Laboratories are often thought of as cold, sterile places and with its suction cold table, vacuum lining tables and bioptical microscope, Alexander Katlan’s laboratory meets those requirements. His conservatory laboratory in Flushing, Queens, however, isn’t a normal lab, it’s a place where art and science meet.
Katlan is a renowned art conservator, who analyzes, restores and preserves European and American oil paintings inside the lab. Clients from New York City, Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey and beyond send their paintings to his office for consultation. He frequently works with museums, art gallery curators, historical societies, non-profit institutions and corporate collectors to examine, restore and plan conservation of paintings.
A sort of art detective, Katlan starts his examination of each piece the same way by researching the historical context of the painting, the artist, the construction of the canvas stretchers and art materials used.
“I want to have full knowledge of what materials were available during that time so that I can conserve the painting as the artist had probably created it,” Katlan said. “For example, wooden stretchers have evolved over the centuries and changed the way canvases were stretched and framed. This directly affects my approach to conservation and preservation.”
After his initial research, Katlan inspects the painting surface including putting the painting under an ultraviolet fluorescent examination and putting the painting under indirect light to observe its structural qualities. Then he slowly and scientifically tests small areas of the painting, a fraction of a millimeter at a time with different solvents to make sure the chemical reaction is safe and effective.
“Some projects can take months and require long hours in a quiet atmosphere. Since my client list consists of museum and art gallery curators, historical societies, non-profit institutions, corporate and private collectors, I make every effort to go on site to determine the environments the paintings will be returned to,” Katlan said.
After determining a course of action to properly restore the painting and maintain it for the future Katlan works his way through the painting in order to repair and stabilize and bring its color back to its original splendor as the artist intended.
Katlan said his most challenging restoration was a contract with the United States Military Academy at West Point in Hudson Valley to restore several large paintings in one of the dinning rooms.
“I suppose there were times when the Cadets were compelled to break out of character and food fights were known to occasionally occur,” Katlan said. “Although I enjoyed the work of properly bringing the paintings back to their original grandeur, I ultimately recommended (one of the few times!) that they protect the paintings with an ultra-violet protective glazing as a preventative to problems in the future.”
Katlan got his start in art restoration first in science. As an undergraduate student at Lake Forest College outside of Chicago, he was an English and Chemistry major. In his senior year, he attended a program abroad in Athens, Greece to study archeology and found himself intrigued with the work being done at the conservation lab, whose focus was on laboratory stabilization.
“It was then that I made the decision to concentrate on the science and art of the preservation process, not digging,” Katlan said.
While he said it’s not the role of an art conservationist to declare something a forgery but to present evidence to others in the field he finds the examination exciting.
“I find this part of art conservation very exciting because there is always much to learn about a piece of art by looking at its past than the actual image on the canvas.”
For home collectors he said proper use of artist materials is imperative in extending the life of a painting. How the canvas is prepared, what type of paint is used how it is framed are just some of the factors to consider.