Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, a former conservator at the Menil Collection who worked intensively with Cy Twombly, contributed one of the two catalogue essays for The Cy Twombly Gallery, a lavish new book from Yale University Press that will be published on May 21. (The other was written by Paul Winkler, who we interviewed earlier this week.) Mancusi-Ungaro is now the Associate Director for Conservation and Research at the Whitney Museum of American Art. We recently spoke to her by phone in New York.
Houstonia: Thanks for agreeing to talk with me—the book gave me a much better sense of Cy as a person and as an artist than I had before. Your introduction is much livelier than most catalogue essays.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro: I recently delivered a version of the essay at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, and I felt very exposed, because it was so personal. But then I heard back from people in the audience who loved how personal it was.
H: I would certainly be one of those people. How did you first come into contact with Cy?
CMU: The Menil had decided to partner with Cy on the gallery, and part of the agreement was that Cy would donate works to the museum, some of which had been exhibited but many of which had not. So it was anticipated that they would need some conservation work. I went to Rome and met Cy, and we went around to museums there. It was a professional trip, but it was also an attempt to get a sense of his attitude toward the aging of his work, because each artist has a different reaction. It was only later that he shared with me his reservations about conservators. Given the nature of his work, which is pretty challenging to come to terms with, that’s understandable.
H: In Cy’s paintings, what looks accidental is sometimes intentional, and vice versa. How did you know what to clean up and what to preserve?
CMU: I sometimes went on my gut instinct, and other times I waited to get his opinion—it was a balance. The Lexington paintings were a special challenge, because they consisted of a lot of scribbles. We spent a lot of time talking about those paintings and a lot of time working on those paintings. They had suffered some water damage in the studio, and they needed a lot of work.
H: What advice would you give to future conservators of Cy’s work?
CMU: What I would say is to be extremely sensitive to the aging of his materials—that’s something he wanted. He wanted them to look aged. Also, every artist wants a conservator to have a real relationship to the work, to be someone who’s empathetic with the work. And the conservators at the Menil definitely are. I think the Menil has a very solid grounding in how to handle his work. When I was there, we took very seriously the privilege we had to work with [Cy] and ask questions. We understood that we were setting up an artist’s museum, and we went about it very carefully.