg ‘Word Player’ Royal Academy of the Art Magazine Summer 2005
  • Ijsbrand Hummelen & Tatja Scholte, ‘Sharing Knowledge for the Conservation of Contemporary Art: Changing Roles in a Museum without Walls?’ International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works 20th International Congress ‘Modern Art, New Museums’ - Bilbao, Spain - 13-17 September 2004
  • International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art, http://www.incca.org/ (30 August, 2005 10.30pm)
  • Kate Sandoval ‘Space Invaders: When Museums Think Big’ Los Angeles Magazine Inc (4/1/2001)
  • Glenn Wharton et al. ‘Sweetness and Blight: Conservation of Chocolate Works of Art’ in J. Heuman (ed) From Marble to Chocolate: The Conservation of Modern Sculpture (London, 1995)
  • Robert Wilmot, ‘Conservation of Contemporary Art – A Question of Ethics’ ICCM Bulletin