What holds all this wild variegated material together, what makes it cohere, is Lerner’s marvelously perceptive “I” (“I walk south on Manhattan’s High Line …”; “I feel as if I were wandering through a composite …”; “I can’t help thinking of it as the Noah’s Ark of American Art”; “I enter through the museum’s glass façade …”; “As I leave the building, I find myself thinking of the ship of Theseus …”; “I asked Mancusi-Ungaro about Petryn …”; “Talking about Rothko with Mancusi-Ungaro, I was struck, not for the first time, by how the work of a conservator can re-sacralize the original art object”; “But when I arrived at the library I was put in mind of more recent mythology …”; “I was struck by how contact between the museum and the artist inevitably changes the art it would conserve”; “I felt that I was watching conservation shade into collaboration”). Lerner is subjective to the bone.
“The Custodians” reads more like a personal essay than it does reportage. That’s what draws me to it. What makes the piece cerebral is Lerner’s examination of the idea of art conservation from every conceivable angle – restoration, “reversibility,” tratteggio, replication, collaboration. “The Custodians” ’s formal integration of so many ideas and elements into such a shapely, absorbing composition smacks of genius.