A Magazine for Alumni and Friends

SpringNott Memorial 2012

In art conservation lab, there’s more than meets the eye

The Art Conservation Analysis Lab

ali Zirkle ’12 knows it’s what you don’t see that makes art special. The Hampton, N.H. native took courses in classics and art history with the intention of pursuing a career in museum administration.

Then she saw the light.

A course in art history with Prof. Louisa Matthew and another on the business of art with Prof. Lorraine Cox made her realize it was the art itself that she loved. Then a course on the art of science with Matthew and Mary Carroll of Chemistry gave her an idea: create a major in art restoration.

Enter Prof. Seyffie Maleki, a physicist, art lover and architect of a collaboration with local art preservationists and Union faculty known as the Art Conservation Analysis Lab.

Zirkle is using the lab for her senior thesis, investigating two of the College’s portraits of Eliphalet Nott, one by Albany painter Ezra Ames in 1828, the other by Henry Inman in 1839. She is using two techniques: infrared reflectography, which shows an artist’s “underdrawing” before paint went on the canvas; and ultraviolet spectroscopy, which shows changes made undisto the surface of a painting.

The Inman portrait shows some underwriting in a shadow behind the subject, which suggests that Inman may have changed his mind, or that the aging painter had help, Zirkle said. She is still examining the Ames work, but ultraviolet analysis shows that there was some overpainting after the original was complete.

“The most interesting thing to see is what the artist has changed,” Zirkle said. “Sometimes hands have been moved or have disappeared.” Other times, the artist’s original intentions have been abandoned entirely.

Maleki is fond of showing a painting of a steamship by acclaimed Hudson River School painter Frederic Church. With infrared reflectography, we see beneath the paint a drawing of a ship with sails. In another lab specimen, a religious icon, we see an underdrawing of religious symbols that never made the final canvas.

Techniques used in the lab can detect art forgery; there are no indications of forgeries in Union’s art collection.

The Art Conservation Analysis Lab recently received a grant of $125,000 from the New York State Community Capital Assistance Program. The grant, to fund equipment and personnel, was championed by state Assemblyman John J. “Jack” McEneny, the former Albany County historian. He visited the lab recently and noted that the breadth of learning taking place there is a long-standing Union distinction. “Eliphalet Nott would have been as comfortable in science and technology as he was in the arts and humanities,” he said.

The equipment purchased by this grant—an IR camera, a surgical microscope system, and an Erbium YAG laser— compliment Union’s shared instrumentation laboratory.

Together, these instruments have made Union’s facilities for art conservation among the most complete of any educational program in the nation, according to Maleki.

Prof. Seyffie Maleki captures an image while Kali Zirkle ’12 illuminates a portrait of Eliphalet Nott with ultraviolet light.

Joyce Zucker, left, demonstrates an art analysis technique to Assemblyman Jack McEneny

Time was, you could forgive a non-physics major for getting lost on the way to Maleki’s lab. Tucked away in the northeast basement corner of Science and Engineering, the lab—complete with Faraday cage—was the domain of physics majors only.

Today, Maleki’s “undisclosed location” houses the Art Conservation Analysis Lab, a frequent destination for students and faculty from a range of majors. It also is a second home for painting conservators like Joyce Zucker, who joined Union as a Research Professor when she retired from Peebles Island Conservation Center in Cohoes, NY.

The lab grew out of a decade-long collaboration between Maleki and art conservationists at Peebles Island, a state facility for the preservation and restoration of New York’s artistic heritage.

In 2002, Zucker, a painting conservator at Peebles, had learned of a new technology— laser cleaning of art objects. So, she sought out Maleki, a laser expert, to learn more about laser theory and operation. Maleki provided his expertise and a high power laser to his new colleague. In turn, Zucker motivated Maleki’s interest in art restoration. By the end of the year, the laser specialist was attending a week-long workshop at the National Galleries in England.

Laser cleaning is nothing new in the semiconductor industry. But except in Europe where precious art works can date back as far as the birth of Christ, it has had little acknowledgement in the art world. Laser systems and related instrumentation are expensive. So is the training. Then there is the seemingly unnatural partnership of art historians and physicists.

Until now.

The Union-Peebles collaboration was stimulated when frustrated conservators could not find a suitable cleaning technique for the stenciled walls at Olana, the Hudson, N.Y. home of Frederic Church. Zucker enlisted Maleki, along with Adel de Cruz of Duke University. In a project that also involved a Union senior art major, Christina Muir, the team showed that a high-power ER:YAG laser could effectively clean fine art, both on canvas and hardened surfaces.

Maleki and his colleagues have found that art conservation seems to encompass nearly everything. “It is the broadest field of all,” he said. “It includes art and art history, but also physics, chemistry, materials science and anything else you can think of. And Union is the perfect place for this kind of program.”

 Spring  2012 table of contents