LA Times plunges into a chemical and artistic riddle – how can we restore fading Day-Glo paintings when the formula for Saturn Yellow remains a trade secret?:
[Conservator Kamila] Korbela is trying to save “Bampur,” a migrainous color-block behemoth painted in 1965 by the influential modern artist Frank Stella — on view for the first time since 1980 in a LACMA retrospective….
“The yellow has definitely faded at a faster rate than the pink or the blue,” which are still so unnaturally bright that Korbela could work on them for only a few minutes at a time before getting a headache.
“Yellow is particularly difficult,” she said. “You can’t replicate it unless you replicate the constituent dyes. And it’s all secret.”
This secret is called Saturn Yellow.
It is the trademarked name of a fluorescent chartreuse — think caution tape or a high-voltage sign — that conservators say is among the most photochemically complex paints ever made by the Day-Glo Color Corp. of Cleveland.
The company said its current paints work well for restoration purposes but that it would not divulge proprietary information. Tom DiPietro, Day-Glo’s vice president of research, put it this way: “It’d be like giving you the formula for Coke.”
But after The Times described the LACMA team’s efforts, the company agreed to provide Korbela’s team with pigment samples and a data sheet with some limited details about their composition.
The future of some well-known works of modern art could hang on Korbela’s research, experts said. If the Day-Glo shades can’t be replicated, many fear that renowned works such as “F-111,” James Rosenquist’s 86-foot long protest piece, and Andy Warhol’s “Flowers” could literally disappear.
As novelist and merry prankster Ken Kesey told the Daily Telegraph in 1999: “Nothing looks worse than faded-out DayGlo.”
The first problem is that Saturn Yellow is a mix of both conventional color and fluorescent dye. Both types of pigment lose their brightness, but in different ways. While color fades, fluorescence is more correctly said to “extinguish” — its ability to transform invisible energy to visible light exhausted through prolonged exposure.