Deep Dive: Conserving Diabolo

Diabolo (neige et fleurs) by Joan Mitchell is a tremendous example of an abstract expressionist painting by a trailblazing female artist, and it’s now on view in Work in Progress: Conversations about American Art. The fluid, colorful brushstrokes overwhelm the viewer with their dynamism. Mitchell painted Diabolo in 1969 after moving to a house in the French countryside that once belonged to Impressionist painter Claude Monet. During this period her paintings became much more brightly colored, and she was inspired by her natural surroundings.  

Figure 1: Detail showing areas of underbound, powdery paint.  

Mitchell manipulated paint in a masterful way, playing with the thickness of the application and with the gloss and matte effects of her paint. If you look closely at Diabolo you can see how she poured some very diluted paint onto the canvas while in other areas she thickly applied buttery paint with a palette knife.  

Unfortunately, some of the paint layers have not aged well. This was especially true in the areas of yellow paint where the impasto has become powdery and started to disintegrate (fig 1).   

Additionally, the painting was very dusty! Much like your mantlepiece at home collects dust, so do paintings—especially when they have lots of nooks and crannies for dust to settle in. Unlike your mantelpiece, however, it is not possible for the conservation team to routinely dust the painting due to the fragility of the paint. Instead, a comprehensive conservation treatment was undertaken to address these issues. 

But what did this conservation treatment involve? Well, there were many aspects of the treatment but one of the most exciting was the use of seaweed as a consolidant (or glue) to secure the powdering paint. That’s right, because the paint was very matte, but also disintegrating, it was necessary to use an adhesive that would penetrate the paint layer but not leave a glossy finish. A special Japanese seaweed called Funori had just the right properties. How lucky are we that the sea provides us with such a useful ingredient?  

Check out this Instagram Reel to see this process in action.  

Another tricky aspect of the treatment was removing the dust from all the paint crevices while being  careful not to disturb the delicate brushstrokes.  

Figures 2-4: Tiny swabs and brushes were used to remove dust and dirt.  

In order to do this, tiny swabs were rolled that were no bigger than a toothpick (figs. 2,3).  You can see from these pictures how dirty the painting was! In some cases, when even a tiny swab was too large for the delicate paint, a damp paint brush was used to collect the dust (fig. 4).  

Because the painting was so large and so abstract it was hard to remember where it had been cleaned. Therefore, a grid was created out of string to map where the conservation had been completed as we went along (fig. 5).  

Figure 5: The painting flat on a table with the string grid in place.  

It took many months, a lot of patience, and a little seaweed but the conservation was a success and the painting is now much cleaner and much more secure!  

Figures 6-8: Details showing areas of dust and grime in the impasto.

Figures 9-11: Area of impasto after cleaning.

Exhibition Credits: 

Work in Progress: Conversations about American Art is supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. Additionally, this exhibition is a part of the Gallery Revisioning Project with funding generously provided by Kay F. Koch. 

Image Credit: 

Joan Mitchell (American, 1925–1992), Diabolo (neige et fleurs), 1969, oil on canvas, 102-3/8 × 70-3/4 in. (canvas), 104-1/2 × 72-7/8 × 2-1/2 in. (framed). Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Gift of Ann M. Stack in honor of Holly Day, former Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, and Bret Waller, former Director, Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1998.184 © Estate of Joan Mitchell.