Conserving Phillip Lindsay Mason’s “The Hero”

By Tricia O’Regan

October 29, 2019

cartoon-like superhero in front of flash

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963 – 1983 celebrates art made by Black artists during two pivotal decades when issues of race and identity dominated and defined both public and private discourse. The de Young’s presentation of this acclaimed exhibition includes a focus on Bay Area artists whose work promoted personal and cultural pride, collective solidarity and empowerment, and political and social activism.

The exhibition provided the opportunity for paintings conservator Tricia O’Regan to treat Phillip Lindsay Mason’s powerful painting The Hero, which is on loan to the de Young from the Mills College Art Museum in Oakland. Here, she outlines her process for preparing The Hero for its first public display in several decades.

Woman looking through a microscope at large painting

Paintings conservator Tricia O’Regan examines Phillip Lindsay Mason’s The Hero in the paintings conservation studio at the de Young

The Hero, painted in Berkeley, California in 1968 by Phillip Lindsay Mason, has not been exhibited since its acquisition by the Mills College Art Museum in 1979. The acrylic painting on canvas, although in good condition overall, had a thick layer of accumulated grime, mold, and staining on its surface. The lenders generously allowed us to treat the painting for its inclusion in the exhibition Soul of a Nation at the de Young.

Cleaning acrylic paint layers can be tricky. Conservators must understand the solubility ranges of the paint, so that they do not leave cleaning materials behind that might alter the surface at a later date. Fortunately, ongoing research in the care and conservation of these modern paints helps to ensure their long-term preservation. Tools used to clean The Hero included cotton, make-up sponges, and pH-adjusted deionized water with added surfactants, detergents, and chelators, all employed while maintaining the correct ionic conductivity of the aqueous solutions. It sounds complicated because it is! Our conservators were careful to ensure that the original 1968 materials were changed as little as possible during the treatment.

Woman cleaning a large painting propped up on an easel

O’Regan with The Hero during treatment in the paintings conservation studio

Before our treatment, we removed the simple strip frame from the canvas, which revealed that the painting extended beyond the front of the canvas to the sides of the stretcher. Newly conserved, The Hero will be exhibited without a frame in Soul of a Nation, and will return to Mills College after the exhibition looking as the artist intended.

Cartoon-like superhero in front of a flash

After treatment: Phillip Lindsay Mason, The Hero, ca. 1979. Acrylic on canvas, 65 3/4 x 52 x 2 1/4 in. (167 x 132.1 x 5.7 cm). Mills College Art Museum © Phillip Lindsay Mason

Text by Tricia O’ Regan, paintings conservator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Learn more about Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963 – 1083 at the de Young.

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