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International Institute for Conservation: Discovering the invisible art of Basquiat

Sharra Grow

Feb 23, 2019

Emily MacDonald-Korth, president and chief conservator-scientist at Longevity Art Preservation (based in Miami, Florida, USA) recently discovered previously hidden elements on an important Jean-Michel Basquiat painting. Through a Q&A with editor Sharra Grow, Emily tells News in Conservation readers the whole story.

Q: How did you discover the hidden elements in Basquiat’s painting? Tell us the story of how it happened.

A: In my company, Longevity Art Preservation, I carry out forensic analysis and conservation of fine art with a focus on paintings and painted surfaces. On this project, I was hired to carry out pigment identification using X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and polarized light microscopy (PLM). Part of my routine evaluation of paintings involves examination with a handheld ultraviolet (UV) light to identify areas of restoration, varnish locations, etc. to avoid sampling from areas that do not appear to be original.

I turned the lights off in the room; in one hand I held a white light source, and in the other I held a UV light source. While moving slowly across the surface of the painting, back and forth between the two flashlights, I saw some lines of bright yellow-white autofluorescence that didn’t correspond to visible elements of the composition. These lines formed an arrow; arrows are a major compositional component of the painting, and this arrow looked extremely similar to the others. However, the arrow that was visible under UV was not visible under white light. In other words, the media was only visible under ultraviolet light. Nonetheless, the design and morphology of the UV-autofluorescent arrow was virtually identical to other arrows drawn on the canvas with red and black oil sticks. Then I found another colorless UV-fluorescent arrow in a different location.

My client was in the room with me, and when I pointed out the UV-fluorescent design regions he was nearly as excited as I was. As a next phase in the study of the painting, I carried out technical photography to capture high-resolution images of the painting under visible and ultraviolet lights.

Q: What medium do you think these hidden symbols are done in, and does this seem consistent with other media in the painting?

A: The two arrow-shaped design elements only became visible under ultraviolet light (i.e. imperceptible under visible light), both having a bright yellow-white autofluorescence. The morphology of the lines that make up the arrows is very similar to the morphology of black and red oil stick lines on the painting, suggesting the invisible arrows were done in a related material. Like the invisible arrow shapes, the black and red oil stick lines throughout the painting also include a bright yellow-white autofluorescence within and around the colored media; this is likely an oil and/or resin component of the oil stick. The ultraviolet fluorescent media used to draw the arrows was not analyzed, though the appearance suggests they may have been executed with a colorless ultraviolet autofluorescent material such as transparent oil stick, pastel, or crayon. This colorless oil stick or crayon may incorporate autofluorescent materials similar to those in the black and red oil sticks, though lacking a visible colorant (e.g. pigment).

Q: Do you suspect Basquiat may have placed similar “hidden” materials and symbols in other artworks, yet to be discovered?

A: Absolutely, and I suspect conservators will start finding this technique used on other Basquiat works. I recommend conservators, curators, and collectors start by looking at paintings and drawings from 1981 – 1982. Poison Oasis (Basquiat, 1981) is the sister piece to this painting, and I am anxious to learn if it also includes these hidden design elements.

I would be happy to talk to conservators and other art world professionals about examining their Basquiat works. They can email me with questions:

Q: Is examining paintings using UV radiation pretty routine in your practice, or were you looking for something else in particular? What was the initial reason for the painting to come to you?

A: Examination using UV is totally routine for me. I carry out technical photography (visible, ultraviolet, and infrared) but I always use the handheld UV first – it is one of the first things I do when examining a painting. My handheld UV flashlight is as routine for me as my Optivisor.

The initial reason the painting came to me was to carry out pigment analysis. The painting had already been authenticated, so my work added to the documentation of the painting and increased the understanding of a very important artwork.

Q: How does a discovery like this inform the way you will approach examining artworks in the future?

A: Careful examination of paintings and painted surfaces is paramount in my work. I give every painting the care and consideration I gave the Basquiat, and this discovery reinforces that great level of attention. When I am carrying out UV examination, or any forensic research, I am always on the lookout for the unexpected and tiny details that define an artwork. Now I will also be looking for intentionally hidden passages, particularly on Basquiat works. Conservators examined this painting in the past and did not find the colorless UV-fluorescent drawing elements; this is a good reminder for all of us to take a closer look and always do the best job we can. Maybe conservators at museums that own Basquiat works should revisit them with a UV flashlight. And if they find anything, please let me know! I am interested in a collaborative project to document and catalog Basquiat’s use of this technique.

Q: Any words of advice for conservators, especially emerging professionals, in regards to how they should approach the examination and documentation of works of art?

A: Slow, deliberate examination is best. Approach the object with a general idea of what you may see, such as retouching, varnish layers, repairs, or compositional changes, but leave room for the possibility of other atypical elements. Go back and forth between visible and UV rather than shutting off the lights and looking at the artwork under ultraviolet light only. Use and trust your eyes; if there is something you don’t quite understand, look harder and use the other tools in your kit to make sense of it. Do not always rely on previous examination carried out by others, see the object for yourself. Be intellectually prepared for surprises and be equipped to document them.


Emily MacDonald-Korth, president and chief conservator-analyst at Longevity Art Preservation, is a specialist in the forensic analysis of artworks, an art-tech entrepreneur, and an art conservator. She has worked on conservation and technical art history projects across the globe and co-invented and co-patented the Art Preservation Index/APIx. MacDonald-Korth was awarded Miami Herald Top 20 Under 40 Emerging Leader award, was a featured conservation science expert on BBC's Fake or Fortune?, is a prolific public speaker, and has carried out numerous interviews and articles about her work.

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