Sian Ballen, Lesley Hauge and Jeff Hirsch
For forty years, Lansing Moore, the owner of Center Art Studio, has been restoring fine art and objects. Established in 1919, the studio is one of the oldest art conservation studios in New York. Moore, along with his team of highly-skilled conservators, have restored works by Picasso, Miro and Bonnard as well as many ancient sculptures and ceramic objects from various Chinese dynasties … not to mention a little clay disc bearing a pair of toddler’s handprints, American, circa 2010, that was shattered into thirty pieces.
The thing I loved about your website was this idea that broken things can be fixed and old things can be renewed.
I’m delighted you took that away because at the risk of sounding mad, I think that there is something very consequential about what we do … it’s quite clear to me that we are living in a society that is inheriting great objects that were made by individual artisans and artists and were intended for interesting or sacred places and are now being cut up and destroyed. As a person who loves to work with his hands, I really respect that heritage of hand making—and it’s nice to see that younger people are back into that.
You’re like the doctor for these objects!
Well yeah, but we don’t do anything that bleeds.
It’s inherently optimistic, what you do, isn’t it?
Yes and no. It’s like I’m always glad when a species is saved from extinction but I’m depressed that some others weren’t. When the [Art Deco] caryatids were removed from in front of the old Bonwit Teller building or when the Picasso got moved from the Four Seasons, those were scandals. The Palm Restaurant had those walls with those great caricatures—now The New York Times reported that they were demolished and discarded because according to the developer, they could not be saved. Not true. In fact there are people who would have bought them and they would have made money out of them.
Do you think there’s a difference between America and Europe in terms of valuing these things?
I do, yeah. There are people who are not thoughtful about their heritage in Europe but they’re in the minority. For instance we have an Instagram account and we have gotten to know people and we’ve met a lot of restorers in Europe, in Iran, in Taiwan, in South America and I’m becoming aware of this core of people all around the world doing excellent work saving things. In Italy for instance they have a carefully managed and government-supported program of restoration, including guidelines on how to restore.
Yes, almost codifying it, perhaps?
It is. I don’t like to be told what to do but if they do, I’d at least like them to agree with me … and I agree with that [program]. The American Institute of Conservation is a strong organization and puts forward its point of view. I am not a member but I agree with them. You cannot plead ignorance to this sort of stuff.
What about on a personal level when someone comes to you with their granny’s teapot?
I love those moments. Here’s a great example: We had a young woman come to me about ten years ago and I pick up the phone—she was clearly holding back tears. She said, “I have this thing which is not worth any money but it’s worth so much to me.” She came over right away and she had this little clay, grey disc with two handprints—they were her toddler’s handprints. Some person had knocked it off the shelf and broken it into, like thirty pieces. I said I can certainly take care of it but it’s going to take quite a few hours, so it’s going to be expensive. And she said, go ahead and we did it.
I saw some things on your website that were so shattered that I couldn’t even figure out how you could envisage what it was even meant to be in the first place. They looked like … dust almost. How do you tackle this problem?
It’s a challenge but it’s also true that there’s almost always a context. You can research. One of the advantages of having been at this for so long, growing up in a family of collectors, is that I understand a fragment of porcelain about this size, and it’s blue and white, is brushed not screened, is white on the inside with flowing lines … it’s most likely Chinese not Japanese. These are little tricks. You also have a pretty good idea if it’s a closed vessel or an open vessel [because of the curve.]
And what about the stories of who broke the piece?
No one is confessing! Usually cats, grandchildren, the housekeeper … they get the blame.
With paintings, there is also the problem of over-restoration. How do you know when you’re veering towards that? What are the alarm signals?
Layers. And solubility. Briefly you have to understand the painting as something that is in three dimensions and complex. Everything we do, we test, even if we know that 99 times out of 100, the surface solvent will be effective and not damaging to an oil painting, one out of 100 odds are not good. We always proceed from the least strong interventions.
But surely it’s your eye, ultimately, that is judging this process, right?
It is your eye. Take this painting [he shows us a small seascape] The top layer is a mixture of oil, nicotine, grease as well as all the effects of a smoky environment, and there is another layer below that, which is a natural varnish applied by the painter that has turned yellow over time. Then below that is oil paint. Now the top layer will dissolve in a simple detergent or soap with a little bit of solvent added. But the layers of varnish need a stronger solvent, one that does not affect the oil paint. You want to get down to the oil paint and the original level of varnish layer that has relevance to the piece.
How do you know that?
By looking really closely …
How about fixing mistakes?
We work with reversible materials. A mistake that would be very difficult to fix would be if we over-cleaned or put a hole in something. Thank God, that is a vanishingly rare experience.
How did you get your start in this?
I started as an apprentice in 1978, as a sophomore in college—I was at Brown. It was a very happy fluke, actually. When I was a kid the thing I most liked to do was paint and draw and play around with antiques. When we moved to New York, one of my father’s pieces, a Chinese bronze, was broken in the move. I was headed for a career in the corporate world and I worked for American Express in the summers. When this piece was broken and the gallery recommended that my father take it to a studio to be fixed, my dad saw that this was a place I’d be interested in. I went to see the place and I was charmed by it. My first house call was to John Lennon and Yoko Ono!
What did they want fixed?
The last thing I wanted to do was to show up as the nineteen-year-old kid who wanted John Lennon’s autograph. I had my little fishing box of stuff. The project was a painted cedar sarcophagus. They had a collection of Egyptian art in addition to the Japanese stuff. There were blisters on the surface. Sean [Lennon], who was a toddler then, was running around popping the blisters. It meant mixing rabbit skin glue and injecting it under the blisters and pressing it down while it dried. I went up to the Dakota, went into the ground floor office and they took me up to the residence. The sculpture was standing in the gallery that runs along Central Park West—they had two [apartments] It took me ten days, a couple of hours a day. John Lennon came by and we chatted for a bit and I managed to keep it about what I was doing. It was an ecstatic experience!
I love the term “house call” – like I say, you are a kind of doctor!
Well, you do have to do house calls. We also worked for Iman and David Bowie. I had a good conversation with Bowie and we were talking about Chinese joined furniture. There’s a guy, who first of all was the nicest person in the world, but was also so very curious and very specific about the way the wood grain goes, why they cut it this way and that way, nuts and bolts stuff.
Yes, I got the impression he would have been someone who likes people who know things.
That’s the ultimate credential. Everybody loves money—and I’m part of that too. But what’s really essential is space and ability.
I have been looking around the pieces in here and I have been thinking, I will admit, that I rather like the dirt on some of them. I like the yellowed, shadowy feel to them
Me too. Too many bad plastic surgery jobs can really ruin the thing. My view is that the conservation process allows you to see it. A painting should not look stark, staring clean.
But also our tastes have changed. Like the hideous way Roman sculpture was painted in its own era—all garish colors. We like the white marble and think it classical. You would never go back and “restore” those to their bright colors, right?
That’s the classic test case. No, I would never go back and do that. The whole psychology of seeing is very complicated.