Con­ser­va­tor is mas­ter­ing the art of in­vis­i­bil­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY AN­DREW MAR­TON IN FORT WORTH style@wash­

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.

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