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The Challenge of Preserving Modern Art: A Technical Investigation of Paints Used in Selected Works by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock

  • Susan Lake

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Willem de Kooning (1904–1997) and Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) are perhaps the best-known members of the abstract expressionist movement, a group of diverse artists from disparate backgrounds who radically transformed American art during the 1940s and into the 1950s. While the development and legacy of abstract expressionism remains a subject of considerable debate, what this diverse group of artists had in common was the belief that the materials, and the ways the artists applied them, are crucial to the expression of their art.

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1Pollock, J., quoted in Possibilities I (1947/1948); reprinted in F. O'Connor and E.V. Thaw, Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings, and Other Works, Vol. 4 (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1978) D71, p. 241; W. de Kooning, quoted in D. Sylvester, “Content Is a Glimpse…” Location 1 (Spring 1963) p. 47.
2For example, see Hess, T.B., Art News 52 (March 1953) pp. 3033, 64–67; and Willem de Kooning: Drawings (New York Graphic Society, Greenwich, CT, 1972) p. 16.
3Goodnough, R., Art News 50 (May 1951) pp. 3841, 60–61; D. Sieberling, Life 27 (August 8, 1949) p. 42.
4Barclay, M.H., “Materials Used in Certain Canadian Abstract Paintings of the 1950s,” in LeClerc, D., The Crisis of Abstraction in Canada: The 1950s, Exhibition Catalog (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992) p. 207.
5Studies of aged drying oils suggest that it is possible to distinguish between some of the kinds of oils used in paintings on the basis of the ratios of relative amounts of methyl palmitate and methyl stearate present (P/S ratio). For example, see Mills, J.S. and White, R., The Organic Chemistry of Museum Objects (Butterworth-Heinemann, London, 1987) p. 143; and D. Erhardt, W. Hopwood, M. Baker, and D. von Endt, “A Systematic Approach to the Instrumental Analysis of Natural Finishes and Binding Media,” Preprints of Papers Presented at the 16th Annual A.I.C. Meeting (American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, New Orleans, 1988) p. 78. The mean P/S peak area ratios of naturally aged paint samples run by the author were as follows: linseed oil, 1.7; poppyseed oil, 4.8; sunflower oil, 1.4; safflower oil, 2.6; soybean oil, 2.6; tung oil, 1.1; castor oil, 1.1. The paints included products by a number of suppliers. A complete list of the paints that were tested is available upon request. The FTIR spectra were compared with those of aged standards.
6Heaton, N., Outlines of Paint Technology, 3rd ed. (1947) pp. 297298, 339–340.
7For example, see Zilczer, J., “de Kooning and Urban Expressionism,” in Willem de Kooning in the Hirshhorn Museum Collection, Exhibition Catalog (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 1993) p. 33.
8Lake, S., “The Relationship between Style and Technical Procedure: Willem de Kooning's Paintings of the Late 1940s and the 1960s,” PhD dissertation, University of Delaware, 1999.
9McMahon, J., de Kooning's studio assistant from 1963 to 1973 or 1974, recalls that de Kooning once told him that these paintings do not need to be cleaned, as they were “painted to look that way.” Personal communication with the author, 1993.

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The Challenge of Preserving Modern Art: A Technical Investigation of Paints Used in Selected Works by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock

  • Susan Lake

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