Cleaning Acrylic Paintings

  • In 1989, the surface of Shining Forth by Barnett Newman (1905-1970) was marred by the accidental projection of a jet handling oil and taken off display. Recently cleaned by Richard Wolbers and a team of conservators using our aqueous cleaning emulsions, it was put back on exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris, France on May 27, 2015.

Dr. Lagalante is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Art Conservation at the University of Delaware.

Preservation of Acrylic Paintings

With support from the Chemical Measurement and Imaging Program in the Division of Chemistry and Office of Multidisciplinary Activities, Professor Lagalante at Villanova University and Professor Wolbers at University of Delaware/Winterthur will study the composition, cleaning, and aging of water-borne emulsion polymer (acrylic) paints. Since their introduction in the 1950’s, the number of acrylic paintings in major public institutions has grown almost exponentially and represent a significant cultural asset, both in terms of their sheer monetary value and their social, economic, and cultural significance. While acrylic polymer paints have enabled artists to move aesthetically far from the traditional limitations of oil paints, conservators face a cultural legacy replete with some of the greatest challenges in terms of cleaning and preserving these treasures. To date, we have systematically investigated aqueous cleaning conditions that have minimized 1) color changes, 2) physical swelling, and 3) extraction of the manufacturer added non-ionic surfactant, Triton X-305, in the cleaning extract. Based upon these initial research findings, we propose three targeted objectives: A) the formulation of microemulsions using optimized aqueous cleaning solution conditions to clean newly characterized artificial soiling mixtures from acrylic paint films, B) to investigate the surface chemistry of aged acrylic films and determine speciation of individual paint components to the surface of the painting as well as the photo-oxidative transformation of the surfactant at the surface, and C) to solicit conservator testing of optimized microemulsion cleaning solutions at national and international workshops. Continuing to build upon our liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) methods for surfactant characterization and quantification and 3D microscopic physical characterization of the films, we will develop and validate MS imaging capabilities necessary to explore the surface chemistry of the surfactant and dirt accumulated on the paint film surfaces. 2D desorption electrospray mass spectrometry (2D DESI-MS) imaging will be applied for the first time for the analysis of art surfaces. We will use DESI-MS and enhanced modes of the linear ion trap (MS/MS, MS3, enhanced multi-charge) to surface map surfactant before and after microemulsion cleaning and chemically map surfactant oxidation products during aging studies. These new MS imaging techniques will introduce new molecular imaging techniques to the museum conservation laboratory. The present study will incorporate staff and facilities at two fine art institutions (Winterthur Museum DE; Getty Conservation Institute, CA), two universities (U. Delaware, Villanova), and three departments within U. Delaware (Chemistry/Biochemistry; Art Conservation; and the Delaware Biotechnology Institute). The proposed research will involve postdoctoral (Villanova Chemistry), Ph.D. (U. Delaware Preservation Studies), MS (Villanova Chemistry, Winterthur Art Conservation), and undergraduate (Villanova Chemistry, U. Delaware Art Conservation) training and mentoring. Research findings and practical training of U.S. and international conservators will be disseminated through workshops including the Getty’s Cleaning Acrylic Painting Surfaces (CAPS), International Academic Projects (which serves an international clientele of conservators who otherwise might not have access to formal professional or university level training), NSF Chemistry Collaborations, Workshops and Community of Scholars (cCWCS) Advanced Chemistry and Art Workshop (chemistry professors) and collaborations with fine arts paint manufacturers (Golden Artists Colors). This broad outreach will educate artists, cultural heritage scientists, conservators, and paint manufacturers as to the best methods for creating, protecting, exhibiting, and preserving modern painted surfaces.

Media Coverage:  Chemical & Engineering News article

Funding: National Science Foundation Award No.1241473/1241469 “Collaborative Research: Materials Characterization toward Understanding the Cleaning and Preservation of Painted Modern Art Surfaces”, Funding Period: 9/2012-9/2015, Amount: $300,000.

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