Conservator is mastering the art of invisibility
The Kimbell Art Museum’s iconic design boasts many elegant attributes, but it is known most for how the right calibration of natural light enters its travertine limestone and polished concrete interior. And no Kimbell office is bathed in more of that soft-as-a-stolen-kiss light than that of the museum’s conservation director, Claire Barry.
“I just can’t get enough of this natural light,” effuses Barry, who harnesses every ray of Kimbell’s illumination to help unlock the mysteries of the paintings she works on.
For almost 27 years, Barry has worked in that sunny Kimbell studio as its prime canvas surgeon, art historian and artistic sleuth. And though she is one of the preeminent conservators in the country, with an international reputation, Barry has practiced her craft with purposeful anonymity to approximate 240,000 patrons who annually visit what many call the country’s finest small museum.
Barry, who first arrived at the Kimbell in 1985, has had a crucial hand in the meticulous restoring of many of the Kimbell’s — and the neighboring Amon Carter Museum of American Art’s — signature paintings, by artists such as Caravaggio and Michelangelo, to such American stalwarts as Thomas Eakins and Thomas Cole. She has also played a pivotal role in helping the Kimbell execute major acquisitions.
Barry is every bit a scientist in her conservation studio, wielding the X-ray and infrared reflectography camera tools that help authenticate (or disprove, on occasion) the age and artistic style of a particular painting.
Barry has been on the front lines of so many of the most significant — and even controversial — Kimbell acquisitions.
“A museum director or art historian will often look to Claire to see her reaction to a work — and that will become the museum’s weather vane of quality,” says Michael Gallagher, head of paintings conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
However, for all of Barry’s acclaim, she aggressively cloaks herself in near total invisibility.
“If you don’t know I exist, that means I’m doing my job as close to perfectly as possible,” Barry admits, because she never wants her work to overshadow what the artist has created.
From her centrally located studio — a short stroll from the Kimbell director’s office — Barry played a crucial role in helping the Kimbell engineer one of its most talked about purchases: The 2009 acquisition of the first acknowledged painting by a young Michelangelo, titled “The Torment of Saint Anthony.”
As early as 2007, as Barry was steeping herself in the 15th century German print-maker, Martin Schongauer, a Michelangelo painting — reportedly based on a print by Schongauer — made its way from a 2008 London Sotheby’s auction to the Met’s Michael Gallagher.
But the deeply recessionary economic times of 2008 were not propitious for the Met to purchase the Michelangelo, allowing the well- endowed, private-family-run Kimbell to acquire the rare painting. But first it had to pass the Claire Barry test. “When Claire and I went to New York to take a look at the Michelangelo, she was — as she always is — passionate about learning as much as she could about this great work,” recalls Eric M. Lee, Kimbell’s director. “We knew the work of a conservator would be instrumental in answering the key question: Whether the Michelangelo was right or not.”
When Barry X-rayed the Michelangelo, she saw that scattered worm holes in the poplar panel, a wood commonly used in Italian art of that period, had been filled in with a leadbased adhesive. She then examined the painting more minutely, revealing how Michelangelo had made corrections and edits of his own original work. She applied infrared reflectography to the work, permitting her to read any underdrawings or inscriptions the original artist used as he created the final work.
“We could see artistic changes from the original Schongauer print that probably first inspired him. What we see are Michelangelo’s artistic decisions at the moment of painting,” Barry says.
Barry was thrilled to examine a rare Michelangelo painting at such close proximity.
“There is just such precision and finesse to Michelangelo’s brush strokes. Finally, I was witnessing how Michelangelo’s creative mind worked,” Barry says.
If Barry gazes back on her earliest years, first spent in Chicago where she was the third of eight children, her subsequent period as a highly focused art student at Oberlin College and, later, in the graduate program in art restoration at Cooperstown in New York, she recalls a pivotal professional relationship.
While Barry was earning her master’s degree at Cooperstown Graduate Program she met John Brealey, the near-idolized head of paintings conservation at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. During an internship in Brealey’s department, and later during four professional years in his studio, Barry formed much of her philosophy about art restoration and conservation.
“I learned from Brealey that you have to have a balance of confidence and fear,” Barry says. “If I’m working on a great painting, if I show too much fear, I can do real damage. You have to have the confidence to try to solve the problem. Of course, if you are overconfident, you can also do damage to the work.”
Barry would recall Brealey’s nuggets of wisdom as she approached one of the Kimbell’s most stunning 2011 acquisitions: “Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination.”
“Claire’s light cleaning brought the Poussin back to greater life,” Lee says. “Honestly, after Claire’s cleaning, it transformed my notion of Poussin in his mature period.”
To Colin Bailey, current director of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York who, from 1989-94, worked with Barry, the Poussin marks one of Barry’s greatest conservation achievements.
“I think this Poussin may be the greatest acquisition by any museum in the last quarter-century,” Bailey says. “And Claire opened up the picture with incredible sensitivity and gentleness.”
So many of Barry’s acolytes, peers and admirers jockey for who can sing her praises the loudest.
“I always consider Claire to be a curator’s conservator,” says Sarah Cash, associate curator of American and British Paintings at the National Gallery of Art, who first met Barry when Cash was assistant curator at the Amon Carter Museum. “Thanks to Claire, I learned how to look closely at a picture through her gifted conservator’s eyes.”
Joachim Pissarro worked often with Barry when he was a Kimbell chief curator and deputy director. He sees Barry imbuing her craft with admirable “sangfroid.”
“Claire remains cool while others might be sweating bullets around her as she ‘operates’ on a priceless piece,” Pissarro says.
Barry doesn’t necessarily have a “wish list” of paintings to work on and analyze.
“I want to be part of the amazing process of having the Kimbell and the Amon Carter add transformative works of art to their collections,” Barry says. “What is really exciting is that I don’t even know what the next great painting will be. Whatever will come through that door, it will pull me along on a journey that is very exciting.”
Claire Barry, the Kimbell Art Museum’s director of conservation, uses a stereo microscope to perform an indepth examination of a Le Nain painting “The Painter’s Studio” from the 1650s. She is every bit a scientist in her conservation studio, wielding tools that help authenticate the age and artistic style of a particular painting.