Cleaning an artwork is one of the most sensitive conservation tasks, due to the challenges of determining exactly what to remove, and then exactly how to remove it without affecting the original art surface. This is often complicated by unstable original materials, previous restorations, previous storage environments, or other effects of age.
Last week I had the rare opportunity to perform a cleaning that was quite straightforward, on Philip Pearlstein’s Self Portrait/Portrait of George Klauber. This unique gem is from Pearlstein’s last year as a student; the style is more surreal and playful than his later work, and he also created the unusual frame. In this case, other than being incredibly grimy, the painting and frame were in great condition. The grime that had built up over the decades was a combination of a greasy yellow film (possibly nicotine from cigarette smoke) and dry soot-like material, and tests determined that a modified aqueous solution was successful in removing it. Afterwards, the original bright colors were revealed in their intended relationships, helping restore the painting’s liveliness.
In the image above, you can see the transition in progress: the left side has been cleaned, the right side is still shadowed by the coat of grime, and my swab on his shirt points out the stunning line of contrast. The treatment was done in preparation for loan to the Andy Warhol Museum, and it was very satisfying to be able to send this charming painting out its cleaner state.