Michael Schilling '83, '90, Chemistry
Senior Scientist, Getty Conservation Institute (GCI)
More than 20 years ago, one of
Mike Schilling’s first assignments
for what is now the Getty Conservation
Institute (GCI) was verifying the
authenticity of a painting depicting
the Madonna and Child. The Getty was
planning to purchase the apparent 14th century
work of art for a sizeable sum.
“It looked authentic to me, and it
looked authentic to the curators and
conservators,” says Schilling.
After 50 tests using an X-ray fluorescence
spectrometer, a non-invasive
machine that identifies the elements in
a specimen without actually touching or
harming it, he detected elements from
pigments that weren’t available in the
14th century; instead, it was most likely a
reproduction created in the 19th century.
“Truthfully, it probably was not a
forgery but a replica commissioned by a wealthy person in the style of a master,”
and the painting most likely lost its ersatz provenance over time as it washanded down through generations, says Schilling.
“But I did save the museum millions of dollars. So, my salary is justified here for the next 100 years,” he says with a laugh.
Schilling has been with GCI since 1983, when he answered a classified ad while completing his bachelor’s in chemistry at Cal Poly Pomona.
“The title of the ad caught my eye — ‘assistant scientist job’ — which was a
rare request,” he says.
He got the job and has seen the department not only grow, but also move to its present location as part of the expansive Getty Center complex above the hills of the
Sepulveda Pass overlooking Malibu and West Los Angeles.
Schilling is now one of the institute’s senior scientists, and his charge is to help curators and conservators analyze and preserve works of art. One area to which he
devotes a great deal of time is researching contemporary paints and
what they are made of.
“This will serve future curators and conservators because they’ll know
what artists of our time used to create their masterpieces,” says Schilling,
who also earned his master’s in chemistry from the university in 1990. “Our
function is analogous to the medical world: the art object is the patient; the
conservator is the doctor, and we’re the medical lab.”
The GCI lab is quite impressive, with state-of-the-art equipment
and a staff of 25. Because analytical samples from works of art are often
no larger than the size of a hole made from a straight pin, Schilling and
his colleagues have earned a reputation for refining the usual laboratory
test procedures, such as gas chromatography (which identifies the
organic content in a specimen such as paint) to accommodate minuscule
bits of paint, clay, brick or adhesive painstakingly taken from a
discreet spot in the artwork.
His expertise is chemical analysis, and his profession has taken
him all over the world, including the Valley of the Queens, near Luxor,
Egypt. There he twice visited the tomb of Queen Nefertari, where
he measured the colors of the wall paintings — all that is left of the
elaborate 3,200-year-old tomb that has been plundered in antiquity.
Closer to home, Schilling and his colleagues contributed the science
behind the conservation of the once controversial 1932 América
Tropical mural by artist David Alfaro Siqueiros on a wall at Olvera
Street in Los Angeles. The artist painted a crucified Mexican Indian on
a cross with a pair of sharpshooters shooting at the American eagle
perched above the Indian’s head. Because of objections to the imagery,
the mural was whitewashed, which ironically may have helped
preserve it over time. When conservators began their work 60 years
later, Schilling’s team of scientists found that Siqueiros had not used
automotive paint, as was believed, but instead used dry pigments and
rubbed them into the wet cement in a technique similar to fresco.
Currently, Schilling is working with two Cal Poly Pomona chemistry
graduate students Jesus Jimenez and Casey Greet on paints that
have recently entered the art-supply marketplace.
“These are products that are supposed to be similar to oil paints,
but they are water-mixable and may be cleaned at the faucet rather
than using paint thinner,” he says. The students will run the products
through extensive analysis to determine what ingredients are in the
new innovation. “This is the first work of its kind on this paint, and
our students will be the first to publish their findings on this type of
research,” says Schilling.