Sunday, September 8, 2019

"Day-Glo masterpieces are fading. A conservator and her team are racing to save them"

Korbela is trying to save “Bampur,” a migrainous color-block behemoth painted in 1965 by the influential modern artist Frank Stella — on view for the first time since 1980 in a LACMA retrospective. Like her paint speckle, it vibrates. At least, it used to.

“The yellow has definitely faded at a faster rate than the pink or the blue,” which are still so unnaturally bright that Korbela could work on them for only a few minutes at a time before getting a headache.

“Yellow is particularly difficult,” she said. “You can’t replicate it unless you replicate the constituent dyes. And it’s all secret.”

This secret is called Saturn Yellow.
It is the trademarked name of a fluorescent chartreuse — think caution tape or a high-voltage sign — that conservators say is among the most photochemically complex paints ever made by the Day-Glo Color Corp. of Cleveland.


“When I started out with ‘Bampur’ [a colleague] was giving me different gray cards to rest my eyes on,” Korbela said. At times, she said, examining the painting at 10-times magnification was unbearable.
The pain of looking at “Bampur” is a function of photo-physics — electron-level exchanges of energy that convert invisible energy to visible light, creating colors so vibrant they scream.


The perfect mixture, if it can be achieved, would then have to be applied to the painting with a brush made from just one or two hairs.

“If it’s too dense a layer, [the paint particles] will cast shadows on each other, and appear darker,” Korbela said.

All of which raises the question: Why labor for years to preserve an effect that is fundamentally unpleasant? Couldn’t viewers still appreciate “Bampur” if it didn’t hurt when they looked?

“Absolutely not”