Surrounded by artworks in various states of ravage and disrepair, art conservator Rick Strilky surveys his latest project, propped upright on roller wheels in the corner. He shakes his head disgustedly as a smocked assistant delicately wipes at the painting’s disfigured faces with a solvent-soaked cotton swab. Even though this painting was already treated to weeks of water-and-aerosol “surfactant” cleaning, its blemishes cling stubbornly.

“Pathetic slime dogs,” Strilky mutters. He means the graffitists who vandalized this, one of the most valuable pieces in Chicago’s public art collection–Alex Katz’s mural Harlem Station. “They should all be forced to come up here and clean up their mess with Q-Tips, like we have to.”

Of course, Strilky, of Strilky Fine Arts Restoration, and his small staff don’t use store-bought Q-Tips to help restore badly damaged canvases; they have more sophisticated techniques and tools (he makes the cotton swabs himself). Recently the CTA and the Department of Cultural Affairs’ Public Art Program joined forces to enlist Strilky’s expertise. Since last June a portion of his spacious but cluttered Lincoln Square loft has been reserved for sections of Katz’s 5-by-50-foot oil painting of 15 heads and faces, which was installed in the O’Hare line’s Harlem Avenue station in spring 1984.

Despite the obvious blotches–a name in black marker here, a scratched swastika there–the stunning mural lends a splash of color to Strilky’s somewhat drab workshop. But bringing the artwork back to its original state has been anything but a picnic: what took vandals a few minutes to mess up two years ago has taken dedicated restorers months to fix.

City officials hope Harlem Station can be reinstalled this spring, but Strilky’s reluctant to promise to meet a deadline. “This isn’t like a museum exhibit,” he says. Besides, he’s more accustomed to dealing with creeping villains like water damage and time decay than with deliberate defacement.

One thing is certain: when Harlem Station is finally returned to the el platform, the mural will be behind a protective glass case. When Strilky sealed the restoration bid from the city, he said he wouldn’t go through with the project unless the CTA agreed to budget in some tamper-proof protective measures.

“We’re painting conservators, and don’t specialize in murals by any means,” says Strilky, a 40-ish hands-on art aficionado who studied his craft in Austria in the late 70s and calls himself Chicago’s only native independent fine-arts conservator.”But this is pretty interesting, a tremendously important job. So we’re going at it sort of slow. I want to return this piece in the best possible shape, so it has that much more value to the city. It’s the best and biggest public piece Katz has ever done, and he’ll never do another one like it.”

Strilky’s been in infrequent phone contact with Katz, who hasn’t seen the full extent of the damage. “He was very upset that [the city] didn’t take care of it,” Strilky says. Attempts by CTA workmen to “clean up” the graffiti with abrasive sandpaper and acetone–which did the trick in other parts of the station–did even more damage to the mural; they rubbed right through the paint.

“The CTA feels some level of responsiblity, some twinges of guilt,” says Hamza Walker, one of the two coordinators of the Public Art Program. Last year Walker gave a number of lectures and slide presentations to groups in the Edison, Norwood, and Oriole Park neighborhoods, which are served by Harlem station, as part of a community outreach program to generate awareness of the devastating impact vandalism had on this public artwork.

But Walker’s far-northwest-side campaign had an ulterior motive: to generate cash. The city can’t afford restoration funds, and getting the mural back on track, he says, will cost about $60,000–$30,000 for renovation, moving, and storage and $30,000 for a new protective glass case. The city hopes to get half the amount through private donations and the other half from the National Endowment for the Arts. (Donations are being accepted by the Katz Restoration Fund, c/o the Public Art Program, 78 E. Washington, Chicago 60602. Groups or individuals donating $500 or more will be listed on a bronze plaque to be installed next to the refurbished mural.)

Alex Katz created Harlem Station–his third piece of public art (the other two were in Manhattan)–expressly for its namesake. It’s a reflection of, and tribute to, the cultural diversity of Chicago’s hardworking neighborhood commuters–blue-collar folks and businesspeople, black and white, men and women. The row of faces, painted on both sides of an aluminum base, was intimate yet friendly from a distance too. The mural’s location en route to and from the world’s busiest airport, as well as its grand physical presence on the median of the Kennedy, was welcoming.

Harlem Station was one of three “Art on the Go” public pieces commissioned for the O’Hare rapid-transit extension, which opened in February 1984. They were funded by the city’s Percent for Art Program, which mandates that 1.33 percent of the money for municipal construction projects be set aside for accessible art.

For the price of a subway fare, riders can also see New York/New Mexico sculptor Charles Ross’s Rock Bow, a 35-foot-high limestone-and-glass-prism column in the Cumberland station’s circular domed atrium, and Martin Puryear’s River Road Ring, a huge mahogany halo hung in the River Road station.

Each artist was paid $60,000, a sum the city regarded as a bargain back then. Since then Katz’s reputation–and market value– has improved; Harlem Station was just appraised at $500,000. “Any art museum would pay big bucks for this,” says Strilky. “It’s a very marketable piece.”

Born in New York City in 1927, Katz is widely considered one of the most significant American artists to have emerged since 1950. His work, primarily portraits, is characterized by radically simplified, dramatically cropped oversized heads that recall movies, advertising, and billboards. Early in his career, he did a series of paintings based on people he saw riding the New York subways. (Author Ann Beattie wrote her only nonfiction book, Alex Katz, following the artist’s 1986 retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum.)

“I don’t expect to do a lot [of public art] in my lifetime,” Katz told the New York Times in June 1984, after Harlem Station was installed. He explained that such works take too much time, work, and money to be worth it. “It’s like a gift from me to the public. There was no money in it at all. But I’d rather do this type of thing. It’s something I wanted to do.”

Katz wanted to do it so badly, in fact, that he decided a mural twice the 25-foot length originally planned would fit better in Harlem station’s large, airy, glass-box structure. And he did it at no extra cost. Also, Katz liked the fact that more people would see Harlem Station in a month than would see it in years at a museum.

When the mural was put up, the Harlem station was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There were no barriers between the public and the painting, and it had been specially treated with a soft finish so that marks by potential mischief makers could be wiped clean. Or so city officials thought. They didn’t expect the piece to be indelibly debilitated, since even tagging crews generally don’t “dis” mural art. When a CTA budget crunch in 1989 eliminated the station’s manned hours from dusk to dawn, however, the mural became fair game for vandals.

Soon after, says Public Art Program coordinator Mike Lash, “ignorant damage and idle graffiti” appeared: spilled drinks, smeared food, stubbed cigarette butts, inked mustaches, etc. It was scratched and gouged with pens and keys. A leaky roof didn’t help. Then in early 1990 a blast of black-mark taggers blew through, delivering the artless coup de grace; they were followed by the heavy-handed CTA scrubbers.

In May 1990, Harlem Station was boarded up with plywood panels to protect it from further damage. “Don’t let the Katz stay under wraps,” beseeched an advertisement from the city placed on Congress-Douglas-O’Hare trains beginning in April 1991. “The painting stands as a jewel in Chicago’s collection, and needless to say, one well worth preserving,” said the poster, “but we need community involvement and financial support.”

In June 1991, Public Art Program officials, CTA maintenance personnel, art experts and handlers, and local community-group representatives gathered in Harlem station to help remove the “permanently” mounted mural.

“We had a hell of a time pulling it out, ” recalls Hamza Walker. “It was bolted into the granite, and cement had been poured into the bolts. Then we had to chisel down farther to get to the base.”

The painting was taken out in five ten-foot sections, three heads apiece. Some parts were transported to a storage facility, and some were hoisted up to Strilky’s loft. Strilky’s crew has been working on it a panel or two at a time, first with water (to attack built-up grime), then with solvents (to attack the aesthetic crimes).

For now, Harlem station is empty of faces–painted ones, anyhow. “I don’t think the impact was felt until the mural was removed,” says Laura Fanucchi, executive director of the Edison Park Chamber of Commerce; last August she and Walker led an effective “walk-through” fund-raising drive, soliciting pledges and on-the-spot cash from local businesses. “It was such a part of the station that there was a real feeling of loss. So many things about public art are a given. What has ultimately come out of this is that it raised our consciousness, despite the shortsightedness of the city. But from a personal standpoint, it was like losing a friend.”

Back in the studio, Strilky inspects the friendly but defaced faces. As his assistant continues to swab a white woman’s marker-marred face, he points to a swastika that had been key-etched into a black businessman’s cheek. He says he’ll soon be using a microscope to “in-paint” these etched gouges.

“It’s a big problem,” Strilky says. “The marker pens can be removed. But some [marks] have totally infiltrated the surface, and may not be.” He’s pretty confident he can fix the key gouges. “We can reduce the worst effects of the graffiti, but whether it can be entirely removed from the delicate paint surface is still not known.”

He also still doesn’t know whether or not Alex Katz will have to come out here to do some of the more sensitive touch-up work. If so, it’s a safe bet that the worst effects of the graffiti will be gone, and Katz will be none the wiser.

But he may be sadder.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.