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Paper Sample Collection in Practice: Treating a Max Weber Print

Winter 2017
Winter 2017
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Amy Hughes   is the Andrew W. Mellon fellow in paper conservation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, where she is currently researching the variety of papers used for printmaking by Jasper Johns. Hughes' prior conservation experience includes fellowships at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Freer and Sackler Galleries. She received her BA in literature from New College of Florida, and a MA in art history with an advanced certificate in conservation from NYU's Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center. Max Weber (1881–1961), a Jewish-American artist active in the first half of the twentieth century, is one of the artists responsible for introducing European Modernism to America, bringing with it a strong influence from African and Japanese art. The woodcut described in this article is on an exquisite variety of Japanese paper known as momigami, or "kneaded paper." Momigami is a kozo-fiber paper often coated with pigments on one side. This pigmented coating is traditionally bound with konnyaku plant mucilage. In the case of the Weber print, the colorants are combined with mica flakes, which impart a lively shimmer to the surface. After applying the coating, the momigami maker will knead the sheet by hand to create a lacy network of fine creases. This process dislodges the pigmented coating, resulting in losses along the high points of the creases. This pattern of loss is intrinsic to the character of momigami.

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When brought into the National Gallery's collection, the Weber print bore disfiguring dark-brown stains leftover from old masking-tape hinges on the back of the artwork. While this type of staining is relatively common to works of art on paper, momigami is a complex support that poses challenges to treatment. The fragility of the pigmented coating and the paper's creased texture limited treatment options from those normally employed for reducing tape stains. The Paper Sample Collection was essential for developing a successful treatment plan. A sample booklet containing the same momigami paper was located in the Paper Sample Collection. The similarity between the sample paper and the artwork allowed thorough testing of the sample as a surrogate, eliminating risk to the artwork. We tested several solvents, including water, to see if they could be employed to remove the stain. Of the solvents tested, acetone worked the most quickly to remove the adhesive stain and left no trace on the delicate momigami paper. To deliver the solvent, we used agarose, a rigid jelly-like substance that we tested and refined for the treatment. Readers may be familiar with agar-agar, the substance from which agarose is purified; it is often used in food chemistry as a gelling agent. During treatment, agarose acts as a sponge, slowly releasing solvent into the object while simultaneously drawing discoloration out via capillary action. Small pieces of agarose in acetone were cut, shaped, and applied to the back of the print over the precise area of the tape stains. After several minutes, when the gel became dirty, we exchanged it with a clean piece of gel. We continued this treatment until the stains were nearly gone. To remove the last of the staining, we placed the artwork on a vacuum suction table and applied a stronger solvent—methyl ethyl ketone (MEK)—by pipette. This stage of treatment was brief (maximum 3 to 4 minutes) to reduce the impact of the suction on the texture of the paper. The Paper Sample Collection at the National Gallery of Art proved to be instrumental in developing a treatment plan for this recently accessioned Max Weber woodcut. After treatment, a new mat was cut, revealing every inch of the beautiful, handmade momigami paper to the viewer. ___________ notes 1. Sukey Hughes, Washi: The World of Japanese Paper (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1978), 205.