Volume 9, Number 3, 2000

He hopes no one notices his work

Blue leaves, "fugitive" reds and sallow flesh tones are signs that Jim Coddington's services are needed.

Coddington, who graduated in 1982 with a master's degree in art conservation, has worked at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City for the last 13 years, the last four as chief conservator. He's restored canvases by Picasso, Cezanne, Pollock and numerous other luminaries.

"But, I hope you don't know that," he says.

The reason? "A great art historian once said, 'pity the poor restorer...if he does his job well, no one notices,'" Coddington says.

"Restoration is not about the restorer, it's about the artist."

Coddington, who grew up in Swarthmore, Pa., and Nashville, Tenn., earned a bachelor's degree in biology (with a minor in art history) from Reed College in Portland, Ore., in 1974.

He came to Delaware to pursue a master's in art history in 1978. But, he says, he soon "made the connection" between his longtime interest in science and art, and decided they "added up to conservation. I'm very glad I went to Delaware. The program was a perfect fit for me." Among his colleagues is associate curator Michael Duffy,
AS '88M.

Coddington's job encompasses both the protection and preservation of works of art, as well as the hands-on restoration of damaged pieces.

A work of art can be damaged by light, heat, water and contact with people or other objects. "Drying, fading and cracking are very standard problems," Coddington explains.

When figuring out the extent of damage and the best way to repair it, a conservator may use tools as sophisticated as infrared light and as simple as a titanium blade.

"Respect for the original" is paramount, Coddington says. That's why a conservator uses "reversible materials and reversible procedures" and must meticulously document, in writing and in photographs, the condition, the damage and the treatment of that damage.

Art conservation degree programs like Delaware's--one of only three in the nation--have been fundamental in the standardization and professionalization of what historically had been a craft practiced by a select few, Coddington says. Contemporary conservators emerge from school with core training in basic principles. And, technology is enabling them to better understand why and how certain materials age, which dovetails with the growing emphasis on damage prevention.

"It's definitely a shift in philosophy," Coddington says, noting that "the same amount of effort on the preventive side as on the restoration side can end up saving hundreds of pieces."

Preservation "is a museum-wide mandate and activity," he notes. "Why do we have guards? To preserve the paintings."

A conservator, Coddington adds, "is concerned both with the physical ills of a particular piece, and the [future] hazards it may face."

Whether a piece of art is going to be in a private home or a public museum, conservators try to ensure a stable environment. This means controlling the light, the temperature, the humidity and the relationship among these conditions.

Preventing contact with ultraviolet light, perhaps by coating windows or screening the canvas in plexiglass, is essential. Certain pigments are very light-sensitive and prone to fading. Hence, the term "fugitive" red, meaning a scarlet hue that has vanished from the canvas. Some yellow pigments that yield green when mixed with blue also tend to fade over time.

Given the enduringly "wild" image of some modern art, folks sometimes ask Coddington just what there is to conserve at MOMA. "They think modern artists paint with ketchup," he laughs.

But, experiments in materials and technique are not exclusively modern phenomena.

"Why do you think 'The Last Supper' is in such bad condition?" Coddington says. "Because the artist was experimenting."

And, a minor scratch that would be invisible on a Monet may be a glaring scar on a newer, say, more monochromatic canvas.

In the last 10 to 15 years, Coddington says, demand for conservation services has exploded as the number of museums and major exhibitions have grown.

At MOMA, "we're right in the thick of it, preparing for exhibitions, lending things around the world," he adds.

The satisfaction comes from "the engagement with works of art in a way very few people ever get to do," Coddington says. "And, the field is incredibly collegial."

Conservators "are not about the here and now," he says. "Our largest audience has not even been born yet."

--Kevin Riordan