By HOLLY HUSTON KRUEGER and MARK ROOSA
An evolution of materials and techniques in cartooning can be discerned in the upcoming exhibition "Life of the People: Realist Prints and Drawings from the Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Collection, 1912-1948."
The collection came to the Library in 1993. The Conservation Division began treatment last year. So far 59 items have been treated in preparation for the exhibition and book. The treatments involve a wide range of technical solutions. Many objects received minor treatment including dry-cleaning surface dirt, mending tears and removal of extraneous materials such as old hinges and tapes, which could cause damage if kept in place. Selected objects received more complicated treatments that included washing or light bleaching or both to remove discoloration and the products of acidic degradation. Prints and drawings treated with these techniques are healthier, brighter in appearance and closer in tone to the original paper color. A few items, including Robert Minor's Pittsburgh. Stuart Davis's Hoboken and Harry Sternberg's Builders received more complex treatments.
Robert Minor's work from the early 1900s, as typified by Pittsburgh (1916), had an extremely strong influence on political cartoonists. This was due in large part to Minor's use of unconventional media such as lithographic crayon and ink washes. The intense black of a grease crayon is perfectly suited to gestural drawings such as these, and soon other cartoonists began using similar media.
Pittsburgh bore the signs of casual handling through the decades since its creation. At some point, it had been rolled and creased. Despite its "rough " appearance, the power of the image invoked by Minor's choice of litho crayon is undiminished. The successful conservation of this piece hinged on finding a balance between preserving the artist's intent and stabilizing the object physically and chemically. A completely pristine appearance would not be possible given the condition of the object, nor would it be desirable, as the raw beauty of the image could be diminished with too much alteration. Treatment for this piece involved removal of polyvinyl acetate (common white glue is a type of PVA) used to adhere potentially damaging material to the back of the paper. Tears were then mended and creases reinforced with Japanese paper, made from the inner bark of the indigenous Japanese kozo plant, which is known for its particularly long fibers. The paper was adhered with wheat starch paste, which is routinely used in conservation because of its excellent working properties and because it is reversible should the treatment ever need to be undone.
Harry Sternberg's Builders(1935) came out of the WPA project. Sternberg taught at the Art Student's League and succeeded in bringing original art to a wider audience in the best democratic tradition. He also was active in the development of printing techniques. Builders, a well-executed lithograph, is emblematic of the tradition of the glorification of the worker, a genre that could have only grown out of the turmoil of the previous generation's labor struggles, of which Minor's Pittsburgh is an iconic example. Builders was marred by an unfortunate placement of adhesive tape just next to the figures. Over time the adhesive in the tape had turned dark brown, staining the paper. Treatment involved removal of the darkened adhesive by running solvents through the area. The stain left in the paper was then treated by washing and light bleaching.
Stuart Davis was an active participant in the political fervor of the day. First published in 1918 in the socialist Liberator newspaper, Davis's Hoboken is a vivid drawing inspired by street life and portrays working-class citizens going about their daily lives. Although more conventional in his choice of materials than Robert Minor, Davis's work is raw and engaging.
His Hoboken arrived in the Conservation Division Lab in a severely compromised condition, having rested against corrugated cardboard and acidic window mats for years. Acid from these poor quality materials had migrated, creating a corrugated pattern of discoloration in the paper and a dark rim of discoloration around the image. The discoloration caused by the cardboard was reduced by "float washing" the pieces on specially constructed screens that keep their surfaces from being immersed in water. After washing, original nuances formerly obscured by the darkened paper could be discerned. Successful reduction of the dark rim around the perimeter of the drawings (mat burn) was accomplished by applying localized poultices. While not all of the discoloration could be removed, enough of the dark line of the mat burn was visually "broken" to allow more of the piece to be displayed.
Ms. Krueger is senior paper conservator in the Conservation Division, of which Mr. Roosa is the chief.