Re-housing Malignant Plastic Stencil from the D’Arcangelo Archive
Downtown New York artist Christopher D’Arcangelo (1955-79) created artworks that simultaneously highlight and frustrate the commoditization of both his artistic production and his artistic practice. During his lifetime, the artist carefully documented his ephemeral works in a variety of ways, demonstrating a deep concern with his legacy. Given the dearth of publications that address his work, this documentation is one of the primary means by which contemporary scholars and artists can understand his bygone practice.
In 2009 Fales Library & Special Collections acquired D’Arcangelo’s personal archive. While most of the materials in the archive are paper-based the collection includes plastic stencils used in works staged between 1975 and 1978. The provocative, anti-institutional texts of the stencils served as guides for the viewer, framing D’Arcangelo’s actions as critique of art world practices. Preservation of the stencils is therefore key to understanding his artwork, and even more vital to the preservation of his legacy given that the artworks themselves do not survive.
As a graduate assistant in the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation & Conservation Department, I was assigned to assess and treat the stencils. The stencils arrived at the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation and Conservation Department rolled in a box with diazotypes, prints and drawings. In the 30 years they had been stored this way, the rolled plastics had flattened under pressure from the lid of the box and lost their flexibility, no longer able to open to an unrolled state. As it is not possible to reverse such damage, the goal of my intervention was to find a conservation-friendly means of re-housing the stencils in order to prevent further deterioration.
Though re-housing can be a straightforward task, in this case the degradation of the plastic of the stencil complicates the question. Some “malignant” plastics produce harmful degradation products such as nitric acid, acetic acid or hydrochloric acid. Enclosing such plastics in a box that restricts airflow can create a polluted microclimate promoting degradation. On the other hand, allowing these harmful degradation products to freely escape could harm other materials in the archive. In order to fully weigh the costs and benefits of various re-housing strategies, I needed to have a sense of what, if any, danger the plastic stencils pose.
After researching the conservation literature, I identified three malignant plastics that can be made into clear sheets: cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate and poly(vinyl) chloride (PVC). It is possible that all were in use in the 1970s when D’Arcangelo was practicing. To learn if the stencils were made from any of these plastics, my colleague, Jessica Pace, and I employed not only visual and sensory observations, but also microchemical testing and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) under the supervision of Marco Leona, Scientist in Charge of the Department of Scientific Research at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Visual and sensory observations were most notable in what was not observed; the plastics did not emit the noticeable vinegar odor that one would expect from degrading cellulose acetate. Further, microchemical testing and the FTIR tests both suggested the sample was PVC. The stencils have now been re-housed in a customized acid-free buffered archival box with a lid creating a semi-sealed enclosure. To trap any hydrochloric acid that may evolve during degradation, the box is fitted with layers of board impregnated with absorbing agents.
Our decision-making process regarding how to re-house D’Arcangelo’s stencils was guided by scientific research and instrumental analysis. While it is important to note the role that such investigation can play in the conservation of archival materials, one must also consider issues such as time management and resources in deciding how to treat a collection. As students at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center, we were able to conduct this testing as coursework independent of my job at the library and had easy access to advanced instrumentation. Due to considerations of time and resources, this may not often be a practical approach.
Kristen Watson is a Master’s Degree candidate at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center, focusing the conservation of modern and contemporary objects. She has been a Graduate Assistant in the Conservation Laboratory in the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Department since October 2008.
Please note: Due to donor agreement restrictions we cannot post any photos of the stencils or the process of treating them.