Ad Reinhardt in his studio, New York, July 1966

Ad Reinhardt in his studio, New York, July 1966.  Photo: John Loengard/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Ad Reinhardt’s Black Painting, 1960–66 (1960–66) was donated to the Guggenheim Museum in 2000 by AXA Art Insurance Corporation as a study painting after it was deemed irreparably damaged. Over the course of seven years, conservators, scientists, curators, and artists collaborated to examine the issues surrounding the conservation of this painting, which include the inherent vulnerability of monochromatic and minimalist paintings, experimental solutions for conservation, and the associated ethics of these strategies.

Physical examination and scientific analyses of the study painting contributed to a dossier of information about Reinhardt’s working methods and earlier attempts at restoration of damages incurred by the subtle, velvety surface of this black painting. Project conservators strove to define both the significance of the work and the viewer’s perception of an imageless surface with flat planes of color, how an artist’s hand (or lack thereof) confers meaning, and how one can define the essential criteria for a painting’s authenticity.

Imageless, an exhibition that took place at the Guggenheim Museum from July 11–September 14, 2008, allowed the public to enter the world of the conservator as forensic scientist, working collaboratively with a group of experts to uncover the mystery hidden beneath the monochromatic black painting. Through various analytical methods such as Fourier transform infrared analysis (FTIR), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and Raman spectroscopy and laser induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS), the team was able to identify the chemical composition of the materials and, through careful study, identify restoration above the original paint layers. A number of techniques were tested to treat the surface, both to remove layers of overpaint and to treat blemishes, cracking, and burnishes on the surface. In particular, several laser techniques were tested extensively to establish their efficacy in the treatment of difficult monochromatic surfaces, which present particular challenges for conservators. A number of scientists collaborated on the design of an experimental laser treatment, which required a computerized, robotic system to deliver the laser to the surface. Several lasers were tested, and ultimately an excimer laser mounted on an optical arm and an easel for cleaning large surfaces was utilized as the most suitable configuration for this painting. Since that time, even more progressive and innovative laser technologies have been developed that could perfect this technique.

Through didactic materials, mock-ups, and presentation of sample materials, the public was able to appreciate the extent of such a comprehensive research project in the field of conservation. For comparative viewing and appreciation of the subtleties of surface, the exhibition included an adjacent room with several Reinhardt paintings in excellent condition. Through this intimate viewing of the surface, the viewer was able to appreciate the extraordinary technique of the artist, and the importance of understanding these fine details of an imageless painting, which is so often bypassed by the casual viewer and misunderstood by the general public. Through the eyes of conservators, artists, and scholars, the painting was made accessible,  encouraged discourse, and presented knowledge about the physical components of a highly conceptual and important artwork from the 1960s.

This exhibition was organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s Conservation Department in collaboration with the Sackler Center for Arts Education, and was curated by Chief Conservator Carol Stringari. Made possible by a generous grant from AXA Art Insurance Corporation.

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