Editors’ Letter

Volume 4, Issue 1
Object Lesson: Conservation and Contemporary Art 

What’s clear is that modern art is inseparable from the destruction of modern art. Demolition, defacement, and debasement are not just fates artworks suffer at the hands of vandals; they’re often what those works are.
—Ben Lerner[1]

In her signal text Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972, Lucy Lippard defines Conceptual art “with a capital C” as “work in which the idea is paramount and the material form is secondary.” [2] The diverse artistic practices surveyed by Lippard— spanning conceptual and process art, performance, and expanded pictorial and sculptural practices— are “dematerializing” insofar as they prioritize the artistic gesture, concept, or act of critique over (and, often, at the expense of) the idealized physical object.

Conservators and curators of modern and contemporary art confront works of art that strain the traditional aims and precepts of their fundamentally object-based practices. In cases where material volatility, physical transformation, entropy, or intended obsolescence are central aesthetic concerns, preserving the physical integrity of an art object comes into direct conflict with the conceptual drive of the work. Conservators and curators face the challenge of negotiating ways to preserve and exhibit such objects without eroding the significance of the work of art in its original context. “The conceptual concerns that underpin much contemporary art,” reads the mission statement of the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (INCCA), “make its conservation more than an effort to arrest physical change.”[3]

The essays and artist projects in this issue of Interventions investigate points of tension between forms of dematerialization and paradigms of preservation and display, considering how this relation shapes the reception of works of art and impacts the practices of conservators, curators, art historians, and artists.

Anna Linehan and Béatrice Grenier
New York, January 2015

Purposeful Impermanence: Biodegradable Art and Its Challenge to Conservation by Caroline Barnett

Artificial Artifacts: Paul Sietsema and the Work of Conservation by David Crane (MODA 2016) 

“Inside me, the earthquake”: Materiality and Embodiment in the 1996 Fractures Exhibition by Carrie Cushman

Outside the White Cube: Conserving Institutional Critique by Ash Duhrkoop (MODA 2015)

ARTIST PROJECT: Ilana Harris-Babou With a text by Katherine Siboni (MODA 2015)

A Radical Disregard for the Preservation of Art: Robert Rauschenberg’s Elemental Paintings by Charlotte Healy

“What If?”: Digital Documentation as Performance and the Body as Archive in Deborah Hay’s No Time to Fly by Linden Hill


Growing Old Gracefully: The Conservation of a Mixed-Media Collage at the University College London Art Museum by Gillian Marcus 

ARTIST PROJECT: Hung by Brie Ruais 


[1] Ben Lerner, “Damage Control: The modern art world’s tyranny of price,” Harper’s Magazine (December 2013): 44.

[2] Lucy Lippard, Six years: the dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972 (New York: Praeger, 1973): vii.

[3] International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (INCCA), “Mission,” http://incca-na.org/about/mission/. Accessed January 2015. Emphasis added.