A Modern Master
When art dealer Deedee Wigmore of D. Wigmore Fine Art in New York needed to clean and frame 60 paintings from the 1930s and ‘40s by the American modern master Charles Green Shaw, she knew she could count on Lowy. “We organized an exhibition of Shaw’s paintings last fall to announce that we had become the exclusive agent representing his estate, and we wanted the paintings and their frames to be in the best possible condition,” says Wigmore. “We had selected works with beautiful surfaces, so we needed a first-class conservator. We also needed a first-class framer who could do both repairs on the original frames and reproductions of period frames. Lowy is the best company of its kind in the city. I knew they were capable of taking on a job of this size and complexity.”
Charles Green Shaw, one of America’s earliest notable abstract artists, was part of a group of New York artists and intellectuals in the 1930s known as The Park Avenue Cubists, who were influenced by Cubism and other prevailing trends in modern art at that time. He was also a founding member of the American Abstract Artists Group, which mounted annual exhibitions throughout the late 1930s and 1940s that promoted American abstract art. This artist-run group, with whom Shaw exhibited frequently, still exists today. A student of the painters Thomas Hart Benton and George Luks, Shaw developed a modern style distinguished by simple geometric or biomorphic shapes that seem to float within flat, planar compositions. In his art, he experimented with depth, motion, spatial arrangements and light and shadow in a variety of materials ranging from painted wood constructions and collage to gouache, oil on canvas board and oil and sand on canvas.
The Cubist works of Picasso and Juan Gris, Joan Miro’s Surrealist paintings, Alexander Calder’s playful kinetic sculptures and Arthur Dove’s nature-based abstractions all served as inspirations for Shaw’s art. Among his best known works are a series of shaped abstract canvases entitled the Plastic Polygons that were inspired by New York’s skyscrapers. A successful artist in his day whose work was represented in leading museums nationwide, Shaw was also a prolific journalist, poet and children’s book writer. “Few American painters of the 1930s and 1940s left an oeuvre which is so varied and consistently original,” Henry Adams, professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, wrote in the catalogue for Wigmore’s exhibition. “Shaw was not a framer of epics but a lyric poet. His paintings have something of the quality of Japanese haiku, by a poet such as Basho, which capture the metaphysical thrill of an ecstatic moment, with a clarity, a brevity, that is breathtaking.”
When the 60 paintings by Shaw arrived at Lowy, they first needed a thorough cleaning, as many had not been cleaned since the time they were made. Because this complex and diverse group of works was created with many of the experimental materials and techniques for which Shaw was known, incorporating such elements as wood, collage and sand, Lowy’s conservators examined each work carefully to determine the most appropriate cleaning method. “It was a very time-consuming process,” says Bill Santel, Lowy’s chief conservator. “We had to adjust our treatments according to the materials and techniques used for each painting. Some were traditional oils on canvas or oils on canvas board. Others were painted wood constructions or paintings that incorporated sand or collage. There were also some gouaches. So we could not approach each work in the same way.”
The paintings came in a range of conditions, according to Bill. Some paintings had areas of flaking and others had surface distortions. Flaking areas were set down with a synthetic adhesive and treated with locally applied heat and pressure, while surface distortions were treated with heat and humidity where possible. A few paintings required relining to an additional support to stabilize them. Some works had a moderate layer of surface-embedded soot, while others were more heavily soiled, depending upon how they had been stored over the years. Imprints or stencils in the surface soot revealed that some of the paintings had been stacked on top of each other. “The paintings that had not been stored properly appeared to be more soiled,” Bill says. One of the biggest challenges was determining just the right mixture of detergents and solvents for cleaning each painting. “Research showed that Shaw sometimes mixed synthetic resins with oil paints. Synthetic resins are more soluble than oils, which limited the choice of detergent-solvent mixtures that we could use for cleaning. So we tested each painting with various cleaning mixtures to determine how it would react, and then developed a margin of safety for the treatment, ensuring that none of the original paint would be removed in the cleaning process. We removed heavily encrusted debris with a scalpel.”
After cleaning, the paintings were examined for irremovable surface stains, abrasions, scratches and other damages to the paint layer. Losses were filled with a reversible vinyl gesso and inpainted. Irremovable stains and abrasions were also inpainted. Oil paintings were inpainted with pigments mulled in an acrylic resin; gouaches were inpainted with gouache and watercolors. Paintings that had suffered losses of surface sand, one of Shaw’s unconventional techniques, were also treated. In these cases, Lowy’s conservators applied the missing sand grains by hand according to observable patterns in the paintings.Finally, a matte coat of synthetic resin varnish was applied to the paintings to protect against environmental pollutants and provide an aesthetically pleasing surface.
“Once the paintings were cleaned and repaired, they looked brighter and more vibrant,” Bill says. “The transformation was truly remarkable, and the paintings seemed to be closer to what I imagined Shaw had originally intended. It was so rewarding to be a part of that transformation.” Some of the paintings had suitable original frames, which Lowy cleaned and repaired. Such frames from this time period were typically simple hand-crafted and painted (though sometimes gilded) stepped or beveled profiles that reflected the modernist style of the time. Their surfaces were sometimes textured by combing or sanding. Other paintings required newly made frames. For this task, Wigmore painstakingly selected a number of 1930s and ‘40s frames from Lowy’s inventory that served as models for reproduction in Lowy’s workshops. Careful attention was paid to match the appropriate profile and finish of the reproductions to each individual painting, in keeping with Lowy’s commitment to the highest aesthetic standards.
Wigmore could not have been more satisfied with the outcome of this extensive project. “It was wonderful to be able to present two decades of work by such a great American painter,” Wigmore says. “And Lowy’s exceptional conservation skills only added to the exhibition’s success. By the time the paintings were outfitted in their frames, they looked as if they were born in them.”