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Airport, front, before treatment. 


Hedda Sterne

Oil, pastel, and graphite (est.) on canvas

61 x 76.2 cm

Hedda Sterne Foundation, New York, NY

Airport, was made by avant-garde modern artist Hedda Sterne in 1949, New York. Due to experimental techniques and material incompatibilities, the painting had become unstable, with flaking losses and lifting cracks throughout. The goal of my treatment was to stabilize the sensitive and flaking layers and find a safe solution for cleaning the diverse mediums and textures of the painted surface. This treatment was performed under the supervision of conservator and instructor, Kristin Patterson, as part of the course Treatment of Painted Surfaces in the fall of 2017.

The historic documentation of Airport, testifies to Sterne’s creative process and the artist’s view of her paintings as evolving works. A profile of Sterne, published in Life Magazine August 1950, included a color photograph of the artist against a wall of displayed paintings, including Airport. A black and white photograph and brochure dated to the same year, are linked to the exhibition of the painting at the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York. These historic images show a different composition than the present surface of the painting, which was first documented in April, 1958.


Image capture with infra-red reflectography shows that multiple changes were made in the drawing and painted layers underneath the present surface of the painting, both during its first iteration and Sterne’s later interventions. Clearly, this work was re-painted after 1949, the date associated with the current artist’s signature on the surface. It might have been Sterne’s wish to revise this composition, while still considering it as made at an earlier date. The complex layer structure and subtle surface of this mixed media painting required equally sensitive treatment solutions.

Image sequence:

monochrome photograph 1950, Betty Parsons

color photograph 1951, Life Magazine

color photograph 1958, Sterne Foundation

Infrared Reflectography image

Details from Infrared reflectography showing earlier designs painted over in the final image. 

The diversity of medium, layer structure, and application techniques used by Sterne have led to differences in condition across the painted surface. Some colors exhibit localized areas of drying cracks. Many areas have developed a visible but stable network of fine craquelure; some cracks in these otherwise stable networks were slightly raised. Other craquelure networks were lifting and actively flaking especially at the bottom edge, and two other localized areas in the right half of the painting. Lifting paint, raised cracks were consolidated by applying sturgeon glue diluted at 5% in water, and locally applying gentle heat and pressure until no lifting motion was observed in the paint layer. Consolidant was also applied to the edges of existing losses to prevent future damage, especially in losses of the ground layer throughout the entire turning edge.

Annotated condition map

Detail during aqueous cleaning.

Detail in raking light Left: before treatment Right: after treatment

Detail in raking light Left: before treatment Right: after treatment

Detail in raking light Left: before treatment Right: after treatment

Airport after treatment

An even layer of dirt and grime was present on the painting’s unvarnished surface. This dirt layer distorted the gloss and color of the paint below and necessitated a thorough yet sensitive cleaning solution. After testing many aqueous solutions, a dilution of 1% Ecosurf surfactant and 1% tri-ammonium citrate in water was chosen as the best cleaning solution. It removed the most surface soiling with the least amount of physical action on the delicate paint surface, while acting at a controllable rate. A surface stain was found to be only slightly water soluble and necessitated solvent removal. A 2:3 ratio of ethanol and diacetone alcohol was applied with a rigid agar gel and swab action to remove stain residue. Though greatly reduced, it was not possible to safely remove the stain and it was decided to mask this non-original inclusion with reversible inpainting materials. For further details of this treatment download the report below. 

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