Laboratory technology — you know, things like digital X-ray radiography, near-infrared imaging, scanning electron microscopy, mass spectrometers, and all those other machines that are hard to pronounce — are just for scientists to learn more about obscure chemical reactions and complex physical properties that don’t come up in our daily lives, right?
Well, maybe not. The Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles is using these machines to do a bit of investigative detective work on an important 20th century American painting, “Mural,” by Jackson Pollock.
These machines are helping the sleuths at the institute see what does not meet the eye. The tools probe under the surface of the painting to generate data that helps the workers determine what is decaying and aging so that they can best determine how to best preserve the 1943 painting, reports The Wall Street Journal.
The machines also are revealing secrets to how the artist, who is known for his abstract dripped and splattered paintings, worked on this particular piece. “From the chemical composition and buildup of paints, we are unlocking evidence of Pollock’s creative process, his choice of materials, and any alterations through time,” says Getty conservation analyst Alan Phenix.
There were a series of examinations with the different tools that took much time to examine the painting in its entirety. For example, the 8-by-20-foot canvas was so large that it took three days for the X-ray machine to examine it all. The Wall Street Journal explains further on the work performed:
To safely analyze the chemistry of Pollock’s paints, the conservators used a series of noninvasive imaging techniques, including infrared imaging and X-ray fluoroscopy, which let them probe the canvas with different electromagnetic wavelengths without having to touch it. A single application of teal blue contained 12 different pigments, the spectroscopic analysis showed. Microscopic examination of paint samples — each no more than a half-millimeter across — revealed as many as 25 layers of color splashed, spattered and brushed on the linen canvas.
The examinations showed several problem areas. The paint has chipped in places. Some colors have faded because of the internal chemistry of the pigments in the paint. And the painting has suffered from earlier attempts to preserve it.
The tests also showed that Pollock worked methodically on the painting — working right to left — rather than exuberantly splattering paint onto the canvas, a technique he is known for. He also painted with the canvas upright, rather than horizontally on the floor, another of his trademark techniques.
Some of the paint has grown transparent because of age. The conservators do not plan on repainting those areas, as their overall philosophy behind the work is to preserve, rather than restore. In the near future, workers will rebuilt the wooden framework that supports the large canvas to keep it taut.
“You are balancing historical accuracy and authenticity with what you know of the artist’s intent,” says Getty conservation scientist Tom Learner. “We want this painting to look like a well-preserved 70-year-old.”
Like the conservators at Getty, scientists at Polymer Solutions Inc. also use electron scanning microscopes or X-rays to learn more about the chemical integrity and composition of sample materials. The techniques used by PSI’s experts often help companies determine whether a product has been contaminated and, if so, by what.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.