Friday, July 11, 2008


When I told Joanne Mattera that I was methodically cleaning my paintings and storage area, and she suggested I write about it, saying that storage is an issue for artists over the age of 35. Yep, the older you get, the more you have. And if being a painter of large paintings is bad, think about sculptors, yikes! These paintings have been so many places—from the pristine, climate-controlled warehouses of the Sidney Janis and Hirschl & Adler galleries, to grime-encrusted cubicles in the dark, scary labyrinth that is Chelsea Mini Storage, to the barn studio I got kicked out of with hardly any notice and rented a room from a friend in my apartment house to sleep so I could use my bedroom for storage, to the studio I shared with an amateur pornographer (who I thought was just a local businessman with an interest in photography until I found spread beaver shots next to the phone) where later a renovation took place in the gallery downstairs and every inch of everything in my workplace was coated with sheetrock dust for three months (when I complained, the owner—a New York art world impresario—asked why I didn’t just go on vacation until it was over), to the quaint mill studio attached to an auto repair garage where there was almost no heat and all the spiders of the western world convened…to here, my airy, clean, newly-renovated third floor atelier, with skylights and mountain views and nearly, but not quite, enough room for everything.

It speaks to the durability of oil paintings on canvas that they’ve survived being moved by everyone from professional art handlers (including one cross-country company with the encouraging slogan, “Every time an artwork is moved it dies a little”) to the likes of my handyman in the back of his pickup truck—with only one serious mishap, a slice from a box-cutter that was, fortunately, in the hands of a pro with insurance.

Compared to some of my friends (such as Lucio Pozzi, whose storage area looks like a branch of Costco) I don’t have that much. But I believe an artist’s own history is his/her greatest resource, and have kept to my practice of hanging onto the paintings where I made the most significant changes. However when you add those to my collection of half-baked paintings just waiting to get the new layer that will make them masterpieces (I don’t give up on anything), it adds up to a lot of stuff, especially for a person who, in the rest of her life, likes to keep stuff to a minimum.

So I’ve hired a teenager. Every day Leah comes for an hour or two (she has another job washing lettuce for her farmer father who, she tells me, outfitted a household washing machine to dry greens on the spin cycle) and together we unwrap the paintings, vacuum the backs, damp wipe the faces, re-wrap them in glassine, and clean the cardboard dividers. That’s the hard part, getting all that cardboard clean, but I’m too ecological (or cheap) to buy more, and besides, have no idea where to get 4 x 8 sheets here in the country now that the mills have closed. So there we are, Leah and me, down on the floor, scrubbing the cardboard with damp rags (actually microfiber Miracle Cloths, one of the all-time great inventions, up there with Velcro and Post-its). She likes the part where we throw all the old plastic sheeting and unsalvageable cardboard out the third floor window to the driveway below and says she can’t wait until someone asks her what she’s doing this summer so she can say, “Washing cardboard.” Me too.


martha miller said...

What a great system, and how wonderful to have the help of a young "intern."
Well I'm definitely over the age of 35 and also have a space issues. My soon to be son-in-law built me a wonderful flat file to store my drawings and prints - I have very few paintings. My stored work goes back to only 2002, though. The big editing/purging Hand came down one hot August day that year and burnt our barn down - our barn which housed my studio -and took 30 years work with it! There was a short in the wiring.
I actually felt a weird sense of relief at losing all that stuff. The clean slate and all.

Anonymous said...

Nice, I always like reading about the nitty gritty of surviving as an artist.

I hate to add to your "to-do" list, but I think every artist also needs a digital inventory. Image files saved both small and large (for web or print). Not only is it super handy for a variety of needs, it is really nice in the case of a physical disaster.

Pretty Lady said...

Wow, good for you. Despite the fact that in one of my former lives, I was an archivist/conservator, my ancient archive is not taken care of so well. Last year I visited the storage unit in Texas which contains all of my student work, and threw about 70% of it into a dumpster. I used to believe in preserving the record, but now it's more like destroying the evidence.

These days I'm taking over the entire stairwell of my apartment building, hanging newer paintings on the wall. The neighbors are thrilled.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing how much can accumulate over the years as an artist. I've certainly thrown out considerable amounts of work over the years for various reasons. Initially I had difficulty doing this, but I started viewing individual pieces as learning experiences that I gained a lot from, and therefore was ready to move on from. Since I've taken that perspective, the purging process makes a lot of sense both in terms of practicality and artistic development. What's interesting to me is what specific pieces survive these purgings, and why- I have one portfolio full of drawings from my undergraduate years at RISD. I've never thought it through, but there has to be a reason why they're still there.

Joanne Mattera said...

And, look, there's even a bit of empty space on the second shelf. Great job! (Washing cardboard. I laughed out loud.)

Anonymous said...

"Every time an artwork is moved it dies a little”

That's a very existential slogan for a business, especially an art-moving business! It brings to mind that every day after birth we die a little, Cole Porter's lyric "every time we say goodbye I die a little", Dylan's "those not busy being born are busy dying".

Moving, especially across the country, is always a good time for a purge.


highlowbetween said...

I'm not sure what media the paintings are - acrylic? but if they are oil and if you have used any type of varnish, I would not recommend glassine. Humidity can reactivate varnishes and the glassine will stick leaving you with an enormous problem. If you can afford it, you should wrap the paintings in tyvek. Good luck with the cleanup.

Carol Diehl said...

Thanks, High-low, for the suggestion. They are oil paintings w/ varnishes. I called NY Central (whence my glassine comes, and very quickly) and they said that if the paintings are cured, glassine shouldn't be a problem--some of these paintings are VERY old. They asked about the Ph of Tyvek and whether that might be an issue. Anybody know?

Tyvek would be better in that I could re-use it. Now when I have a studio visit I rip the glassine off and then must replace with new.

Anonymous said...

Storage has been the bane of my existence since I was about 20 - basically, the second I started working with oils on canvas.

I did a major purge about 7 years ago, which felt very good at the time, but now I do wish I had pictures to look back on. A lot of the work that went was just drills - the equivalent of a dancer doing 600 plies. The important thing was to have done them.

Every once in a while I look at old work - not even that old, just a few years back - and I'm amazed at how different it looks to me now as opposed to when I first made it.

highlowbetween said...

I'm speaking from personal experience - finding out the hardway and as years of being a collection manager. I don't trust glassine with paintings, too many insurance claims.
But again this falls largely to temperature. Tyvek is neutral I am almost certain but not 100% positive. I like it as a substitute for shadow boxing or crating. I still say if you can keep anything from touching the surface that is always the safest way to go
But that isn't always an option. You could also look into virgin plastic. But I don't much about that except that it is often used with ceramics. Who supplies it? dunno

Carol Diehl said...

Thanks again. I'm pricing Tyvek and it's not that much more.

Anonymous said...

Virgin plastic? That sounds somehow blasphemous. (And I'm not even religious.) Or at least oxymoronic.

Tyvek Whore ?
Madonna Glassine?

These could be good names for bands.


Carol Diehl said...

Given that I'm currently deep into Richard Branson's fascinating 1998 autobiography, Virgin Plastic sounds to me like another of his enterprises. If it comes with a free dinner, I'll take it.