GREENWOOD HEIGHTS — Call it remastering the classics.
A team of French preservationists touched up the tombstones of five New York artists this week including Jean-Michel Basquiat as part of Green-Wood Cemetery's historic preservation program.
This year's project brought four budding conservationists from overseas armed with soft bristle brushes and biocide who cleansed the graves of grime and restored them to gleaming masterpieces.
"I feel it's important to respect the past and honor their memory," said Parisian volunteer Victor Vivancos after cleaning Basquiat's granite stone Thursday. "It's a funny feeling seeing their artwork and then working on their graves."
It's the 16th year Green-Wood has run the French exchange program with Preservation Volunteers, which has given various structures across the cemetery much needed makeovers after decades in the elements.
But the restoration process is a tricky business that requires a gentle hand and is as much about taking care of the works of art upon the artists' graves as it is about preserving the painters' legacy, said Green-Wood's manager of restoration and preservation.
"I like to think about the headstones as sculptures," said Neela Wickremesinghe. "All the structures you see are miniature of sculptures and architecture and I think this shows how we're connected to different spheres of culture."
Of the more than 400 artists peppered across the sprawling cemetery, the volunteers restored the headstones of 19th century painter Asher Durand; Eastman Johnson who co-founded the Metropolitan Museum of Art: realist George Bellows; impressionist William Merritt Chase; and finally Basquiat, whose work "Untitled" sold for a whopping $110.5 million in May — the highest sum ever paid at auction for a U.S.-produced artwork.
During their stay volunteers viewed works by the painters and on Wednesday took a trip to the Brooklyn Museum where they got a taste of Basquiat's work before heading back to France at the end of the week.