IFA Honorary Fellow

James Coddington

The IFA Honorary Fellowship recognizes distinguished scholars in art history, archaeology, conservation and related disciplines, or outstanding figures in the visual arts. This award acknowledges their contribution to learning, teaching, and practice in these fields.

For the academic year 2015-2016, we welcome James Coddington as our fifth IFA Honorary Fellow. Mr. Coddington is the Agnes Gund Chief Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. IFA conservation student Megan Randall, currently completing her fourth-year Internship at MoMA, recently interviewed Mr. Coddington:

Prior to coming to MoMA, I read the 2010 Wall Street Journal article on your weekly games of squash. I am curious if you think playing squash may or may not be informative in your career.

[Laughs] That’s an interesting question. That article captures one of the great ironies for me about people doing things well and not getting recognition for it. I would wager more people in the world, as a result of that article, have read about my squash playing than the best squash players in the world…they’re phenomenal athletes, but they don’t have the sort of position that affords them this level of exposure.

It relates to what conservators do, too, in that we really don’t seek recognition for our professional successes. It’s an old trope but one that I subscribe to, that if nobody knows we have been there then we have done our job.

Specifically in the article, you talk about squash being related to chess, and I was wondering if you employ the mental and strategic aspects of the game on a daily basis?

I suppose so. I like to think I play a patient game of squash, and certainly one needs to be patient as a conservator. The scales at which things happen are vastly different, we are talking about matters of seconds versus matters of weeks and months, but still, within the context of the task at hand, patience is absolutely useful in both.

Squash is a hell of a lot of fun and I do believe firmly in that Greek concept of ‘sound body and sound mind’.

You came into the museum in 1987. Can you walk me through your path at the museum?

When I came to MoMA we were a much smaller department. At the time, Antoinette King was the director of conservation. There were 2- ½ paintings conservators, 1-½ sculpture conservators, 2 paper conservators, a Mellon Fellow, and an administrative assistant. Everybody was busy, but it just was not frantic the way it is now.

Was the work in the lab exhibition and loan driven or was it more research based? Has there been a shift in the lab?

The shift has been from treatment-based work to exhibition and research-based work. Our main connection to the collection at that time was treating it. That remains pretty fundamental, but a lot of our connection to the collection now is through exhibition driven research.

Is there a treatment or artist on which you have worked that stands out as particularly challenging or rewarding?

Circumstances and personal interests have directed my attention toward Jackson Pollock. It began with Kirk Varnedoe’s 1998 retrospective, when Kirk said that many stories had been told about Jackson Pollock, but one that had not (at least to that point) was “How did he do this? How did he make these things?” Kirk was really dedicated to making those questions an essential part of the exhibition. That opened the door to Pollock for me, and in the 15+ years after that, a number of opportunities have risen to keep my attention on Pollock, most recently the three major Pollock paintings Jennifer Hickey ‘11 and I worked on a few years back.

Have your goals and interests changed significantly from your entry into the museum in 1987—specifically, as your role has changed from conservator to chief conservator? Has that transition given you a different perspective on the field of conservation?

It certainly has given me a different perspective on the field, because it has given me different responsibilities here in the museum. As a representative of our field, I am exposed to some things I would not be otherwise. My goals have not changed, they are the same: care for the collection in the best possible way.

In terms of going from conservator to chief conservator, being the chief conservator at MoMA gives me opportunities that others do not get. I accept that and try to respond responsibly for our field from this position.

Is there anything that has surprised you during your career in terms of trends in the field?

As a painting conservator, what I think I know about paintings conservation was largely learned during my time at the Met under John Brealey and his studio. That was absolutely a flex point in paintings conservation as a whole and certainly in this country. John and the Met were pretty much ground zero, so it was really interesting and deeply formative.

For instance, John was vocal about the subjectivity of cleaning paintings. He would articulate the subtle differences between an objective cleaning and his approach to subjective cleaning. John established a science department there with the specific mandate to develop a longer-lasting, aesthetically satisfying varnish. Paintings would be out of the cleaning cycle for much longer periods of time. While there was this recognition of subjectivity, he also recognized that there were objective ways to mitigate the problem. That has always been a very healthy mode of analysis of situations for me. In caring for the collection here at MoMA, there are certain things we do and need to take responsibility for, but are there ways that we can learn and think about how to resolve problems in a more objective and useful way going forward.

I have noticed that you are working on the 1914 Pablo Picasso “Green Still Life.” Can you tell me about that treatment?

This ties together nicely. It is a straightforward varnish removal (synthetic resin), but why take it off? Why should I expose the painting to solvents? The reason is that it’s actually a dead matte varnish on there. Interestingly, there was a period of time, in the early 1980s, when controversy surrounded the cleaning of Cubist paintings, the “Crimes Against the Cubists”, it was then understood that a Cubist painting should be matte. I believe that is why the matte varnish was put on, but the question is considerably more subtle than that. Every painting is different, and to say that all paintings of one stripe or another should be matte probably misreads some of those paintings, maybe many, if not all of them. This dead matte varnish was masking essential qualities of the painting, and because it can be taken off easily with no risk to the underlying paints I am doing that. Once removed, I will be able to see if this painting is actually about the differences of matte and gloss, and then either clean further to bring those differences out, or understand more about the materials. One of the specific questions here is what is underneath. The revealed paint is quite glossy. Is that mostly a function of the residual earlier varnishes that are on there or is it a desired function of the paints that Picasso used? Not until I can get that matte varnish off can we start to talk about the global questions concerning the painting.

Talk about your current research at the museum.

For years I’ve been interested in documentation and imaging documentation. During my tenure at the Met, a fair amount of time was spent talking about differential changes in the colors in a painting over time. MoMA’s collection is a young one and many things come here essentially unchanged. Rather than have a discussion years from now on ‘how much has it changed?’ can we develop documentation procedures that will say ‘it has changed this much’. Then, future conservators can be talking about a narrower range of differences, and they will have better information to more responsibly restore that piece to something closer to what it originally was. Being able to document the color of something to a higher degree than what was previously possible has been something we’ve worked on for a long time. To that end, we’ve worked with the Rochester Institute of Technology to help them develop the Sinar Color to Match camera, a six-channel color capture system.

Any predictions for the future in conservation?

Documentation is taking up a substantial amount of a conservator’s time these days. Contemporary art, for example, raised the potential for far more documentation. Having the artist available increases the amount of documentation, and the complexity of what many artists are doing increases the need for more documentation. That complexity also leads to a much greater uncertainty concerning appropriate treatments. My motivation for a better color capture system was about contemporary art. It is in a state that if we could capture the color better, everyone in the future would be better off for it. The other thing driving this increased time devoted to documentation is technology. There is more technology that is readily available. We can point and shoot more instruments at things now and we need to collect that information.

What technologies do you see on the horizon to make a big impact in our documentation?

Are we properly preserving the documentation? We have all of this information, are we truly methodical and systematic in the saving of that information? I cannot tell you how essential it is, having a conservation department here for 50 years, that we can see the written documentation of the people who went before us. It is an enormous benefit to us as we treat works now. If the information we have is not readily accessible to the future conservators, either due to technological obsolescence or its location is lost, it is really handicapping future conservators rather than helping them.

What kind of focuses do you think are essential for preparation in the field?

I think a real problem is that there are more and more demands on conservators, especially in museums. There is a lot of time spent telling people about what we do now. Go to any museum website and you’ll see the increased amount of material that gets published, in their journals and elsewhere. Having to put our thoughts down in an orderly and comprehensible way is something that is more and more expected of us. Similarly, I do feel like there is a real need, again of museum conservators, to have a really solid grounding in art history. This is a nice pitch to the IFA, but I really believe it. It is something that I would not have been nearly as strong about 10 years ago.

What prompted that change?

Our increased collaboration with art historians. They come to us to learn our language, but I do not see the opposite happening as much. I could be wrong in that, but I think that it should happen. It would be more productive in every way.

The final thing I see as an issue for training is what are we going to do about technology-based works of art. I think that for technology-based works of art, students are going to need some additional training, like an extra year of school, or take additional coursework in information sciences, video technology, and introductory stuff like that. I think art historians will be learning to code, and conservators will need to learn to code, too. I don’t think that will be a surprising thought in five years.

Can you talk about your thesis project at Reed? The effects of nitrates on Daphnia?

Daphnia are water fleas. I was a biology major at Reed. It really is interesting to me because failure is one of the great things to learn. The thesis was, in my estimation, a well thought-out project. It was poorly executed for many reasons: I was no longer interested in the project because by that time I was interested in art history, my advisors were not interested in it, and I did not get particularly good direction. I worked my way through it and did it, but it was all the evidence I needed, the final nail in the coffin, that I was not going to be a biologist.

The premise of the thesis was that nitrates from fertilizers run off and cause algae blooms. The algae blooms suffocate all the wildlife and fauna in the water. My question was, is the fauna being suffocated just because the algae is eating up the nitrate, or is it because the natural predator of the algae is suppressed during the bloom. Daphnia is one of the natural predators of algae. The evidence was inconclusive.

You graduated from college in 1974 and started at University of Delaware in 1978. Can you give me some more background into how you started in conservation?

I already knew I was interested in conservation before I left Reed, due to having a couple of outstanding art history professors. They knew about the field and my interest in art history and biology. They didn’t direct me towards it, but they included that material in their courses, and when I made that connection myself they gave me a lot of support. As with everybody, even back then you needed additional coursework. I was taking studio art and some chemistry during that time and living a great life in Portland, Oregon.

What advice would you give a soon-to-be graduate?

[Laughs] The work is its own reward.

Archive

Leonard Barkan

In 2014-2015 we will welcome our fourth honorary fellow Leonard Barkan, Class of 1943 University Professor and Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. He has been a professor of English and of Art History at various universities including Northwestern, Michigan, and NYU. Among his books are The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism, Transuming Passion: Ganymede and the Erotics of Humanism, and Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture, which won prizes from the Modern Language Association, the College Art Association, the American Comparative Literature Association, Phi Beta Kappa, and the PEN America Center. He is the winner of the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has been an actor and a director; he is also a regular contributor to publications in both the U.S. and Italy, where he writes on the subject of food and wine. In 2006, he published Satyr Square, which is an account of art, literature, food, wine, Italy, and himself. Recent publications include Michelangelo on Paper, recording the life of the artist via the sheets of paper on which he both wrote and drew, and Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures, a study of the relations among words, images, and pleasure from Plato to the Renaissance. He is currently writing a book about the relations between food culture and high culture from antiquity to the Renaissance and another, not so scholarly book about his love for the city of Berlin. At Princeton, he has taught courses on subjects including Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Narcissus, Word and Image, and Comedy.

Irene J. Winter

In 2013-2014, we will welcome our third Honorary Fellow Irene J. Winter, William Dorr Boardman Professor of Fine Arts Emerita in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.  Professor Winter is a preeminent scholar of Ancient Near Eastern studies. She received a B.A. in Anthropology from Barnard College, an M.A. from the University of Chicago in Oriental Languages and Literature, and a PhD in Art History and Archaeology from Columbia University after completing a dissertation on ivory carvings from northern Syria in the early first millennium BCE. She taught at Queens College in New York and the University of Pennsylvania prior to joining the faculty at Harvard University. She was Slade Professor at Cambridge University in 1997, and delivered the Mellon lectures at the National Gallery/CASVA in 2005.  In recent years, she served on the Iraq Task Force of the Archaeological Institute of America, contributing to ongoing efforts to recover and restore looted objects and protect the region’s cultural heritage. Her fieldwork as an archaeologist has been mainly in Iran from 1967 to 1974, and most recently in Iraq in the winter of 2011-12.  An essayist by disposition, Professor Winter has authored numerous articles regarded as highly influential in her field, many of which were collected into two volumes and published by Brill in 2010. A book based upon the Mellon lectures is currently in progress.

Ann Temkin

In 2012-2013, we will welcome our second Honorary Fellow Ann Temkin, the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Dr. Temkin received a B.A. from Harvard University and a PhD in the History of Art from Yale University. She first worked at the MoMA from 1984 to 1987 as a curatorial assistant in the painting and sculpture department. In 1990, she accepted the position of curator of modern and contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she worked until her return to the Modern’s painting and sculpture department in 2003. Upon the retirement of her predecessor John Elderfield in 2008, Dr. Temkin assumed the role of Chief Curator of painting and sculpture at the museum. Her research is focused mostly on postwar and contemporary art, with past exhibitions surveying artists Joseph Beuys, Sherrie Levine, Alice Neel, Barnett Newman, Gabriel Orozco, and Raymond Pettibon, among others. She recently curated a major exhibition on abstract expressionism in New York, culled entirely from the MoMA’s collection.

Carol Mancusi-Ungaro

In the academic year 2011-2012, we welcome our inaugural Honorary Fellow, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro. Mancusi-Ungaro serves as Associate Director of Conservation and Research at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Founding Director of the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at the Harvard Art Museum. In 1990, Mancusi-Ungaro initiated the invaluable Artist Documentation Program. In this project, she interviews artists about the technical nature of their art, resulting in a video archive to serve current and future conservators and scholars.