Q&A with Annette King, modern and contemporary paintings conservator at Tate Modern.
How long have you been at Tate?
I was hired as an assistant conservator in 1997, before Tate Modern opened. After its inauguration, I became a paintings conservator. I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years. The Tate collection occupies four different venues. Tate Britain’s remit is historical art from roughly the 15th century to the present. Tate Modern houses international works dating from 1900 to the present. And there are branches in Liverpool and St. Ives as well. When I started, everything was in Millbank, central London, but it’s great to see the collection on view in all those new locations.
What does your role as a paintings conservator entail?
Since the collection is so large and diverse, we have different conservation departments—painting, sculpture, paper, time-based media, frames—divided among the venues. My role is to support Tate’s programs. That includes preparing paintings for exhibitions and loans; checking the condition of works as they come in for shows and maintaining them for the duration of the event; and even doing full restoration of collection works. Restoration can involve structural repair, cleaning, or various other treatments. I also research works in the collection. We have wonderful science and imaging departments. Working with scientists, curators, and the research team sometimes leads to important findings, which are then disseminated through teaching, talks, and publications. For example, we did extensive research for the exhibition “Modigliani Up Close” that was recently at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.
There have been a few recent exhibitions driven by conservation research.
Yes, and part of the drive behind that is advancements in technical imaging. Plus, you can share results more easily in digital form. Conservators were previously in the background, but now there is growing public interest in learning how artists made their works. One has to strike a balance between getting as much information out there as possible and making it accessible. Collaboration among historians, curators, researchers, and conservators is important to understanding the full scope of artists and their work. I hope this is only the beginning of a more inclusive way for art professionals to interact.
Are there any key take-aways from those collaborative experiences?
One example is Amedeo Modigliani’s Portrait of a Girl [ca. 1917] in the Tate collection. The surface is very thickly painted, but when we X-rayed the piece, we found the image of another woman underneath. Curators immediately recognized the figure from another painting, now in Russia, as the artist’s former lover Beatrice Hastings. Without one another, conservators and curators each know only half the story. Working together, they can fill in the gaps and give these works new life.
What are you working on next?
I’m going to start on Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, which was painted in 1962 and acquired by Tate in 1981. Since it’s so popular, the work has traveled all over the world. It’s almost always on display, but it’s more fragile than one might think. Everyone sees it as a printed image, but it’s actually one of Warhol’s early screen prints with a hand-painted face. Now that they are 60 years old, those images need a sensitive cleaning to even out the surfaces.