True Colors

In his Detroit workshop, conservator Kenneth Katz painstakingly restores neglected or damaged artistic treasures back to radiant life


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Anyone who has thrilled to Emil Nolde’s Ripe Sunflowers at the Detroit Institute of Arts has Kenneth Katz to thank for the brilliant bursts of gold, vermilion, and indigo that still spring to life in the 1932 painting.

The former DIA staffer, now in private practice, is devoted to the task of saving and restoring works.

“The conservator tries to bring painting back to what an artist originally intended, to return a painting to the freshness and intensity of a newly painted picture,” Katz says.

Freshness describes many of the treasures that he has restored for curators, corporations, and a who’s who of private collectors.

Katz’s Conservation and Museum Services, tucked away on the third floor of an industrial building on Henry Street in Midtown Detroit, is a gleaming, high-tech laboratory that soars above its blighted surroundings with the dignity of a Renaissance bell tower. Light streams through high curtained windows into a spacious, well-ordered workshop, where assistants busy themselves with tasks that range from piecing together a serpentine Dale Chihuly work from shards of glass to the refurbishment of 22-karat gold highlights on ceiling panels for the Detroit Athletic Club.

Katz, who was born in Brooklyn in 1951, earned a B.A. in art history from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Making use of his minor in pre-med, he taught high-school biology and chemistry, which provided the scientific foundation he later needed to pursue conservation studies at the Cooperstown Graduate School for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

In 1985, he joined the DIA, where he was conservator of painting for five years before leaving to establish his own company.

Reminiscing about his career path, Katz recalls being inspired by a photo essay in National Geographic in which metro Detroit’s own Balthazar Korab showcased the battalion of student volunteers — Mud Angels as they were known to locals — who flocked to Florence, Italy, in 1966 to aid in the salvation of thousands of artworks damaged in that country’s flood of the century. “I was 24 years old,” Katz says, “and I left for Italy with only a backpack and a pair of cross-country skis and never expected to return.” After two days in Rome, he made his way to Florence, where he met an Italian who offered him an apartment in return for work scraping stucco from walls and drainpipes. Although he presented himself to local conservators in hopes of landing a job as an assistant, he was snubbed by reigning hierarchs for his lack of credentials and language proficiency.

 

“The closest I came to touching a Michelangelo masterpiece,” he says, “was selling handbags for a certain Flavio at an open market in Piazza Mentana, not far from the entrance to the Medici tombs of San Lorenzo. I did this for eight months while studying Italian before returning to the U.S. to enter grad school.”

While only one of the eminent maestri Katz sought out in Florence “came down from his scaffold” to speak to him about his aspirations, Katz had the satisfaction of returning to Italy almost 10 years later as a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow to study restoration in Rome at the Istituto Centrale del Restauro, one of Italy’s most prestigious conservatories.

Since then, he has treated collections for many of the most important museums in the country. He also lectures extensively and has written many articles about conservation and restoration treatments.

Katz, who refers to himself as a “painting conservator,” describes his profession as a marriage of art and science aimed at both preservation and restoration. “Every object must be viewed as both an artwork and an archival document,” he says.

The tools of the trade that fill his workspace reflect that “marriage” of disparate disciplines. Microscopes, scalpels, gauze bandages, adhesives, solvents, and swabs mingle with palettes of pigment, boar’s-hair brushes, canvas, wood, gesso, and varnish.

“Many artists can’t become conservators, because they possess too much of themselves,” Katz says. “Few scientists [on the other hand] would be capable of restoring a Renaissance painting.”

As a result of his efforts, many objects once lost to neglect become timeless treasures whose value and significance appreciate over time. Among the many masterpieces Katz has treated are Cezanne’s Bathers, Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar, and works by Sargent, Kirchner, and Monet. Yet the painting that stands out most in his mind is White Birches, a 19th-century landscape that was suspected to be by the American Impressionist Thomas Dewing. After hundreds of hours of patient microscopic removal of overpaint and varnish stains with a scalpel, he discovered a pristine painting signed by the artist in perfect condition.

Slides documenting the restoration reveal the transformation from a swampy, dull, mossy overlay to a shining vista of elegant trees with white tapers touched by sunlight against an azure ground. The restored painting glowed.

“Do you see, do you see how it came to be transformed?” Katz asks excitedly, as though discovering it again for the very first time.

“Yes,” his visitor says. “Luminous.”

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