Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness, Kerry James Marshall

Celebrated artist Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955) has a signature style born from his experiences as an African American growing up during the Civil Rights Movement. For over thirty years, Marshall has created artwork using portraiture that explores the historical artistic representation of African Americans through a wide range of techniques and styles. After earning his B.F.A. in 1978 from the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, Marshall settled in Chicago, where now decades later the Museum of Contemporary Art is exhibiting a major retrospective of his work. At this year’s EXPO CHICAGO, The Conservation Center is proud to be featuring the treatment of Kerry James Marshall’s Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness in our educational Booth 143. 

Dated 1983, Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness is a drawing of conte and charcoal on a large sheet of morilla paper, measuring nearly 71 x 47 inches. Likely due to the inherent difficulty with handling and storing a sheet of this size, there was a large complex edge tear and area of impact that was approximately 4 inches long, located 5 inches down from the upper right corner of the sheet. Approximately 5 ½ inches down from upper left corner, a 1/2 inch square was missing at the left edge of the paper—fortunately, the lost fragment was retained. The area was also creased with minor tears and with select losses within the charcoal media. 

The figure is in a waterfall of light. The title is fairly self-explanatory; ‘Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness’ is a proverb related to setting yourself right.”
— Kerry James Marshall

A few condition issues stemming from storage and display techniques were also present, including preexisting hinges and pinholes at each corner and on the bottom center edge. The top and bottom edges of the piece were curling from having been tightly rolled, and there were impact dents along the left edge of the piece in select intervals (likely a result of impact while the sheet was rolled). Overall, the piece appeared to have some inherent memory of distortion simply due to the weight of paper, the application and execution of the media, and the acrylic sizing that had been applied to the verso — or back — of the sheet.

Before relaxing the sheet to reduce the creasing and curling, the first step in the conservation process was to selectively surface clean the verso of the sheet to reduce the loose charcoal media that had offset from the recto — or front — of the sheet. The Center’s works on paper conservators carefully carried out locally retrained humidification and flattening techniques to reduce areas of distortion in the areas of the complex tear, retained fragment loss, and impact damage. The tears and retained fragment were repaired from the verso using Kozo paper (an incredibly strong yet thin long-fibered tissue paper) and wheat starch paste mixed specifically for the piece. The small areas of loss within the charcoal media in the retained fragment area were then compensated with appropriate media.

Located on the verso at all four corners are canvas strips that had been added by the artist and are historical to the drawing. Since the historical hinges have been buffered from the sheet by the presence of the acrylic sizing on the verso, the conservator determined the best course of treatment was to leave these historical hinges in place in addition to adding new, reversible hinges. In preparation for the new hinges, the existing hinges were folded back onto themselves and tacked in place with appropriate adhesive to allow for new hinges to be added. Due to the presence of the acrylic sizing, which was likely applied by the artist to protect and stabilize the sheet, the new Kozo hinges were added with a reversible adhesive that are sympathetic to both the sheet and sizing. 

In preparation for framing, the curled edges at the top and bottom of the sheet were specifically addressed using selective counter-rolling methods and passive weights. Although overall age-related discoloration is inherent and remains post-treatment, The Center’s conservators housed and framed the sheet with buffered, acid-free materials to guard against accelerated discoloration in the future. Mounted to an acid-free, archival support in an antique white tone to complement the sheet, Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness was then installed into a custom, closed-corner sealed wood frame with a 1 ½ inch wide profile complete with UV filtering Plexiglas to create a museum-quality environment to display this stunning drawing.