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Behind the Scenes in Conservation: A look at Duchamp’s The Coffee Mill

by Conservation


paper conservation , conservation , behind the scenes , 20th century , Marcel Duchamp , conservation internship , stained print , stained paper

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), best known for his Surrealist and Dada artworks, including signed readymade urinals and mustached Mona Lisas, was born on July 28, 1887. In celebration of his 133rd birthday, let’s take a closer look at Duchamp’s intaglio print of a cubist-style coffee grinder currently undergoing conservation in the Paper Lab.

The print came into the collection with a dark brown rectangular-shaped stain that obscured the image and made the plate tone, the diffuse gray-colored background, nearly impossible to see. This disfiguring staining is evidence of how a combination of severe light exposure and contact with a poor-quality window mat can cause damage to works on paper. Colleen Watkins, our summer intern in paper conservation, and rising third-year graduate student in the Garman Art Conservation Program at SUNY Buffalo State College, designed a treatment for the print to make the image more distinct. Part of the treatment included washing the print in a mild chelating solution that solubilizes discolored degradation products in the paper more effectively than water alone. In the detail of the print pictured above, you can see the discoloration moving out of the paper. The brown bathing solution after the chelating treatment was a sign of success, and the result was a lighter paper tone making the sheet more similar to how it originally looked. After further stain reduction using conservation bleach, the image and its subtleties are no longer obscured by the stain.  


Images: Marcel Duchamp (American, b. 1887, d. 1968), The Coffee Mill, from Du Cubism, 1947, etching with relief printing on cylinder-made wove “Lana” paper manufactured by La Papeterie de Lana, Bequest of Alice F. and Harris K. Weston, L1.2006:21