Learning from the Artist

July 24, 2015
Index Magazine

Learning from the Artist

Conservators performed tests to determine the light sensitivity of Kent’s screenprints made with daylight fluorescent inks, such as handle with care (1967).  

During the mid-1960s, artist Corita Kent printed many of her bold, colorful works on Pellon, an acrylic, non-woven material developed by the garment industry. It was relatively inexpensive, and she liked the uncommon appearance it lent her artwork. 

“The paint does look different” on Pellon, Kent said during a 1977 interview. “When you take a slicker surface or a harder surface, the paint has a more brittle quality—a brighter, sharper quality, whereas these, no matter how sharp the line is, the paint has a soft look.”

Despite the special look that Pellon gave a freshly created screenprint, some Pellon-supported works that curator Susan Dackerman considered for our upcoming special exhibition Corita Kent and the Language of Pop bore damage from the past half-century. These objects, along with a number of Kent’s fluorescent ink screenprints, set conservators from the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies on a journey to discover how best to understand their materiality and how to treat them. These studies were made possible by the generosity of two important participants in the exhibition’s production, Mary Anne Karia, a former student of Kent’s, and Jason Simon, a collector of Kent’s work.

Simon loaned two works on Pellon to the museums—Rose (1965) and Come Off It (1966)—that were discolored and distorted, likely from exposure to water (and possibly other materials). Harry Metcalf, who served as the Craigen W. Bowen Paper Conservation Fellow at the Straus Center from 2012 to 2014, undertook the treatment of these works under the supervision of Penley Knipe, the Philip and Lynn Straus Conservator of Works of Art on Paper.

The task was hardly straightforward, considering that Pellon “is a very unusual support for printmaking,” Metcalf said. “I couldn’t find another example of an artist using it. As a result, there has been very little research into its stability or how it might react to common conservation treatments.”

Fortunately, Metcalf had access to another of Kent’s Pellon works: Questions & Answers (1966), which Karia had given the Straus Center for research purposes. He was able to run a number of tests on the print, including surface cleaning, washing, and flattening, in order to better understand how the materials might behave during conservation treatments.

“Distorted screenprints on paper are often very difficult to wash and flatten, as the relatively thick ink layer prevents the natural expansion and contraction” of the paper, Metcalf said. His tests revealed that Pellon is “relatively forgiving in comparison.”

With that knowledge, Metcalf gave Rose and Come Off It a series of immersion washes in warm, deionized water, followed by carefully controlled drying. Visitors can see the results themselves in the museums’ Art Study Center, where the prints will be available for examination during the duration of the exhibition, along with several other works by Kent. (Look out soon for a video in our Art + Science digital tour that tells the full story of the treatment of Come Off It.)

Metcalf’s second task was to assess the light sensitivity of some of Kent’s prints made with daylight fluorescent inks, which are colorants that both reflect light (as with normal pigments) and fluoresce, so they appear much brighter than traditional colors. Conservators wanted to know more about the inks’ susceptibility to fading upon exposure to light. With the assistance of Jens Stenger, then a conservation scientist in the Straus Center, Metcalf used a micro-fading tester, a device that carefully accelerates light-aging on minute areas of ink (approximately 0.4mm in diameter, barely visible to the naked eye) in original works. “Our results suggested that while fading does occur, daylight fluorescent pigments in screenprint inks are more stable than first thought,” Metcalf said.

This good news will help conservators make more educated decisions about the prints’ display, long-term storage, and treatment. Altogether, 32 of 79 Kent prints in the museums’ collections include daylight fluorescent inks.

For Metcalf, who is now a paper conservator at the Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery in the United Kingdom, the conservation work led to a deeper appreciation for Kent’s art. “I was really struck by how prolific she was,” Metcalf said. “There was a period in the mid-1960s when, in addition to teaching and writing, she produced 40 or 50 prints a year, often in very large editions. She regularly sought the help of colleagues and students, as it was a huge amount of work. Studying and conserving these prints has given me a much better understanding of her techniques and creative process. And, of course, it’s always interesting to be confronted by unusual methods.” 

Corita Kent and the Language of Pop is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and major corporate support from National Grid.